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Two women say Wisconsin lawmaker kissed them without consent

Two women say Wisconsin lawmaker kissed them without consent

Two women say state Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, kissed them without their consent at political events in 2011 and 2015. One worked for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin at the time; the other was a legislative staffer.

Zepnick said he has never been confronted with any such allegation until contacted by a reporter on Friday morning.

Both women requested anonymity, citing concerns with their current employment. Their accounts were corroborated by friends and co-workers who learned of the alleged incidents at the time they occurred.

Neither woman pursued complaints against Zepnick; both said they hoped to move on from the incident and put it behind them. Both said they had experienced their share of inappropriate behavior as women working in politics, but these particular incidents stayed with them in the years that followed.

They both decided to come forward now because of a recent culture shift that has encouraged women to make these stories public, and because of a desire to hold people accountable for their behavior.

The most recent incident occurred during the state Democratic Party’s 2015 convention, held at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee. It is common on the first night of these political conventions for candidates to host “hospitality suites,” where attendees mingle while alcohol flows freely. It is well-known in political circles that the open bars in the suites are magnets for drinking and late-night partying.

It was around midnight when things started to go off the rails. DPW staff were alerted through their headsets that Zepnick and then-state Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, were having a heated argument in U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s hospitality suite.

A Barnes aide and a DPW staff member stepped in with the goal of preventing the disagreement from escalating into a public disturbance. Their approach was to separate the two lawmakers and keep an eye on them until they calmed down.

The DPW staffer was annoyed. Zepnick was “clearly drunk,” and she spent the next hour listening to him and trying to “talk him down.” It was late, she remembers, and she was thinking about how early she had to be up the next morning. He told her how much he had liked her ex-boyfriend, she said, and asked who she was currently dating. She was uncomfortable, but was used to boorish behavior in politics.

She moved him away from security guards with the goal of getting him to an exit. A former co-worker said she saw the woman and Zepnick talking, and she looked nervous or stressed. Unsure of whether she should stay or leave, the co-worker left after briefly speaking with the DPW staffer.

“We’re in the hotel lobby and he’s just, kind of like drunk people just retell the same story over and over, he keeps telling me he’s not going to drive drunk,” the woman said. “But we’re standing in the lobby and he gives me a hug and then he kisses me, and I just turn my head and I’m like, ‘What the f---?’ And he’s so gross, and I’m upset.”

Everyone was upset — or at least annoyed — that night, said a friend of the woman’s who had been working with others to try to defuse the altercation. But when the DPW staffer rejoined her co-workers after dealing with Zepnick, he said, she was crying.

He remembers the way she described it — like Zepnick had licked her face as a result of her turning her head to dodge the kiss. He remembers being shocked, and then angry. His anger resurfaced, still fresh as he described the night.

Two other then-co-workers, both of whom still work in Wisconsin politics, confirmed that she was visibly upset when she returned to the room where they were gathered, and that she told them Zepnick had “gotten weird” and kissed her.

“I was in tears, thinking, ‘What the f---, I hate my job, I hate that I have to deal with these f---ing people who just — who does that? You can’t kiss me,’” she said.

Several sources interviewed for this story said before these incidents, they had heard rumors of Zepnick acting in a way that made women uncomfortable, but had not heard or experienced anything specific until these incidents.

One of them is a former legislative staffer who said Zepnick’s “reputation preceded him” before she had her own run-in at a 2011 election party for a Democratic Senate recall candidate. She worked for several years in Wisconsin politics before moving to the east coast, where she now lives.

"We were in a huge room with a ton of supporters and people were drinking," she said. "I remember I was on the left side of the room and he walked over to say hello, but this time he also grabbed my shoulders and he kissed me. Up until that point, his interactions with me had been entirely professional."

She said she doesn’t remember whether his lips landed on her mouth or her cheek. She does remember feeling disgust and trying to “get away from him as soon as possible.” She recalls he was “pretty drunk,” so drunk that she’s not sure he would remember his behavior. She said she thinks other people witnessed it, but isn’t sure who, specifically, would have seen it.

From then on, she did everything she could to avoid him in the Capitol. One of her former co-workers said he remembers that she refused to be around Zepnick after the party, adding that everyone in the office in which they worked was aware of what had happened. He also said people at the party may have seen it happen, but wasn’t certain of who had.

“I just tried to forget about it,” she said. “There were times when I would be in an elevator and he would get on and I would pretend I forgot something in my office and go back.”

She discussed the incident with some of her co-workers, she said, but did not officially report it.

Because it was a campaign event and not something that took place on state time, she said, she wasn’t sure how or where to report it, or if she could.

In response to questions about these alleged incidents, Zepnick wrote in an email: "No legislative staffer ever confronted me with any such allegation nor did their employer; nor anyone from Legislative Leadership or the Assembly Chief Clerk office. No one from the Democratic party staff has ever said anything to me, and since that time, I have had many interactions with political staff which have been professional, positive, and without any suggestion of this type of activity."

He did not immediately respond to a text message asking to clarify whether he denies the claims. 

Zepnick, 49, was first elected to the Assembly in 2002. A Milwaukee native, he serves full-time as a legislator representing the city’s south side, and, according to his legislative biography, is married. He is a former project consultant for the Milwaukee Jobs Initiative, the Milwaukee Community Service Corps and the Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin, and a former research associate for the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. He also served as an aide to former state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, and Democratic former U.S. Rep. David Obey.

He does not have a criminal record. He was cited in 2015 for first-offense drunk driving, which is a civil forfeiture.

One longtime Wisconsin Democrat with experience on campaigns and more than five years’ experience working at the state party said no training or guidelines were offered to prepare staffers for how to respond if things went awry at a political convention. It was unclear, he said, how to report an occurrence of harassment or inappropriate behavior in such an environment, where elected officials, legislative employees, campaign staff and supporters are all expected to attend the after-hours entertainment.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokeswoman Melanie Conklin, asked about the party’s policies but not specifically about these allegations, said the party has a strong anti-sexual harassment policy for its staff and workplace, including a mandatory online training. Employees are required to read the policy when they start their jobs, and have recently been reminded to read it through and ask any questions they may have, she said. A recent email to DPW employees instructed them to report any harassment they experience or that they witness directed toward staff members, candidates, legislators or volunteers.

“We do not and will not tolerate sexual harassment,” Conklin said.

Republican Party of Wisconsin officials said all RPW employees are informed of the party’s policies by human resources staff when they are hired. The policies are designed to ensure a safe workplace for “all employees, vendors, volunteers” and others with whom party employees associate. Employees, directors, contractors and other third parties are expected to adhere to the policies, and RPW staff are required to sign an employee handbook acknowledging they have read them.

New lawmakers are given anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training by the Legislative Council at the start of their terms. The presentation does note that harassment can occur anywhere an employee is on duty or interacts with co-workers, including at a bar, at a sporting event or on social media.

Two of Zepnick’s Democratic colleagues in the Assembly have called on him to resign since the allegations were published. Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, said lawmakers are expected to lead through example. Rep  Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said he was “disgusted” by the report, adding that staffers should feel “safe and comfortable with the knowledge that they will not be harassed or assaulted.”

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