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Silence makers: Why did Pa. Democratic Party go MIA on sex harassment? | Will Bunch

Pennsylvania Democrats are increasingly angry and frustrated by the state party and its chair Marcel Groen's tepid and often silent response to the #MeToo movement, including two alleged harassers who still plan to run in 2018.

Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach, still weighing a run for Congress even while facing allegations of improper sexual conduct.
Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach, still weighing a run for Congress even while facing allegations of improper sexual conduct.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK/STAFF

When news broke earlier this month of a secret sexual-harassment payout involving U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan and the young female aide he later described in an interview as his "soul mate," reaction was swift from all corners. Well, OK … most corners. Gov. Wolf, who has emerged as a voice of zero tolerance on sexual misconduct, called on Meehan to immediately resign, and as the evidence mounted, even the head of the national GOP congressional campaign committee said he was "disappointed" in the Delaware County Republican.

Largely missing in that din was the one group that stood, politically, to benefit the most from the chaos in Meehan's 7th Congressional District: the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Unlike Wolf and other pols, the state party never issued a formal statement condemning Meehan's conduct, and when an Inquirer reporter contacted party chair Marcel Groen, the Democratic leader seemed to equivocate — criticizing the use of taxpayer dollars but not the congressman's alleged harassment.

Then Groen pivoted to a defense of a Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach, who's still interested in running for Meehan's seat despite facing sexual misconduct allegations of his own. Said Groen: "If he was inappropriate, that's for the people to decide — not for me."

The muddled, mixed message was just the latest episode that's led a growing number of Pennsylvania Democrats — some privately, some publicly — to criticize Groen's leadership in the face of the sudden arrival of a #MeToo revolution against sexual harassment and assault that the state party has seemed not ready and at times not eager to deal with. The party has done nothing about two lawmakers — Leach and state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone — who stand accused of misconduct and still plan to be on the ballot as Democrats in 2018, while it's also dithered on a sexual-harassment policy that was promised a year and a half ago.

In a phone interview Monday, Groen gave halting answers about how the state party has dealt with sexual harassment issues, pausing to add, "the governor is already pissed off at me," as the 72-year-old Montgomery County Democrat raised, unsolicited, the question of whether his two-year-plus run as party leader can survive the movement against sexual misconduct and patriarchy that activists have dubbed #TimesUp.

"It shouldn't take a year and a half to come up with a sexual harassment policy," said Democratic state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky of Delaware County, who has become a leading voice for female empowerment in Harrisburg and — unlike the party — immediately called for Leach and Caltagirone to resign. "I believe standing with women is a fundamental value of the Democratic Party" — although it often hasn't looked that way in recent weeks.

Among the lowlights:

— An explicit party policy on sexual harassment and assault — promised by Groen in the wake of an incident at the July 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in which Philadelphia delegate Gwen Snyder alleged she was assualted by another delegate in a hotel bar (he was later found not guilty in a trial before a judge) — failed to materialize, even after progressive groups like Keystone Progress launched petition drives urging the state party to do something. Snyder told me in a message that Groen and party leaders "committed to working closely with me on language to accommodate my recommendations after my experience but of course that never happened."

Groen, in the interview, seemed uncertain on the current status — "I can't tell you one way or the other" — even after party spokesman Brandon Cwalina sent over a draft of a proposed code of conduct addressing sexual misconduct that he said has been in the works "for the past several weeks" and is currently slated for a vote at a Feb. 10 meeting.

— Last month, as revelations about predatory sexual behavior about powerful men in politics, show business and media fueled the #MeToo movement, the state Democratic Party was embarrassed when a senior advisor to Groen — labor activist Valerie Kean Staab — was forced to resign and apologize for online posts arguing that some women were exaggerating their experiences with alleged sexual harassment. Party insiders say the outcry and ouster of his close aide infuriated Groen.

— There has been no party sanction against Leach — who like Groen hails from Montgomery County and who last month was the subject of an Inquirer investigation into allegations of inappropriate touching and sex talk with his staffers. The state party didn't join Wolf, Krueger-Braneky and others who have called on Leach to step down; the senator has held onto his committee post in Harrisburg as he continues to explore a run for Meehan's congressional seat and recently failed to attend mandatory Democratic caucus harassment training, attending a meeting in Key West instead.

— Nor has the party taken a stance on Caltagirone, who is planning to run for re-election in his Berks County district and continuing to deny wrongdoing after a sexual harassment case that resulted in a 2015 secret payout of $248,000 to a former longtime employee. Groen did tell me on Monday that he "personally" opposes another term for the 40-year lawmaker because of that payment.

In the interview, Groen insisted that neither he nor the party will tolerate unwanted sexual touching or sexual harassment in the workplace, although he also repeatedly stressed his concern that "it's important that we keep our balance" amid growing calls for more aggressive enforcement. He said "these charges are very powerful and people that are being charged also should have the right to defend themselves."

Few would dispute that. But that doesn't address concerns by some Democrats that mixed signals from Groen and the state party are hindering efforts in the Legislature — led by Krueger-Braneky, her Delco colleague Rep. Margo Davidson and other female lawmakers, with some Republican support — to radically overhaul how Harrisburg handles sexual misconduct, opening up the process and forcing wayward legislators to pay for settlements instead of Pennsylvania taxpayers. The intra-party rancor also comes on the eve of an election when Democrats are counting on enthusiasm from female voters — especially in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs — and a slew of first-time women candidates united in anger over the Trump presidency to cut into GOP dominance in the Legislature. It's a tough task, but especially for a party with one hand tied behind its back.

"I'm proud of the fact that I probably helped more women – I sound like Donald Trump! – get elected to political office than anyone I know," Groen said. And while no doubt Groen has helped elect some females, the truth is that Pennsylvania very recently ranked 49th of the 50 states, ahead of only Mississippi, in electing women to office. The Keystone State has a lot of catching up to do, and so does its state Democratic leadership at a moment where the chorus of #TimesUp will only grow louder.