Alessandra Biaggi not only has mounted a challenge for Jeffrey Klein’s state senate seat, she’s fighting for a major cultural shift in Albany, thanks in part to the ongoing national discussion about sexual harassment.
More than 1,000 people complained of sexual harassment in state government since 2012, according to Politico, costing taxpayers at least $6.4 million in settlements. It’s the result of a culture that lacks effective policy, Biaggi said, and isn’t helped by an outdated sexual harassment policy in the senate itself.
“The senate is not above any other branch of government, nor should they be treated as if they’re above the law,” Biaggi said. “And the state should absolutely not be spending money to protect bad actors.”
That’s why Biaggi has called on senate leaders like Klein — himself the subject of a harassment allegation earlier this year — and John Flanagan to modernize its sexual harassment reporting policy. Not only should they give it some teeth, they need to do it “with genuine care and empathy, and with women in the room.”
Biaggi is pushing for a fundamental shift from the top down in New York, which she says lags behind other states when it comes to confronting sexual harassment head-on.
“It seems like the rest of the country is waking up in a really strong way and New York seems to be asleep still,” Biaggi said. “I don’t know why that is, but enough really is enough here. We as New Yorkers deserve more, the voters in New York are demanding more, and it’s very important that the leadership reflect what the constituents want, which is not hiding numbers or hiding bad actors or protecting bad actors.”
Sexual harassment is more than a violation of personal space, and physical and emotional safety, Biaggi said. It’s also an economic injustice that contributes to the pay gap between men and women.
“How many women have shied away from a big project, decided not to seek increased responsibilities, or been shut out of a promotion, due to harassment dynamics in the workplace?” Biaggi said in a statement. “How many women know that the arc of their careers would be different if not for having to deal with unwanted advances from colleagues or their bosses?”
And then there’s the $6.4 million — paid for by taxpayers.
“Pay attention to what is happening,” Biaggi said. “You’re paying for men in suits to do as they see fit, putting their staff in unwanted positions, and charging you for the bill.”
Improving the senate’s sexual harassment policy is a three-pronged approach, Biaggi said. It requires prompt and thorough third-party investigations take place, it expands appeals from 15 to 30 days to match the Assembly’s policy, and it forces anyone accused of misconduct to recuse themselves from any related business until their investigations have finished.
And given Klein was recently accused of misconduct, he shouldn’t be involved in crafting policy on it, Biaggi said.
But Klein disagrees, saying he “stands firmly behind making the governor’s comprehensive policy to combat sexual harassment law,” his office said in a statement. Klein said he supports establishing uniform sexual harassment policies in every branch of government, holding state contractors to strict sexual harassment reporting standards and stopping taxpayer dollars from being used on settlements, among others.
It also means prohibiting non-disclosure agreements and establishing a specialized sexual harassment unit within the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
A Klein spokeswoman blasted Biaggi and the advocacy group Working Families Party — which recently endorsed Biaggi in the primary — for what she said was taking political advantage of a very important issue.
“While Sen. Klein fights for stronger sexual harassment law, it’s sad that political opportunists in the Working Families Party, and a candidate running against a fellow Democrat, hijack such an important issue for political gain,” the spokeswoman said.
Flanagan spokeswoman Maureen Wren said the senate majority leader takes sexual harassment “very seriously.”
“The senate has taken a strong policy and made it even stronger by adding new examples of what constitutes sexual harassment, giving employees the ability to report an incident directly to the senate’s personnel officer, and once again making clear that retaliation will not be tolerated,” Wren said.
But a revised policy wouldn’t just help better investigate sexual harassment complaints, Biaggi said.
It also would send a clear message to those who might be hesitant to come forward, especially in today’s “Me Too” age.
“If you’ve been harmed, you are safe in New York,” Biaggi said. “New York will protect you. We will make sure that your voices are heard, not silenced. That is not the culture we want to create. That is not the culture that we want to foster.
“We will not tolerate silencing people anymore — especially women.”