I am one of the unnamed women in the Hector Rodriguez investigation.
In 2006, I was appointed the first woman chair of the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency. I reported to the legislature through Hector Rodriguez, who chaired the economic development committee. He initially vetted my appointment. Ever since, he has reminded me that my success was tied to him. His words: “Just remember in your memoirs to blame me for getting you into government.”
My IDA tenure was controversial. We instituted new clawback provisions and wage requirements. As a county legislator, Hector Rodriguez took an active role with regard to IDA policy and press.
During this time period, legislator Rodriguez regularly did and said inappropriate things without solicitation or encouragement. Some of his comments and physical actions were too self-identifying to be published in the investigative report to the legislature. He once forced an unwelcome kiss and would often joke about the possibility of becoming part of my “family” via his “relationship” with me.
I was a political newcomer, a mother and an attorney, and that time working with legislator Rodriguez was one of the most challenging periods of my life.
When I went to work for the county executive as the head of economic development, a new policy limited county staff contact with legislators, keeping me from regular, but not all, contact with legislator Rodriguez. His behavior and comments continued to be inappropriate. For example, while Facebook messaging about aligning my salary with other regional economic developers by legislative budget amendment, he proposed we get a hotel room together. He retreated, as he often did, passing it off as a joke.
To be clear, my conventional experience of sexual harassment at Ulster County was not unlike my professional time in every other workplace setting, including my first software development job in college, the New York State Legislature, Harvard University, Ropes & Gray, and others. Women paid the toll of workplace sexual harassment: unwanted touching, innuendo, and lewd comments.
It was just the way things were, so I didn’t particularly take note. My coping mechanisms were to cajole, deflect, and laugh it off. Every one of these workplaces lacked obvious and trustworthy procedures by which to obtain redress.
What was clear, and has come into much sharper focus over the last two years, is that coming forward about sexually inappropriate behavior will damage one’s career and life. Yet, recently, we have also seen a change in the cultural milieu surrounding these issues. It’s only now seeing it through the eyes of the next generation of women that I even have the strength and determination to come forward.
In 2013, I left county service for the private nonprofit sector. Legislator Rodriguez continued to instigate contact, seeking more time or attention often couched within a request for information about economic development. He would say unwelcome things like “Don’t you still love me?”
Last winter, when the news broke that legislator Rodriguez would not be considered for chair of the legislature because of inappropriate behavior, I was called by a local reporter. I decided at that time to not go on the record. Instead, I called legislator Rodriguez and spoke to him directly about the harm that he had inflicted.
I brought him specific examples. He apologized many times. I wanted him to know exactly what he had done and why it was so damaging. It was a very difficult conversation. He asked me what he could do to address it, and I told him he needed to be a role model and step up to show a new, different way for men to address these issues. He hasn’t been able to do that.
During my campaign for county comptroller I prayed the story of legislator Rodriguez’s behavior would not break with my name involved. I faced a barrage of daily questions and newspaper headlines about him while I made appearances at events all over Ulster County. People wanted to know what I thought. I deflected, laughed, avoided, hid behind my running mates and other brave women who spoke out. And, I seethed.
Additionally, dealing with so-called progressive allies presented its own set of challenges. One woman approached me at a community festival demanding to know why I “forgave” Hector Rodriguez. I could not discuss it then and there. On social media women lambasted me and others who did not publicly call for his resignation.
As we approached the end of the campaign season I found myself in an even more complex conundrum. While the legislature considered censuring legislator Rodriguez, I dodged questions and invitations to sign petitions and speak out on his censure.
Right after my election, the legislature was finalizing the 2020 county budget. The salaries of six county employees were dependent on my budget requests. And, the hard, honest truth is that I continued to stay silent because I needed legislator Rodriguez’s vote.
A few days before the vote I asked all legislators, including legislator Rodriguez, to please support the amendments that I deemed absolutely necessary to fully fund the comptroller’s office. Legislator Rodriguez called me immediately, and we discussed the budget. He offered support for the amendments. He also asked me if the investigators had spoken to me, and I told him I couldn’t answer that. He apologized again.
The Democratic legislative majority hangs on a one-vote margin. One Democratic legislator had personal recusal, while another would not be able to attend the vote. This made legislator Rodriguez’s vote critical. When seeking legislative action, every vote matters. Thus, legislator Rodriguez continued to have a direct impact on my ability to do my job, even after I was elected and going forward in 2020.
Had the legislature moved for swifter action or had legislator Rodriguez resigned earlier this year he could have been replaced, but the delays demonstrated a glaring absence of policy and a severe lack of understanding about sexual harassment’s illegality and harms (including liability when cases are known). There was no clear process, and no path for a legislator’s removal. Thus, I still had to count votes, and a resignation at this late date would have cost a majority vote and hurt my ability to get the vitally needed comptroller’s budget amendments passed.
Under intense and direct questioning, I have found myself, as a woman campaigning for public office, unable to speak of my experiences with legislator Rodriguez. All year, I have been disempowered from weighing in on the grave need for actionable sexual harassment policy because of a concern for how my statements would impact my ability to effectively do my job. In this last instance, I chose silence in order to fight for adequate compensation of the comptroller’s staff.
I am done being silent. More than a few of my advisors have cautioned me that I risk my reputation by admitting I traded acquiescence for the comptroller’s budget.
That, actually, is the whole point. For too long women have had to make horrible tradeoffs in silence. By speaking out I hope to effect change. Continuing to hide, to cover up, to edit out the names, times and places perpetuates the system. Moreover, criticizing women who do come forward for the timing and methods of disclosures is victim-blaming that perpetuates harassment and continues to silence women.
Speaking out now will tie me to Hector Rodriguez’s name in the headlines forever but at least it is by the stroke of my own pen and the sound of my own voice. It is a worthy burden if it removes the barrier preventing so many women from doing our best work.
The Ulster County Legislature must adopt policy that addresses sexual harassment and a code of conduct that sets expectations for appropriate behavior between county legislators and those with whom they work including unpaid volunteers and constituents.
Let my experience be an example to all on why clear policies and swift action are so necessary. Let us not just adopt but follow good strong sexual harassment policies for every workplace, especially those reliant on public trust or engaged in public service. Let us find a way to salvage the best parts of the people involved while we also ensure prevention and justice. And finally, let us have the strength to take quick and decisive action when needed so no person has to remain silent to do good work.
The writer is comptroller-elect for Ulster County.