A driving question has emerged in the race to become the new chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party: Did the interim leader, Bernadette Comfort, ignore complaints from women who say they were sexually harassed by GOP officials?
The question is roiling below the surface of Comfort’s race with former state party general counsel Lawrence Tabas, which will be decided in an election Saturday.
Comfort, elected as vice chair in February 2017, declined to be interviewed. In a statement, she called “patently false” allegations that she looked the other way when women complained to her about harassment.
Comfort stepped up to lead the party on June 25 when Chairman Valentino DiGiorgio III resigned after The Inquirer reported claims from a former Philadelphia City Council candidate, who accused him of sexual harassment.
One new complaint also involved the ex-chairman. It was disclosed Thursday on Facebook by the former leader of the Allegheny County Young Republicans, who said DiGiorgio harassed her when he led the party. A separate accusation of harassment, first reported by WESA-FM in Pittsburgh, concerned unnamed party officials.
The turmoil comes as the state party begins pushing for a repeat victory in 2020 for President Donald Trump, who won Pennsylvania in 2016 by just 0.73 percent.
It erupted June 30 when Lynne Ryan, a Republican State Committee member from Lawrence County, emailed Comfort and the nearly 360 other members on the full committee.
In that message, Ryan called on Comfort to explain how she handled the case of a former state party staff member who allegedly became the “object of unwanted sexual advances by a superior PA GOP staff member.” Ryan suggested to Comfort that the unnamed staffer resigned in 2018 “when you were reportedly unwilling to take appreciable action.” The woman took her concerns first to DiGiorgio and then to Comfort, Ryan said.
A Pennsylvania Republican consultant familiar with the situation, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the female staffer approached Comfort about the past alleged harassment during the December 2018 Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York. The woman had left her party post for a new job months before that conversation, the consultant said.
In her email, Ryan told Comfort that the need to reelect Trump “gives us no choice but to confront you with these matters while there is still time to protect the presidency and our party.”
In a reply to the full committee, Comfort declared Ryan’s claims “Fake News,” said she was disappointed by “false allegations,” and denied knowing about the accuser’s claim. She asserted the matter had been “handled by the former chairman privately, without telling me about it.”
In her statement this week to The Inquirer, Comfort said: "It is patently false that anyone brought to my attention accusations of inappropriate behavior and asked for my help. That said, I cannot address, act on, or comment on unsubstantiated rumors or confidential personnel maters.”
That applies, according to her statement, also to Anissa Coury, the former chairwoman of the Young Republicans of Allegheny County. Coury told The Inquirer this week that she sought Comfort’s help over what she saw as inappropriate behavior from DiGiorgio in 2017.
She alleges that DiGiorgio started courting her as "a rising star” in the party and then sent her a selfie in which he was clothed but “posing by a bathtub,” while asking her to send him pictures of herself.
“It was just odd,” Coury said. “I did not reciprocate.”
DiGiorgio also suggested she could take a party job traveling the state with him and then insisted on meeting at his hotel while he was visiting Pittsburgh in 2017, near the end of his first year as chairman. Coury said she resisted his repeated attempts to meet at the hotel and agreed instead to meet him at a local hookah bar. She brought along a male friend.
“I would never leave myself in a position where I looked like I was trying to get ahead by sleeping with a married man,” Coury said. “You just don’t do that.”
DiGiorgio did not respond to The Inquirer’s requests for comments on the claim.
Coury said her professional relationship soured with DiGiorgio after she “thwarted his attempts to use his political standing to prey on me.” She also accused DiGiorgio of using allies in the state Young Republicans organization to push her out of her Young Republicans post in 2018. Coury said her group left the state organization before that happened.
She said she took her concerns to Comfort, only to be rebuffed. “It didn’t seem to be of particular interest to her,” Coury said. "Any party that supports a person indifferent to predatory behavior towards women is a party with no place for me.”
Coury said she didn’t tell anyone but Comfort about her interaction with DiGiorgio but now wishes she had.
Comfort, a Lehigh County resident who works for a Harrisburg lobbying firm, has spent years encouraging women to get involved in politics, something she includes in her official biography on the party’s website. “I am a single mother with a young daughter and know what it’s like to be a woman in politics,” Comfort said in her statement to The Inquirer.
The state committee is scheduled to elect a new chairman Saturday during a meeting in Hershey. Tabas, a partner in a Center City law firm, lost a bid for the chairmanship by two votes to DiGiorgio in February 2017.
Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta of Hazleton, who had been approached about seeking the chairman’s post, is backing Comfort. He is a close ally of Trump, whose reelection campaign has lined up to support Comfort.
He sees a tight race. “She’s got a lot of support,” Barletta said. “I think Lawrence does as well."
Barletta, like Republicans on both sides of the divide, is concerned that lingering animosities after the election could impair the party’s ability to compete in the state for Trump.
“Hopefully at the end of it we have one party and everyone pulling together for the presidential election,” Barletta said.
Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based strategist and GOP state committee member supporting Tabas, said that concern exists on both sides of the fight.
“Every member of the Republican State Committee fully recognizes that we have to be united after Saturday’s vote in order to prepare for a critical contest in Pennsylvania in 2020,” Gerow said.