Last week, 71-year-old assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, who has headed the Brooklyn Democratic Party since 2005, had his committee chairmanship taken away after being accused of sexually harassing two female office staffers. Although Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, also officially censured Lopez, reduced the size of his staff and forbade him from hiring interns or anyone under the age of 21, many powerful Democratic leaders said a rebuke was not enough and called for his resignation.
Lopez hasn't resigned yet, but the New York Times' latest story on how the powerful lawmaker systematically sexually harassed numerous employees and created an unsafe and beyond inappropriate working environment might help push him in that direction: the paper spoke with five women who opened up about the sexual harassment they experienced at the hands of the assemblyman.
According to the Times' sources, working for Lopez was kind of like working for Hooters, but worse, because you weren't even allowed to wear a bra while people ogled your boobs all day. Lopez told women to wear short skirts and high heels, paid special attention to the "well endowed," and really, really didn't like bras: "He would comment on a shirt I was wearing and say ‘I'd like it better if you didn't have a bra on,' " one former staff member said. "That was something he brought up quite a bit." Another woman said that Lopez "commented that I was well endowed and that another girl in the office was well endowed...but I didn't play it up like she did, and I should wear button-down shirts so he could look down them." PSA to all managers: promoting equal opportunity doesn't mean spreading the cleavage wealth.
Lopez also allegedly questioned women about their personal lives, tried to get them to break up with their boyfriends, asked them to come with him on overnight trips, and got mad at employees — all of whom were new to politics, the Times points out — who did not compliment him as often and as "effusively" as he desired.
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Even former staffers who weren't personally sexually harassed said Lopez created "an atmosphere of intimidation" by switching back and forth from inappropriate jokes to angry rants, neither of which is okay to hear from your boss. Many of the women said they put up with the lawmaker's outrageous behavior because they were scared of him.
"Nobody knew how to react, and when he was gone, everyone would talk about it and say, ‘This is outrageous,' " one women said. "People would try to ignore it and try to go along a little with it because he was so threatening." And, until now, no one came forward because of the enormous influence Lopez wielded over the community. "People are afraid to leave because his network of allies is so huge," one of the women said. "If you leave on bad terms, no one will hire you because they are afraid of what Vito will do to them."
Details that have come to light since Lopez was charged with sexual harassment last Friday illustrate what it's like to be incredibly powerful: the Times reported that Silver — yes, the same Assembly speaker that harshly criticized Lopez — once authorized a secret payment to settle prior sexual harassment allegations against the lawmaker. Silver said he "made a mistake," which begs the question: how many other mistakes have been made in handling this mess?
It's still unclear whether Lopez will resign (although he has said that he won't seek another term as Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman), but some of his former employees said they're thrilled the assemblyman's manipulative — not to mention illegal — actions are finally coming to light. For what it's worth, Lopez has denied the previous allegations, saying: "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." Will the political world continue to prioritize his point of view over those of his young female staffers?
Women Employed by Lawmaker Describe Sexually Hostile Office [NYT]
(image via NY State Assembly)