An inappropriate comment by a lawmaker has the new House speaker dealing with his first major controversy and looking to establish a standing protocol on sexual harassment.
Last week, news broke of comments made by Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, during a legislative hearing. After hearing a 17-year-old Connecticut Science Center intern talk about overcoming a fear of snakes, Hewett said “If you’re bashful, I’ve got a snake sitting under my desk here.”
The remark was caught in an audio recording, which eventually attracted national media attention. Hewett apologized and said the comments were misconstrued.
But after listening to the recording, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, a fellow Democrat, removed Hewett from his deputy speaker leadership position, a demotion that will cost him more than $6,000 a year.
Hewett’s subsequent responses to news media inquiries have inflamed the situation in the eyes of some of his female colleagues. He told the Hartford Courant that he avoided being assigned female interns because “that keeps me good and that keeps everybody else good.”
After the remark was published, Rep. Mae Flexer, a former chairwoman of the legislative internship committee, told the New London Day that Hewett had a history of “bad behavior” and said the internship committee sought to avoid exposing young women to his behavior. Flexer, flanked by two other female lawmakers Wednesday, declined to elaborate further on her remarks.
Hoping to have Hewett address the allegations, Sharkey invited the embattled lawmaker to a meeting Tuesday with the female members of the House Democratic Caucus.
“If there are other elements of behaviors that have been brought to his attention or have not, I think maybe he needs to hear about that,” he said.
But Hewett declined in this March 4 letter to Sharkey. He also was absent for Wednesday’s legislative session, but declined to offer an explanation when reached by phone.
“It has become apparent that I used a poor choice of words that have been misinterpreted by many others, causing me, my wife and my three children overwhelming public humiliation,” he wrote to Sharkey.
He reiterated his apology, which he said the Connecticut Science Center intern accepted last week.
“As a result, I consider this matter closed and l will not be appearing before the Democratic Caucus tomorrow as you have requested,” he wrote.
Sharkey said he was disappointed by Hewett’s decision not to attend the meeting but planned to take no further action against him. Asked if he planned to investigate Hewett or call for his resignation, Sharkey said “no.”
“With regard to Rep. Hewett, I think that I’ve taken the appropriate action that I can take as speaker. I’ve done all that I can do as speaker at this point,” he said.
But the incident has sparked a new focus by Sharkey into the atmosphere at the state legislature. He said he is looking to develop a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to sexual harassment, and a protocol for reporting incidents.
Prior to taking over this year as speaker, he was unaware of inappropriate behavior by Hewett or any other lawmakers, but he said that may be a function of his gender.
“Not to say that didn’t exist, but that was something that I did not personally experience. But then again, I’m a male. So perhaps I was not as attuned to those issues as women in our caucus were,” he said.
Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said that might be the case. “Let’s be honest, he’s a guy,” she said Wednesday. As a woman with a background in academia, Urban said the state Capitol can sometimes be uncomfortable.
“I think there’s been a sort of ignored atmosphere that is a bit uncomfortable and it hasn’t been addressed because there hasn’t been a protocol to address it,” she said.
Urban credited Sharkey with requiring sexual harassment training of lawmakers, a policy he put in place before the Hewett controversy, and for looking to establish a protocol.
“We’re changing to the extent that there is an atmosphere that is inappropriate in this building. I want to root it out and have a zero tolerance policy with regard to it. That’s the action I’m taking,” Sharkey said.
Sharkey said the Hewett incident was the first time as speaker he has had to deal with allegations of sexual harassment among his caucus members. Though he said he had no clear precedents for dealing with the issue, Sharkey said he didn’t want to leave anyone with the impression that House leadership, represented by men, wasn’t taking the issue seriously.
“I want to . . . make sure that no one is feeling as though this is an issue not being addressed, particularly by male leaders of our caucus. It’s important to me that we create an environment that’s positive for everyone,” he said.
Hewett did not attend Wednesday’s legislative session. As his colleagues cast votes on judicial nominations and Sandy Hook relief legislation, his chair in the House chamber remained empty.
Sharkey said he had some decisions to make regarding how he would engage the other members of his caucus.
Urban said there was an underlying disappointment at the meeting the day before among female lawmakers that Hewett would not address them. She said they were disappointed he believed the issue was resolved when he’d made troubling comments about female interns.
But she agreed with Sharkey’s decision not to take further action against Hewett.
“It’s in Ernie’s constituents’ hands and well it should be. They’re the ones who elect him, they’re the ones he represents,” she said.