ALBANY — A state senator groping passers-by at an Albany bar. A married assemblyman furtively kissing a staffer. A “Hot or Not” list of staffers.
That is just some of the behavior that Assemblywomen Amy Paulin and Jo Anne Simon say they have seen or heard about while serving in the state Capitol, recollections that have unavoidably resurfaced amid the national reckoning over sexual harassment, known as the #MeToo movement.
“At first, you don’t recall them, and then you remember: There’s been so many times,” said Ms. Paulin, a Democrat from Westchester County.
Of late, those personal reminiscences of what Ms. Paulin called “bipartisan bad behavior” have found an outlet: a one-page letter, drafted by Ms. Paulin and Ms. Simon, which has been quietly distributed around the Assembly and other avenues of power in Albany, filling with signatures.
In it, the letter’s authors profess solidarity with those who have come forward and testify that they, too, “have suffered degrading acts of sexual harassment in the workplace or we know someone who has.”
“For too long the victims of sexual harassment, particularly women, have worried that no one would believe them, that jobs could be lost and careers derailed, impairing the ability to care for their families,” the letter reads, noting the current “watershed moment” and need for “more of us come forward” to prevent claims from being ignored. “We stand together to change the culture that demeans and belittles those who find themselves in these situations and to say loudly, no more.”
Since it began circulating in January, the letter has gained more than 100 signatories, women and men, including dozens of members of the Assembly and their staff members, echoing similar efforts in other state capitals.
“Abuse survives in silence,” Ms. Paulin said, “and by writing this letter we’re throwing another log on the bonfire of the #MeToo movement.”
The state’s budget is due on April 1, and the issue of sexual harassment seems likely to command significant attention in the coming weeks, as legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have promised a raft of new measures to address the problem.
Albany has a checkered record when it comes to sexual harassment, on both sides of the aisle, perhaps most notably of the disgraced Democratic power broker, Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez. Mr. Lopez was accused in 2012 of sexually harassing several female staff members, graphic incidents, including groping, which later led to his resignation.
In 2014, a Buffalo-area assemblyman, Dennis H. Gabryszak, a Democrat, stepped down amid accusations that he sexually harassed several female staffers. In 2016, Angela M. Wozniak, a first-term Republican from western New York, was censured after an affair with a male staffer; she did not seek re-election.
And as recently as last fall, the former Assemblyman Steven T. McLaughlin, an outspoken Republican, was disciplined for asking a female Assembly staff member to send him naked pictures of herself.
During the Vito Lopez scandal, Sheldon Silver, then the speaker of the Assembly, was also harshly criticized for authorizing secret financial settlements to harassment victims. Such payments are now the subject of proposals from both Mr. Cuomo and Senate Republicans, who introduced a bill last week that would outlaw such confidential settlements, echoing a similar push by Senate Democrats in January.
The Assembly has already passed internal rules banning confidential settlements, and has made other reforms, including the mandatory reporting of any sexual harassment complaint. It, too, is expected to introduce legislation confronting sexual harassment on Monday, after establishing a work group of members last month to study the issue.
The seeming commonality of purpose greatly increases the likelihood of a deal on the issue, even if the question of who will be doing the negotiating remains unsettled.
The traditional “three men in a room” — Mr. Cuomo; the Senate majority leader, John J. Flanagan of Long Island; and Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker — has expanded to include Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, the leader of the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway cadre of Democrats who collaborate with Mr. Flanagan to help rule the Senate.
In February, the governor’s office indicated that Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the minority Democratic conference, would be part of negotiations, something she has asked to do. But on Friday, Mr. Cuomo’s office would not explicitly say that Ms. Stewart-Cousins would actually be in the negotiation room during talks among the four men; rather they said she would “be included,” without clarifying what that means.
Potentially further muddying negotiations is the situation surrounding Mr. Klein, who himself has been accused of forcibly kissing a former staffer in 2015. Mr. Klein denies that accusation, and his political partner in the Senate, Mr. Flanagan, has declined to investigate, saying that the accuser, Erica Vladimer, did not make a formal complaint. (Mr. Klein has since asked for a formal investigation from a state ethics panel.),
Mr. Flanagan was also criticized for approving a new sexual harassment policy which added an admonition to false accusers, which led some Albany observers to question whether the Legislature’s heart was behind the measures.
“Process is as important as outcome,” said Alexis Grenell, a public affairs consultant and writer who once worked in state government. She added that the governor and others should include experts in sexual harassment and those who have reported being harassed, and even those who have been harassed and not reported it for fear of retaliation. “An all-male decision-making body is conflicted out of arriving at a meaningful solution,” she said.
Indeed, even the governor has been accused of talking in a patronizing manner in December to a female reporter in Albany. The reporter, Karen DeWitt, asked Mr. Cuomo a question about sexual harassment in state government; the governor shot back that she was doing “a disservice to women” by limiting the question’s scope to Albany.
The state Democratic Party, controlled by Mr. Cuomo, launched a campaign on Wednesday to pass Mr. Cuomo’s so-called Women’s Agenda, quoting the governor saying “2018 will be the year for action against the culture of rampant sexism and misogyny.”
Ms. Simon, who represents parts of Brooklyn, said that “there is almost no woman I know who has not been treated differently, and treated badly.”
“Albany is no different from the rest of the world,” she said. “Not that long ago we were chattel.”
Ms. Paulin plans to introduce legislation to require a survey every two years — coinciding with when a new Legislature is seated — to “measure the legislative workplace climate as it relates to discrimination and harassment procedure.” The letter itself asks the state to convene a task force “to examine the pervasiveness of the problem of sexual harassment” in New York workplaces, and “evaluate the effectiveness of current policies and laws.”
As for the incidents she said she had personally witnessed, she said she was uncomfortable about naming names.
“This should not be about individuals but about the entire systemic change we need,” she said.
And while those signing are not necessarily alleging misbehavior in their current workplaces in Albany, the letter’s final line might well serve as a notice for the state’s policymakers, Ms. Paulin said.
“Our work,” it reads, “has just begun.”