For the first time in its history, the Ulster County Legislature voted to condemn one of its own, New Paltz Democrat Hector Rodriguez, for sexual harassment and predatory behavior. Rodriguez’s expressionless face loomed over the room, projected onto a wall by a too-close webcam that he used to Skype into the meeting, while legislators voted 17-5 for his censure. His screen went black during the voting; Rodriguez abstained from the vote and made no comment.
Rodriguez was still able to vote on other resolutions at the meeting, and will be able to do so until his term expires on Dec. 31.
Rodriguez had been minority leader for 16 years, and was considering a run for the chairmanship of the body when Democrats captured the legislature following Legislator Joe Maloney’s decision to cross the aisle and caucus with them.
But that was before allegations regarding his conduct were publicized. In January, he removed his name from consideration for the position.
On Jan. 30, deputy mayor KT Tobin of New Paltz and other community leaders held a meeting with Rodriguez to address what were multiplying stories of his inappropriate interactions with women via text message and in person. Women affected were involved in political organizations such as Citizen Action and in the larger political sphere of Ulster County. Shortly afterward, he announced in February that he was not seeking re-election.
Later, a county-commissioned report stated that an investigation by an Albany law firm found the longtime New Paltz legislator was likely guilty of sexually harassing women and other misconduct. The Albany law firm’s work involved interviews with Tobin, three county legislators, seven women who had found Rodriguez’ attentions troubling or harassing and with one other individual who later asked not to be a part of any report.
‘An abuse of power and trust’
Fourteen people spoke to the legislature in favor of the censure, including Village of New Paltz trustees William Murray and Julie Seyfert-Lillis and legislators-elect Peter Criswell of Abe Uchitelle of Kingston.
“This should be easy,” said Rachel Labare of New Paltz Democratic Women. “In the future, when this happens again, because it will happen again, I hope you guys have a better sexual harassment policy, a more streamlined procedure and that there’s more courage in this room.”
“His actions were part of a pattern,” said Joanne Myers of Kingston, who said that she was one of the women interviewed in the investigation. “Sexual harassment is an abuse of power and trust. Please send a positive, although belated, message.”
“I was sexually harassed by Hector in 2017,” said Oriana Mayorga, who was a community organizer and activist with Citizen Action and said in an interview with journalist Hillary Harvey that Rodriguez texted her frequently after she contacted him about an event that she was organizing involving community Spanish-speakers, calling her “princess” and “[his] little warrior.”
“I am urging all of you to please, please vote on the censure,” said Mayorga. “It’s a small act and it would be very significant to all of the women who have come forward.”
“I can’t imagine what a healthy line of communication with my legislator looks like …. Up until recently, getting an update on what was happening with this legislature required getting a drink with a gross older guy,” said Alexandria Wojcik, a New Paltz village trustee, speaking in favor of censure. “These chambers are not a safe place. [The body’s inaction until now] sends a clear message that in order to be a member of this body, I would have to subject myself to sexual harassment.”
Concerns about process
Legislator Richard Gerentine of Marlboro voted against censuring Rodriguez, along with legislators Joe Maloney of Saugerties, Manna Jo Greene of Rosendale, the Rev. Julius Collins of Ellenville and Laura Petit of Esopus.
Gerentine bemoaned the investigation’s $26,000 cost to the taxpayer, and said that “this [was] the lowest point [he] had seen this legislative body [at]. … There was a deal made where that gentleman was not going to run again. Unfortunately, something happened during that whole process,” said Gerentine. “We asked to have the report given to us, I was told that we could not have it … Basically, why can’t we have it?”
Gerentine’s remarks were met with jeering from the audience; legislature Chair Tracey Bartels had to call the room to order a handful of times during the censure vote discussion.
“I want to commend the people that stood up and came forward and acknowledge the courage. However, I am extremely concerned about this process. I feel that it has been entirely punitive and it has not included a component of healing, for truth and reconciliation, for restorative justice,” said Greene, explaining her ‘no’ vote. “It is for that lack of compassion … that I am very concerned about the efforts to censure. That doesn’t mean I approve the behavior, I disapprove the behavior, but I also want to acknowledge that Legislator Rodriguez has given many years of dedicated service.
“He really was an exceptional legislator. And … I believe he was attempting to address those issues, but then it seemed things went the other way,” said Legislator Dave Donaldson (D-Kingston), who ultimately voted to censure Rodriguez. “We had an opportunity at that point, early on, to really step down and deal with those that were victim or even those who were perceived to be victims and worked toward a restorative justice situation where Hector could be part of the solution. Men need to be part of the solution, with men coming forward and working with the victims … that would be good for everyone. He’s been in the press repeatedly, as you know, embarrassed and probably deservedly so. But my problem is, where is the justice here? What is the real justice that we’re getting out of this?”
County Executive Pat Ryan and y Bartels had issued press releases condemning Rodriguez’s actions. Bartels also stripped Rodriguez of his membership on two legislative committees.