How 7 Women Helped Put Sexual Harassment on Albany’s Agenda

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There is an unwritten rule in Albany known as the Bear Mountain Compact, a promise that whatever happens north of Bear Mountain — a vast region that includes the state capital — stays there. For decades, that compact has governed Albany’s private meetings, its raucous fund-raisers, its bars where legislators flock after session.

But on Wednesday, it will be broken when state lawmakers hold their first public hearing on sexual harassment since 1992. Survivors of harassment, and anyone else interested, will have the opportunity to speak directly to the people with the power to address it.

The hearing is the result, in large part, of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which is made up of seven former legislative employees who say they experienced or reported sexual harassment in Albany.

For the past 11 months, the women — many of whom, until their activism, had not gone back to Albany in years — have been pushing lawmakers to let them tell their stories. For much of those 11 months, they were ignored.

But the leaders of the state Legislature finally announced last month that they would hold a hearing. Ahead of that day, the working group’s members sat down to discuss how Albany has and has not changed. The interview was lightly edited and condensed.

‘We were essentially toxic’

The women in the group worked in Albany at different times, for different people. Most had never met before last year. But they had heard one another’s stories — stories that loomed over their own experiences as cautionary tales.

There was Elizabeth Crothers, who in 2001 accused J. Michael Boxley, a high-ranking Assembly lawyer, of rape. The Assembly did not punish him. In 2003, he was arrested in the assault of another woman. He pleaded guilty.

In 2009, Danielle Bennett told her supervisor, Eliyanna Kaiser, that she was being harassed by their boss, Micah Z. Kellner, at the time an assemblyman. Ms. Kaiser reported the allegation to Assembly lawyers, who did not open a formal inquiry. Two years later, another staff member complained about Mr. Kellner. He later apologized for his actions.

Rita Pasarell, Leah Hebert and Tori Burhans Kelly worked for Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn assemblyman, kingmaker and, according to a state ethics report, serial harasser. The Assembly paid Ms. Pasarell and Ms. Hebert a settlement in 2012; Ms. Kelly and another employee later received one, too.

And last year, Erica Vladimer accused the former Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, then one of the four most powerful men in Albany, of forcibly kissing her.

ELIZABETH CROTHERS When I was there, sexual harassment was deemed “obnoxious.”

The lesson I would have thought to learn would be to stay quiet, not to do anything. That was the message that was sent loud and clear.

ELIYANNA KAISER Elizabeth was the legend we heard about.

CROTHERS It changed an entire course of my life and career. It doesn’t matter being quote-unquote vindicated or not. It actually has no difference whatsoever.

LEAH HEBERT Coming forward in Albany, for us it was a shameful experience, but it also was viewed by so many people as — we were essentially toxic.

RITA PASARELL We were offered this settlement agreement that contained a nondisclosure clause. We had no job, we had no health insurance, and we felt like we had no choice.

The fury I felt when I found out a month later that Tori and the other employee had been undergoing the same harassment while we were negotiating — I can’t even describe.

TORI BURHANS KELLY For two-plus years, I was suing not only the Assembly and Vito Lopez, but also the speaker of the Assembly. Explaining that to potential employers was daunting, and my options were limited. It felt as if I had to start all over professionally.

‘We should finally have this conversation’

The women watched closely over the years as the others’ stories unfolded in the media. For the most part, they observed alone, from afar — until last year, when they were connected by Alexis Grenell, a political consultant and columnist. They decided to return to the Capitol.

HEBERT Legally, Rita and I could only talk to each other because of the nondisclosure agreement. We felt very isolated. We weren’t able really to connect with Tori until #MeToo.

KELLY In January 2018 I reached out, like, “We should finally have this conversation.”

ERICA VLADIMER Albany was my old workplace, and they had brainwashed me to make me think I didn’t belong there. I thought my only option was to leave.

Finding this group of powerhouses, I was able to take that back and say, “No, I’m going to reclaim my position.”

CROTHERS It would’ve scared me if I’d thought about it as diving back into Albany. I said to Erica, “What should I do if I see someone I don’t — should I dive behind stairs?”

KAISER I had my own aspirations in state government. It was an industry I wanted to stay in. But after getting chased out and being made to feel like it’s just too dangerous, doing this kind of work is the only reason I would dive back in.

‘Stop, don’t do this’

The working group members were determined to recommend changes to sexual harassment bills that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law last year during the #MeToo movement. Those laws were written without public hearings, and the women believed they were deeply flawed.

The working group called employment lawyers and civil rights groups. They noted that New York City in 2017 held its own hearing on sexual harassment — its first in 40 years — and introduced new laws afterward. Finally, they released their recommended reforms.

KAISER The roles that we came from were government roles. We worked as legislative directors, chiefs of staff, counsels. We were actually very well-positioned and trained for this moment.

VLADIMER We knew we were going to need buy-in from legislators. We did get some pushback: “We’re not going to get any victims to come and talk publicly. We should just have round tables.”

Assemblyman Dan Quart was one of the few who not only agreed with us, but said, “Let’s get some sign-on letters.” We got 22 senators to sign on, all Democrats. And only 23 Assembly members, which is …

KAISER Pathetic.

PASARELL There were a few times when currently sitting legislators approached us and said, “Stop, don’t do this.”

HEBERT We kept hearing a defensive mechanism, that things changed after Lopez. That policies changed after Lopez. That Albany was a different place.

VLADIMER They were so hoping that they could hang their “mission accomplished” sign on the laws that were passed and say, “We took care of it.”

‘The writing was sort of getting on the wall’

Then last summer and fall, Albany began to prepare for upheaval. Democrats seemed poised to retake the State Senate. Four people were vying for an open state attorney general seat. Candidates at all levels were eager to prove their support for women.

The working group saw an opportunity.

VLADIMER We took it upon ourselves to send messages to attorney general debate moderators and say, “We think this is a really important question.”

HEBERT Our questions were asked in multiple debates.

KAISER It was the only competitive election post-#MeToo. It was the first test of, what was that going to mean for the next election cycle?

HEBERT Another thing that was happening was the Kavanaugh hearings. We saw a real collective effort to start the conversation around sexual harassment. There was this demand from the public to find platforms to be able to share their experiences.

VLADIMER The writing was sort of getting on the wall. The Senate was going to change, we had these progressive candidates coming in, and they were going to start advocating for us on the inside. So might as well get on board.

‘Hearing from victims matters’

Of course, promising support for public hearings during a heated campaign is different from genuinely backing them.

But the women said some lawmakers did seem genuine. They pointed to Joseph D. Morelle, a Democratic assemblyman who won a congressional seat in November. When Ms. Crothers reported her rape nearly 20 years ago, Mr. Morelle told reporters he did not believe her.

But last year, he sat down with Ms. Crothers and apologized. He helped the working group set up a meeting with the Assembly speaker’s staff. And last week, Ms. Crothers was Mr. Morelle’s guest to President Trump’s State of the Union.

CROTHERS That’s the reason for public hearings. Hearing from victims matters.

PASARELL It takes the conversation from theory and gives it a face and a voice. That is much harder to ignore.

DANIELLE BENNETT It’s not just us who can contribute to this conversation. There are so many different experts and so many different survivors. That’s part of what we’re really excited about for the hearing.

KAISER I am going to be so curious to see who shows up. I really, really hope that elected officials — particularly those who have not been as helpful, and absolutely those who have stood up and said that they are our allies — show that by attending.

‘I feel like things may be changing’

In discussing their hopes for the hearing, the women emphasized that they believed it was only the start. They want more hearings across the state. They want new laws. They want to see changes to the Legislature’s processes for handling complaints that do not go to court.

They are well positioned to push for those demands. Ms. Kelly is now the chief of staff for Senator Andrew Gounardes, a newly elected Democrat who ran on a promise to support the women’s recommendations. Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas has introduced a package of bills shaped by the women’s policy proposals; their Senate sponsor is Alessandra Biaggi, who unseated Mr. Klein last year.

KELLY Albany is a place I have not felt safe in, and I was worried I would feel stigmatized by going back.

With the support of the working group and finding power in speaking out, I feel like things may be changing.

PASARELL I don’t know if we will know if there’s a turning point until we reach the end of this legislative session. We haven’t heard of a follow-up plan from the Legislature of what they’re going to do with the hearing.

The hearing is great. I would like to see a time-bound process with a specific product that’s going to come out of it.

CROTHERS It’s not about ticking a box. “Did the public hearing, see you later.”

A good friend of mine said, “Congratulations, how do you feel? You got the public hearings.” I said, “I feel like we shouldn’t have had to do all that.”

Vivian Wang is a reporter for the Metro Desk, covering New York State politics in Albany. She was raised in Chicago and graduated from Yale University. @vwang3

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