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Editorial: Albany must end lechery in Capitol

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn)

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) Credit: Bryan Pace, 2001

For a state that touts its progressive values and commitment to women's issues, some of New York's leaders are sure reaching new lows.

Tales of Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) groping, grabbing and preying on female staff members in his office -- even reportedly directing them to wear short skirts and forgo bras -- show the old boys' club in Albany is still very much part of Capitol culture.

And the guys with the most clout -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who characterized this latest situation as "deeply troubling" and called for an investigation, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) -- haven't been loud enough on the behavior that is causing all the fuss.

Treating employees as sex objects is reprehensible. While it's appalling that the powerful speaker authorized a mostly secretive $135,000 settlement with two former Lopez staffers, the real issue here is sexual harassment; the chorus of leaders calling on Lopez and Silver to resign based on the backroom deal -- without addressing the behavior -- comes across as mere election-year rhetoric. The power struggle is gamesmanship by Republicans and a calculated effort by Democrats to make this issue go away before November.

What eventually happens may largely depend on findings by the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics -- the investigation called for by Cuomo and led by Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore. On Tuesday, the commission held a closed-door meeting that was adjourned without a comment.

In addition to the harassment claims, that probe must look into how such a secret settlement came about.

There's plenty of work to do when you consider the gravity of the situation and that censuring Lopez and stripping him of a committee chairmanship and perks have proved ineffective in getting him to resign.

The State Legislature is one of the last feudal systems standing, an arrangement in which the powerful feel they can operate with impunity and by their own rules. That leads to abusive behavior. One countermeasure should be a clear statement that sexual harassment -- of any gender -- is intolerable. And there should be a mechanism for legislative employees to report it discreetly and expeditiously. That shouldn't be lost in election-year jockeying.

Democrats charge the Republicans are waging a "war on women," and the GOP shoots back that Democrats should take a look at Albany. But the real issue may be that we don't have enough women in Albany or the legislature. With 47 female lawmakers out of 212 -- 36 in the Assembly and 11 in the Senate -- New York's legislature is behind those of other states. Vermont's is nearly 39 percent female, New Hampshire's 25 percent, Maryland's 31 percent, and Maine's 30 percent. States like Georgia, Alaska, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and others are also well ahead of New York, which, at just 22 percent female representation, falls just below the national average.

The Lopez matter is only the most recent scandal to rip through the halls of a Capitol too often rocked by them. Regardless of where the ethics investigation leads, state leaders have to make it clear right now that sexual harassment won't be tolerated.