What is going on in the New York Assembly is a perfect example of what too much power will do. Politicians who safely keep being reelected begin to believe that they are entitled to anything.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assemblyman Vito Lopez both deserve the title of Fool of the Week. Silver deserves it for covering up allegations against Lopez for sexual harassment, but Lopez deserves it more for allegedly making a work environment unfriendly for women, several women.
Here is the story from the New York Times:
[F]ive women who had worked in Mr. Lopez’s office described an atmosphere of sexual pressure and crude language, with frequent unwanted advances by him and others, requests for provocative dress, personal questions about their boyfriends and fears of reprisals if they complained.
By their accounts, Mr. Lopez told some women not to wear bras to work. He requested they wear short skirts and high heels. He gave them cash to buy jewelry and complimented them on their figures, giving special attention to those he called “well endowed.”
He asked about their personal lives, urging them to break up with boyfriends, and berated those women — all of whom were new to politics — who did not compliment him effusively enough, according to several of the women interviewed.
One woman described “an atmosphere of intimidation,” an environment where she and other former staff members said Mr. Lopez veered between crude jokes and fierce tirades.
“He would comment on a shirt I was wearing and say ‘I’d like it better if you didn’t have a bra on,’ ” said one of the former staff members. “ That was something he brought up quite a bit.”
Silver did remove Lopez of his committee chairmanship after two women complained of harassment. That came after an Assembly ethics committee found in favor of the allegations.
So Silver is really a good guy in this, right? He punished Lopez and that is a good thing. It is not exactly that simple. Silver felt he had no choice under the strong evidence presented.
Earlier this year, Silver authorized the secret payment of $103,080 to two of the women. This was taxpayer dollars. It was kept secret until just a few days ago, well after anyone could challenge Lopez in the Democratic primary. Lopez’s district is strongly Democrat so his Republican challenger has little chance of unseating Lopez. This amount is also not the full settlement, but only the public funds used.
As Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, explained: “[T]he public has a right to know when an elected official misbehaves and the state pays for it.”
What a concept – accountability and openness. That will be something new for Albany.
Silver has served as Speaker since 1994. That is far too long for any person to hold a position of political power. It also explains why Silver thought he could get away with spending taxpayer dollars to silence an illegal and potentially damaging scandal to a political ally. He has been in power for so long that he feels immune to the pressure others might bring.
New York officials from Gov. Andrew Cuomo down have called for Lopez’s resignation or the appointment of a special prosecutor. Even Silver has now seen the error of his ways, but that lacks conviction since his reversal only came after he faced massive criticism and unfavorable media attention.
Even more disturbing is that Lopez does not get it. After the settlement, his behavior continued. The details from all these complaints are quite disturbing. They include instances where Lopez repeatedly put his hand on a woman’s thigh and tried to move it up as far as he could go before she brushed him off.
Despite the strong evidence, Lopez dismisses the allegations.
“The charges made against me are unfair and untrue. Never did I intentionally touch or attempt to kiss either of the complainants. I have never forced myself on anyone, nor would I,” Lopez said.
Democrat Lopez’s behavior is particularly relevant after watching Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Tom Smith in Pennsylvania speak of “legitimate rape” and that pregnancy from an out-of-wedlock birth is the same as one from rape.
Much has been made of a war on women in Republican politics. That may be true. Yet after seeing Lopez’s boorish attitude and Silver’s attempt to squelch a brewing political scandal, it is not so clear that the Democrats are on the good side of this war.