The election of Joanna McClinton as the first female Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is being celebrated as a milestone for women in government. That it is, but the achievement has been tarnished by a growing scandal over House Democrats’ systemic tolerance of sexual harassment, especially when it impacts their political power.
The face of the issue is former State Representative Mike Zabel, a Delaware County Democrat who was forced to resign in disgrace following multiple allegations of unwanted sexual advances against women including a labor union lobbyist and a female state House member.
With a narrow one-seat majority House Democrats stonewalled forcing Zabel to resign long enough to reorganize the chamber and populate leadership with their members. It was a stunning act of crass politics for a party which claims to make the protection of women against sexual harassment a top priority.
Zabel’s downfall was forced largely by media coverage. Broad + Liberty, a publication specializing in investigative journalism in Southeastern Pennsylvania was the first to name Zabel as the perpetrator. When that failed to force the hand of Democratic leadership State Representative Abby Major, a Republican from Western Pennsylvania stepped forward to detail Zabel’s unwanted advances toward her, understatedly terming him a “creep.”
Now Spotlight PA, an independent collaboration by many of the state’s leading newspapers, has revealed Democrat leaders knew of Zabel’s misdeeds at least since 2019 when labor union lobbyist Andi Perez informed then-state House Minority Leader Frank Dermody what had happened. It wasn’t until earlier this year, during a so-called listening tour held by then-House Speaker Mark Rozzi that Perez stepped forward to make her accusations public.
Still, House Democrats did nothing. The pleadings of female Republican lawmakers for strong action fell on deaf ears. Zabel continued to refuse to offer his resignation, but did step down from his committee assignments while attempting to portray his “creepy” behavior as an illness which could be treated.
That was enough for Abby Major who then called a news conference to force the issue. Her account of Zabel’s actions was detailed, credible, and emotional as she pointed out no man could understand the effect such behavior has on women. Women understood. Men who care deeply for the women in their lives understood such behavior could not be tolerated.
It was the last straw, Zabel finally resigned from the House.
That, however, should not be the end of the story. House policies relative to sexual harassment by its members and staff are terribly lax. It is clear the procedure for adjudicating such actions is broken and subject to political manipulation.
The policy, for example, only covers actions taken under the Capitol dome. But much legislative business occurs outside of the Capitol, which was the case involving Abby Major. Allegations against Mike Zabel were made four years ago, yet no action was taken. He was allowed to remain in office this year because House Democrats needed his vote to claim leadership positions.
Zabel’s resignation occurred only after a Republican member resigned to take a seat in the state Senate. With one vacancy in each caucus the Democrats’ one-seat majority was thus preserved. Both seats will now be filled in special elections to be held in conjunction with the May primary.
The question now arises: what else and who else is being shielded from public view? Only tougher rules extending to actions of House members on and off the Capitol grounds – and the continued vigilance of the news media which deserves credit for its outstanding reporting on the Zabel story – will bring about true reform giving women (and men) the protection to which they are entitled.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal and American Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])
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