After the January 7 organizational meeting of the Ulster County Legislature, there was a new majority party (the Democrats), a new chair of the Legislature (Tracey Bartels) and a series of lingering questions.
New Paltz Democrat and Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez had been in the legislature for 16 years, and was next in line among Democrats for a leadership position. When Saugerties Legislator Joe Maloney switched parties last year, it handed the legislature’s slim majority over to the Democrats, prompting them to vote Republican Ken Ronk out of leadership — a rare mid-term shift for the legislature. Rodriguez could have been the first Hispanic chair of the legislature.
After being the initial party pick, Rodriguez withdrew his name from consideration. The Democrats said that Rodriguez couldn’t get all 12 votes. But there were whispers that there was more to the story, and that it involved interactions with women. And a month after it all began, Rodriguez announced he would not run for re-election.
The line between friendship and organizing
In October 2017, Oriana Mayorga was a community organizer and activist for Citizen Action when she was introduced to Rodriguez as someone with whom they worked closely. Mayorga’s organizing involved Spanish-speakers, and Rodriguez is the only Spanish-speaking legislator. Between October and December, when they ultimately stopped speaking, Rodriguez texted her often and insistently.
She invited him to hear her speak about women in government at Bard College, and they had dinner. Afterwards, Rodriguez texted Mayorga, calling her “princess” and his “little warrior.” Mayorga said she realized that Rodriguez’s flirtations were problematic after he agreed to help her move, something he had also done for her supervisor at Citizen Action. He texted that because she’s a Virgo, he should never see her again “because I’ll fall madly in love with you.” Her response, “C’mon, Hector, I’m basically a child compared to you, agewise.”
He reneged on the offer to help her move after a post on Facebook that she said he’d taken personally. He told her he’d leave her alone for a while, texting, “Cliché as it is, it’s not you, it’s me.”
Mayorga decided to show the texts to her Citizen Action supervisor at the time, Callie Jayne. “He’s the Ulster County [legislature] minority leader and a local politician that we work very closely with, and there’s something wrong here,” Mayorga said. Mayorga said Jayne told her that this wasn’t the first time Rodriguez had been inappropriate with younger organizers. Mayorga believes Jayne reported it to Jess Wisneski, Citizen Action’s co-executive director. When asked via email if Wisneski had ever been notified of sexual harassment allegations about Rodriguez, she replied, “Sorry, I can’t comment on this.”
Later, when Mayorga invited Rodriguez to work with her on a Spanish-speaking committee for Citizen Action, he was busy, and in fact, she says, he never talked to her again. “He was unable to have a working relationship with me if I wasn’t available for his advances.”
Mayorga said she learned from other young organizers that they had similar experiences with Rodriguez, and that’s why she decided to come forward. “Clearly, there’s a behavioral problem that’s gone unchecked for a long time,” Mayorga said. “He needs some sort of accountability for his behavior.”
Another woman, who could only share her experience anonymously because of her employment situation, detailed a similar, recent interaction. She was in her mid-20s, working on a political campaign where the work was grueling and her position tenuous. She explained some of the power dynamics implicit in campaigning. “It is your job to make every person you interact with feel good, and efforts to stand up for yourself, especially to local elected officials, can jeopardize the possibility of endorsements, political sway, and — the most valuable thing of all — votes,” she wrote.
She said Rodriguez approached her after her candidate lost the Democratic Congressional primary last year. Texts she shared show him offering information about who was hiring and promises to reach out on her behalf, then expressions of romantic interest. She wrote, “His texting became incessant, and flirty, and I found myself in a situation where I risked being cut off unless I humored the advances of someone over a decade my elder…He sent me texts, several every hour, that started with a harmless ‘hey,’ and quickly escalated. He was quick to claim that my not responding to him fast enough warranted him proposing to cut off contact.”
She said she spoke with him directly on these matters, and his behavior did not change. She wrote, “I am hoping, as I walk in line with the brave women and men who have come forward and ignited the powerful #MeToo movement, that it’s not about what’s ‘bad enough,’ it’s about men who leverage their political power to get women; it’s about my job security, and most importantly, it’s about the threat of losing my voice and representation in government. I no longer believe this is a power that should be afforded to Hector.”
Four women who knew Rodriguez in a professional capacity shared text exchanges they’d had with him, which show him making advances or suggestive comments, and them replying that he was being inappropriate.
When asked in a February 10 interview if there had ever been complaints about his interactions with women, Rodriguez said not within the Legislature, and nothing of significance in his professional life. He said he had been told that he’s touchy-feely and flirty, and to mind his p’s and q’s, but that he hadn’t been told by organizations with whom he worked about any specific instances. He declined to comment on Citizen Action. He wasn’t aware of a pattern in his texting history where professional conversations became sexualized. “I’m working with various friends of mine — women, specifically — and trying to seek how to be a better person,” he said, meaning someone who is more aware of the messages he puts out there. “I’m horrified if I’ve hurt somebody.”
A way of navigating the world
On January 30, KT Tobin, the deputy mayor of New Paltz, and other leaders in the community decided to have a meeting with Rodriguez because they’d heard that #MeToo stories were percolating. Tobin had personal experience with Rodriguez, so it wasn’t hard for her to believe women. “It’s never just one woman; it’s a pattern of behavior, it’s a way of navigating the world.” Being in politics with him for over a decade, she’d often brushed him off, physically, and for other women she knows, he didn’t respect boundaries or physical autonomy. “As a woman who has experienced uncomfortability with him, and spoken to many women who have, as well, we’re taking the conversation out in the public.”
As a community leader, she wanted to address it with Rodriguez. “My goal is to try to find a different path because we’re not seeing good models. And I by no means condone any behavior that falls along the #MeToo spectrum. There’s got to be a space where we can reject the behavior but find a way for people to change.”
Tobin is a sociologist and said she’s concerned that there’s an impact on civic participation. “We have seen plenty of examples of what not to do in response to hearing long-held stories from women who these men chronically hurt. They are denying, rationalizing, and centering themselves, often attempting to spin narratives that they instead are the victims,” Tobin said. “There’s another way.”
New Paltz Councilman Dan Torres was also at the meeting. Just the Saturday before, he said he’d seen Rodriguez interact with a woman at an event in a way which he found telling. The woman had told Rodriguez that she was upset that he poked her when she walked past him, and Torres said that Rodriguez seemed to think she was joking. When Torres brought this up at the meeting, he thought Rodriguez had been affected by it. “It’s clear that Hector’s behavior certainly made people uncomfortable. Whether he’s aware of it or not isn’t relevant, frankly,” Torres said. “None of us were dismissing what he did, but it was important for us, as community leaders, to highlight that this is an issue and it’s something he needs to own, so it doesn’t continue.”
According to Rodriguez, there were no specific situations mentioned at the January 30 meeting, but his February 6 announcement to not seek re-election was in part because he’d heard there were people he’d hurt, and he wanted to take stock. He said that while he’s proud of his work in the legislature, he’s also a bit weary. “Again, I’ve been doing this job — this is now year sixteen,” Rodriguez said. “But I also want to be candid at the same [time]. I had heard through the grapevine that there were some people that I had hurt. It wasn’t the majority factor, but it was definitely a factor.”
What the legislature knew
Terence Ward is a writer for the New Paltz Times. He said that he had been approached with the information that something important was happening during discussions around the vote for legislature chair, but when he investigated it, he either didn’t get a return call or got a polite “no comment.”
“I think there was a lot of hand-wringing about what they knew and what was appropriate to bring out in the public and what was best left unsaid,” Ward said. “I ultimately concluded that perhaps there were issues with women — that was the impression I had gotten — but if that was the case, none of them were willing to come forward. I realized, in that moment, that it’s called ‘MeToo’ because it’s really hard to be ‘me first.’”
There was a police report from a February 1, 2018, New Paltz Town Board meeting where the board was seeking more information about a police program they were funding. Ward was there. Rodriguez came to speak about the Legislature’s position on that program, and started his comments by making reference to having had an interesting time getting there.
Rodriguez said he made a stupid mistake: he meant to take a trail through a meadow as he walked from his apartment to get to the Community Center, but a seasonal river blocked the path. He said the only place he could cross was by entering someone’s backyard. Ward said he later tried walking that path, and though he couldn’t discount the possibility, he had trouble understanding how to get into the backyard from the trail. There’s a steep slope.
According to the police report that was filed that night, Rodriguez was identified as a suspicious person running through the caller’s yard and chased into the Community Center, but Rodriguez says that’s not accurate. The police report says the caller’s husband confirmed the incident, the police chief took the complaint that night at the Community Center and the matter was resolved.
Ward says Rodriguez brought him the complaint a week before the chair vote as a reason why he might lose leadership. In my interview with him, Rodriguez said the police report did come up, indirectly, during the caucus discussion about the chair, but that he withdrew his name from consideration because he couldn’t get the 12 votes he, and the Democratic party, needed. “We had already had some political conflicts,” Rodriguez said. “Actually, myself and one member, and this was just over, honestly, how vocal I’ve been in terms of pushing certain parts of our agenda.” Rodriguez said he didn’t put his name in for another term as majority leader because that was already decided before the chair discussion.
I reached out to legislators for comment. Chair Tracey Bartels and Majority Leader Jonathan Heppner issued a joint statement via email: “At the January 7th Democratic caucus to discuss legislative leadership it became clear that Legislator Rodriguez did not have the votes required to be elected chairman of the County Legislature. As a result, he removed his name from consideration. As of today, the legislature has not been provided with any direct information or allegations of misconduct or inappropriate behavior by Legislator Rodriguez. Should such reports become public or be brought to us, they will be fully considered, along with any appropriate action, at that time.”
Legislators Lynn Eckert and Kathy Nolan also commented via email: “During deliberations among the Democratic Caucus about our nomination for chair of the Ulster County Legislature, concerns were raised about Legislator Hector Rodriguez’s interactions with women. In the absence of any complaints coming directly to us, yet recognizing their potential importance, we welcomed Legislator Rodriguez’s decision to withdraw his name from consideration for chair, and several of us urged him at that time to address the matter publicly. With concerns and questions continuing to emerge, we the undersigned ask Legislator Rodriguez to make a full and public accounting of all matters that have been brought to him about his behavior.”
In the end, questions linger. This is the story of a man who doesn’t seem to see how his behavior can feel oppressive to some, and how romantic advances can become road blocks. It’s about a man who wants to make amends, but also denies knowledge of what people are telling him he did. It’s about the blurry line in professional settings between friendship and boundaries.
It’s also the story of the systems that put women in government into tenuous situations, as well as about the political systems that are always at play. Why did people start talking about Rodriguez’s interactions with women now?
Certain questions were asked but not answered: Do legislators know things they’re not commenting on? If the legislature did discuss Rodriguez’s interactions with women during their caucus, why did Chairwoman Bartels still give him a leadership role on the Economic Development Committee? What did Citizen Action know, and what’s their process around receiving complaints from their employees about the politicians they endorse or with whom they advocate?
On February 13, Rodriguez wrote a Facebook post, apologizing. “My communication with women in several circumstances was inappropriate. I am still learning the details at this time about those I may have offended or hurt,” he wrote. “I am committed to listening, to apologize for what I’ve done, but to also use a restorative justice process if the people I’ve hurt or have offended wish to.”
Then, Rodriguez deactivated his Facebook account.
An audio version of this story was aired February 13 and is on the archive at RadioKingston.org.