Did Sheldon Silver purge Albany of its sexual harrassment culture four years ago? The answer is no.  Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
Did Sheldon Silver purge Albany of its sexual harrassment culture four years ago? The answer is no.  Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

#MeToo and the Culture of Albany

by / Jan. 4, 2018 11am EST

#MeToo and the Culture of Albany

Will the Bear Mountain compact—the agreement that what happens in Albany stays in Albany—be broken in 2018?

It was the year of the reckoning.

The #MeToo earthquake rattled airy open-floor startups, comedy club green rooms, high-rise network news studios, and the marbled halls of Congress with equal force.

One by one, boldfaced braggarts around the country lost their jobs and were shunned as complainants bravely stepped forward.

Norms shifted like tectonic plates. Everyone, no matter where they work, is more aware of sexual harassment today than they were six months ago.

The reaction in Albany was a little different.

Chatter from the Capitol has been that the state had its own #MeToo moment four years ago when former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver forced out three lawmakers for allegedly groping, kissing, and making unwanted advances on their employees.

Albany has been ahead of the sexual harassment curve, you see! There are annual workplace trainings and hotlines to report wrongdoing, and legislative panels to scrutinize accusations. Lobbyists can’t wine and dine legislators at $75 a pop. Your state government has learned its lessons.

As Governor Andrew Cuomo would say, “It’s not government. It’s society. It was Harvey Weinstein in the arts industry, it’s comedians, it’s politicians, it’s chefs. It’s systemic, it’s societal, it’s not one person in one area. It’s not just Charlie Rose, it’s not just Matt Lauer, it’s not just journalists. It’s societal.”

Maybe Albany has lost its hold on its secrets.

Maybe the Bear Mountain compact—the agreement that what happens in Albany stays in Albany—has been broken.

Maybe the string of 10 lawmakers leaving office in misconduct scandals over the past decade and the $1.6 million the state has been paying to attorneys to clean up their messes has finally caught up with them.

Then again, as lurid abuses of celebrity sexual predators rippled through the news this fall, the Assembly Ethics Committee finished a 17-month inquiry into Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin for allegedly asking a legislative aide for nude photos and lying about it. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie barred him from having interns as punishment.

McLaughlin is leaving the Assembly in January—for his new gig as Rensselaer County executive. He defeated Democrat Andrea Smyth by 950 votes in November. The sanctions against McLaughlin were not made public until later that month.

“If the Assembly process would have been in a reasonable timeframe, people of Rensselaer County would have learned this before the election—don’t you think if that were reported in the press before the election, it would have changed people’s votes?” Manhattan state Senator Liz Krueger told me.

Some state lawmakers are proposing the state Division of Human Rights establish a standard policy for evaluating misconduct charges in the Legislature and executive branches. And ahead of his annual address on January 3, Cuomo laid out several proposals to address sexual harassment—including banning the use of taxpayer dollars for sexual harassment settlements and a single set of sexual harassment policies for all branches of state and local government.

“I don’t think a legislative committee of your peers is appropriate for doing investigations,” Krueger said. “We need one system for all with some kind of outside review. You’re saying to people we have a process, you can have faith and confidentiality.”

Changing protocols will help. But Albany’s seamy milieu stretches back decades, from a time when lawmakers routinely kept mistresses and second families in the Capital Region to the power they wield over adoring, ambitious and poorly-paid aides and interns.

“The culture up there is very toxic,” one millennial state employee told me. “The legislators are disgusting. They’re away from their wives. And it’s like Vegas. They do whatever they want.

They get very drunk and they hit on you at the bars the staffers go to.”

Even longtime legislators who avoid Albany’s drinking culture are aware of its dangers.

“People do assume that you either drink or you’re in AA and there isn’t a third option—and then you get, ‘Why don’t you drink?’ said Krueger, a self-described teetotaler. “When I’m in Albany I feel like I’m on the clock all the time. I’m a public figure, it’s all on the record I’m in a company town and I’m the company.”

The voting public isn’t paying enough attention to it.

“This ‘Me Too’ moment—people only care about people they’re aware of, like celebrities, actors and anchors,” said a former New York political aide. “It’s cold and few live up there. People would hang out at strip clubs after bars close. You can have all these guys in Albany jerking off on dead hookers and nobody will care.”

Young aides warn each other about Albany’s grabby late-night scene, especially after a conference or special event such as the State of the State that draws thousands of New Yorkers to the city’s booze-drenched downtown for a night or two.

“Everyone works hard and parties hard and does inappropriate things when they party hard,” the current staffer said. “Then it bleeds into work and that becomes a problem. Or it doesn’t and they pretend nothing happened the next day.”

It you work for a state lawmaker, it can be career threatening to speak up.

“For women in that context, you can’t just quit. You’ll never get another job like that. They want to work in politics,” the same state source said. “It’s a small world, it’s super insular, your reputation is everything, and you might not want to view it as harassment. If you’re the kind of person who thrives in that environment, you make sacrifices and stay there and make choices to do it.”

When it does happen, it’s almost expected. We’ve stopped being shocked by harassment in Albany thanks to the frequency of legislator misconduct.

But cynicism has made way for rage. Scores of lawmakers around the country, in state capitols and Congress, are being scrutinized all at once for their past predatory behaviors. And their peers aren’t waiting for an election to shove them out.

Krueger is optimistic that the #MeToo movement will encourage complainants to speak up and lawmakers to think twice.

“Even if you don’t see women in Albany coming out in significant numbers to tell their stories, there is enough awareness that people who have gotten away with this in government will wake up and realize they won’t in the future,” she said.

Maybe the reckoning is coming to Albany in 2018.

This article first appeared in City & State, a politics and policy journal with which The Public shares content.