The good old boys are circling the wagons. On Wednesday evening Sen. Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference and Sen. Diane Savino, his former girlfriend, held a press conference to get ahead of a HuffPost story in which a former staffer accused Klein of forcibly kissing her.
It was an odd press conference given that this staffer had yet to make any accusations public, was not taking legal action or seeking financial gain. Klein and his lawyers revealed they had already conducted an “investigation” and shared what they pushed as information undermining the accuser.
They say she invited Klein to her parents’ house, they say she texted him asking if she could use him as a reference. All of this is classic victim shaming. It didn’t appear orchestrated to intimidate Erica Vladimer—her story was already going to be told—but instead to serve as a warning to anyone else who might come forward.
Vladimer says Klein forcibly kissed her outside of a Lark Street bar on April 1, 2015 following the passage of the state budget.
“I pulled away and I said, ‘Senator, absolutely not,’” she told HuffPost. “And he looked at me and said, with this stupid little grin on his face, ‘What? What?’ Like he was being coy, almost trying to flirt and play a game.”
Vladimer says she never reported the incident but soon quit because: “The fact that there was an environment that could make me doubt the self-confidence that I worked so hard to have ― that I got from the strong women in my life ― made me feel like it wasn’t the place for me,” she said. “And that maybe the government wasn’t for me.”
Klein’s sloppy press conference, full of chattering advice from his lawyers in the background, already appears to have put the senator in jeopardy. Or at least forced him to admit he violated Senate rules. The Senate’s sexual harassment policy states that: “All employees, supervisors, department heads and appointing authorities are responsible for ensuring a harassment-free workplace, and ensuring that employees are aware of this policy on harassment. If any employee of the Senate witnesses or is notified of violations of this policy, he or she must give immediate attention to such violation by notifying his or her supervisor, department head, appointing authority, the Senate Personnel Officer, or the Secretary of the Senate.”
Klein said on the call on Wednesday that he “heard rumors” of an incident involving himself after the night of partying on Lark Street but chose not to do anything.
Lucky for Klein, then, that his friend, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan announced that Klein is a “good and decent person” and that while an investigation might be appropriate the Senate wasn’t going to do it. “At this point, this is an allegation in which no formal complaint was ever made. While it may be in the scope of other entities, an investigation into this matter is not within the jurisdiction of the Senate,” read Flanagan’s announcement.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statement about the matter was short but it appeared weighted in favor of Klein. “Every allegation of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. I agree with Senator Klein and with Senator Krueger that this disturbing situation should be investigated, and I believe it should be done immediately and independently,” Cuomo wrote, first deferring to Klein—who said on the press call that he would welcome an independent investigation—and then to Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat who Vladimer says she confided in about the assault. Krueger called for the investigation on Wednesday night. Cuomo’s statement fails to mention Vladimer.
Klein claims to care about the #metoo movement but all of his actions so far follow the classic, good-old-boy reaction of victim shaming and deflection. Could Klein be innocent? Sure. But he’s gone nuclear in reaction to a woman saying he forcibly kissed her once. He could have easily denied the claim and moved on. He’s a politically protected man–Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Republicans need him to maintain their fragile control of the Senate.
Klein revealed his hand too early. If he cared about sexual harassment in the legislature one iota, he would have handled this in a way that allowed the victim to be heard without setting out to destroy her credibility.
I’ve heard horror stories of harassment from reporters, legislators, interns, and successful political operatives who now work in Washington for some of the most powerful people in the world. They won’t share their stories because of a very real fear of retribution. Klein, having served in Albany since 2004, has to know this is the environment.
Krueger told me in 2013 that she thinks the current sexual harassment guidelines are broken.
“We are asking people to go complain to someone who is employed by their harasser or who is their harasser’s best friend,” Krueger said. “I think it is incumbent on both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office that when dealing with young staff and interns, electeds and senior staff have very strict lines. We need clearer lines and stricter laws.”
Steven Cohen, a close ally of the Cuomo administration, once admitted his boss operated on two settings: “get along” or “kill.” The same could be said of Klein, Cuomo’s apprentice in callous political posturing.
I, however, think of it in a different way. Klein’s only setting is “Me!” Klein sees all things as possible but only through himself. His power is what matters above all else. Klein said he won’t step aside as leader of the IDC on Wednesday, although no one had asked him to.
He should recuse himself from major legislative negotiations given that legislation designed to prevent sexual harassment and empower victims of it will be one of the major negotiating points. Klein’s involvement in those negotiations means and has meant for years now that Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, head of the mainstream Democrats, a black woman, is not allowed a seat at the negotiating table.
As for Vladimer, she should be proud of herself for coming forward–it could permanently damage her career, she could be the target of political harassment. She has made life much harder for the three most powerful men in New York State. And their response has only confirmed her initial fears about the culture of sexual harassment that pervades the State Capitol.
It’s up to us to tell Cuomo and State Legislators that we’re done with their boy’s club. That we won’t allow them to treat victims this way. That being elected means having to hold themselves to higher standards than the rest of us–not getting to set up their own man cave.
Klein’s behavior should already disqualify him from a leadership position. No boss should date his subordinate. And he had a lengthy relationship with Savino who is now blindly defending him and attacking the #metoo movement. Cuomo will continue to push the women of his administration and his farce of a Women’s Equality Party into the public eye–obscuring the fact that he isn’t willing to sacrifice one ounce of his power, and his arrangement with the IDC and Senate Republicans for the public good.