Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).
(*This article was updated at 7:37 p.m. on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, to include a statement from House Democratic leaders.)
While Pennsylvania House lawmakers debated a new expanded sexual harassment policy on Wednesday, reports identified Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, as the state representative a lobbyist has accused of groping her.
The Philadelphia-focused news website Broad + Liberty named Zabel as the previously unidentified lawmaker whom Service Employees International Union lobbyist Andi Perez accused of caressing her leg during a meeting in 2019.
The article cited an unnamed female lawmaker’s accusation that Zabel also made a drunken pass at her after following her to her car earlier this year as support for Perez’s claim.
Spotlight PA also published an article in which Perez identified Zabel as the state representative who harassed her that included additional support for her claim including a text message in which Zabel apologized for “bad manners.”
Perez’s initial revelation came during a public hearing in January where former House Speaker Mark Rozzi and a bipartisan working group of six other lawmakers gathered testimony to shape new House operating and ethics rules.
Perez’s testimony put shortcomings in the House’s existing sexual harassment policy at the forefront of an effort to update the rules. Before the House adopted new rules on Wednesday with a 102-100 vote, only House staffers could lodge a harassment complaint against state representatives.
House Democratic Caucus leaders said in a statement that they are concerned about the allegations against Zabel and are taking them seriously.
“We are committed to creating and maintaining a work environment free from discrimination and harassment. Today House Democrats stood alone in lifting the veil of secrecy that in the past would have denied survivors their voice. Until today, deficiencies in the House Rules denied anyone other than legislative staff and House members an opportunity to report incidents of harassment or discrimination,” the statement reads.
The House Ethics Committee empowered in the new rules will be established on Thursday. Under the rules, the committee will be able to consider complaints up to five years old to ensure victims who had no recourse under prior House leadership will have an opportunity to be heard, the statement reads.
“Everyone deserves to be safe at work and our caucus commends and respects the courage of those who come forward,” the statement reads.
But in floor debate on Wednesday, Republicans expressed concern that the rules as adopted do not cover the broad range of circumstances that advocates sought.
“I do not believe it actually does what they believe it does,” Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, of Lancaster County, told reporters after the 102-99 vote to adopt the rules.
“I don’t believe it adequately protects individuals like was raised at the hearing,” Cutler said, referring to Perez’s allegation.
The rules state: “No member or officer of the House shall engage in discrimination or harassment, including sexual harassment” of other members or officers of the House, House employees or “any individual.”
The prohibition applies when “performing services or duties of the House,” “in or on House designated offices, property or facilities,” or “at a House-sponsored meeting or event.”
“My question is really one of jurisdiction,” Cutler said. “I think the first part is very broad, but the second part is actually limited to only the employment setting.”
Cutler also said the Democrats did not fulfill a stated goal of ending the majority domination of legislative priorities by giving minority lawmakers more opportunity to advance legislation.
He noted that the discharge process, used to move a bill out of a standing committee when the chair declines, requires the consent and signature of 25 members of each party, meaning that the majority can withhold signatures to stymie the process.
Cutler said the partisan make-up of standing committees is not proportional to the Democrats’ one-seat majority. While the 12-9 majority in committees under the new rules is smaller than the 15-10 majority under the old rules, Republicans say the old rules reflected their more robust 113-90 majority in the prior session.
In floor debate, Republicans also decried the Democrats’ move to stop amendments to the rules before adoption.
Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, said during debate on a measure to make the rules unamendable flew in the face of talk about bipartisanship and the “dawning of a new day.”
“But it seems like it’s back to the future,” Schemel said.
Schemel complained that the rules had been updated without an opportunity for Republicans to read them.
“That is again in contravention of everything that we heard during the speaker’s listening tour of what Pennsylvanians want to see, which is that new dawn that was promised to us yesterday,” Schemel said.
Rep. David Rowe, R-Union, called the narrowly divided House a historic opportunity to pursue legislation that the chamber can consider with consensus rather than on party-line votes.
Addressing Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, Rowe said the House’s first regular-session vote should not be to cut the minority party out of the process.
“Let’s set a tone. Let’s not set the first vote as being a division or a party line vote. Let’s allow these amendments, let’s have these discussions. So when we do go into regular session, we know that the rules that we have adopted were adopted in a fair and just manner,” Rowe said.
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