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Lawmakers' blind eye toward sexual harassment

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published March 08. 2013 4:00AM

It turns out that Rep. Ernest Hewett's amplified public comment during a General Assembly public hearing, about having a snake under his desk, has signaled a significant sexual harassment problem in the legislature.

So far, though, I haven't heard any evidence that the problem is with Hewett.

In fact, unless I've missed something, there is no complainant making any charges against the representative from New London.

Reasonable people might agree, after listening to the entire exchange that occurred during the hearing, that Hewett did not make a sexually charged remark. Even the young woman to whom it was addressed has reportedly said she took no offense.

Indeed, the high school senior testifying that day was the one to raise the subject of snakes, explaining how the program that was the subject of her testimony had helped her overcome a fear of snakes. She laughed about knowing some snakes by name. She talked a lot about snakes.

It's hard to imagine how Hewett's remark, made to a full hearing room, after he reached over to snap on his microphone, was anything but an innocent attempt at humor, to make the young woman feel more comfortable.

Anyone who thinks his quite public comment was sexual must have sex on the brain.

As one of the letter writers to The Day, writing in support of Hewett, put it: "It is hard to fathom how someone might interpret the comment he made to be sexual in nature."

Well, they did.

Gov. Dannel Malloy called the remark "repugnant."

As a result of the remark, Hewett was stripped of his leadership role and given a pay cut.

The people who elected him should be angry about the way the representative from their community was treated.

But the real outrage should be reserved for the lawmaker who later suggested, without any specifics, that Hewett has a history of inappropriate behavior and therefore no female interns are assigned to him.

"We made a choice not to expose young women to that behavior," Rep. Mae Flexer, a Democrat from Danielson and one of the youngest members of the General Assembly, told a reporter.

Flexer repeated these unexplained and unsubstantiated allegations for days after the Hewett news first broke. She called his snake comment "shocking." Then she clammed up, refusing further comment.

First of all, Hewett is not only innocent until proven guilty but especially innocent until charged.

It's remarkable that a fellow legislator would make such serious allegations and then provide no details.

Worse, much worse, is the fact that Flexer and others on the General Assembly committee that oversees the intern program apparently had an informal policy for dealing with lawmakers they believe are sexual harassers.

A former representative and past committee chairwoman disclosed this week that Hewett was not the only lawmaker denied interns.

"If they (male legislators) don't do well with females, the committee decides they are not going to have female interns," Kathleen Tallarita, a Democrat from Enfield, told a reporter.

Wow.

Some of the lawmakers who supervise interns decide the best way to deal with what they perceive to be a serious sexual harassment problem is to sweep the whole thing under the rug.

Sexual harassment in the General Assembly, like anywhere else in the state, is against the law. And victims should be encouraged to file complaints with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, which is charged with enforcing and adjudicating those laws with due process for those accused and privacy protections for those making complaints.

Legislators are charged with making the law, not taking it into their own hands.

If Hewett or any other lawmaker is harassing, they should be brought to justice.

To think that some lawmakers could have been allowing sexual harassment to openly fester is alarming.

I know people have been rightly offended that Hewett disclosed, in attempting to defend himself in the snake case, that he himself has refused to have female interns.

Clearly that is unacceptable. Anyone should have the right to serve as an intern.

Still, maybe the representative from New London can be forgiven for that, given that at least one lawmaker on the intern committee thought his snake remark was shocking.

Imagine what people might construe from things he says outside of a busy public hearing, when the microphone isn't on.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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