It’s been 18 months since another Pennsylvania delegate asked for a hug at a crowded Democratic National Convention bar, then shoved his tongue down my dress to lick my breasts without my consent. That’s 18 months ago that I told party official after party official what had happened, begging them to address the incident. It’s 18 months ago that they did nothing, allowing this predator to stay on the convention floor and circulate among the open bars at Democrat-sponsored after parties.
When I started to speak out about my experience, there were party leaders who took pains to warn me that I was “making the party look bad” during an election year. There were Democratic Party officials who took it upon themselves to make my story go away —officials like then-DA Seth Williams, who initially declined to prosecute my case or even have his team examine security video footage from the incident.
Even when public outcry forced Williams to reconsider and press charges, others worked to minimize the damage. My attacker’s defense attorney called a party official to testify against details of my case; the official never bothered to mention that his memory might have been at least somewhat impaired, given that he’d been visibly heavily intoxicated the night of the assault. When the Democratic judge hearing my case reached a verdict, he found my attacker not guilty by virtue of character, a decision based on the testimony of my attacker’s wife’s friends’ assurances that despite video evidence to the contrary, he was really a great guy.
Initially, Pennsylvania Democratic Chairman Marcel Groen and his representatives assured me that he took the incident seriously, that they would put in place a sexual misconduct policy and work with me to make sure that it would prevent what happened to me from happening to other women. As soon as the headlines changed, though, that concern and commitment evaporated. When state committee members inquired about how the party would respond to my case, Groen dismissively told them, “There are two sides to every story.”
In the wake of Weinstein, #MeToo, and allegations of sexual misconduct made against prominent politicians like Daylin Leach, Groen and the party have chosen the same path they ultimately followed in response to my case: a strategy of silence and inaction, a strategy that continues to enable a culture of sexual predation and all but encourages the silencing of and retaliation against women who dare to tell their stories. Ignoring pressure from activists, survivors, community groups, and even other prominent Democrats, Groen and the party have failed to take a stand against sexual misconduct.
Gov. Wolf’s decision to call for Groen’s resignation was necessary and overdue, a fact underlined by his refusal to accept even a modicum of responsibility on his way out the door. By itself, however, Groen’s resignation will do nothing to fix the toxic sexism that pervades the state party and its culture. Party leaders must come to terms with the fact that for every public allegation, there are a dozen stories told by politically active women to each other in secret — a reality that existed long before Groen accepted the role of chair. Unless the new leadership of the party meaningfully addresses this ingrained hostility toward women (and especially women who are survivors of sexual assault and misconduct), nothing will change.
To accomplish real change, the party must immediately move to implement substantive policy changes. Party events, especially those involving hotel stays and alcohol, must have explicit written policies regarding sexual misconduct, policies that center on the needs of survivors. Neither the party nor campaigns should cover settlement costs for abusers, and nondisclosure agreements aimed at silencing survivors must be banned. The party must meaningfully track data on sexual misconduct reporting. Both in the party and on the campaign trail, staff, interns, and volunteers deserve the protection of a comprehensive sexual misconduct policy with firm, explicit protections against retaliation for reporting.
Gov. Wolf and other Democratic party leaders: I speak as a lifelong Democratic voter, as a Democratic city committee person, and as a woman when I tell you the stakes are high. You need us to act in 2018. We need you to act now.
Gwen Snyder is a professional organizer and longtime Philadelphia activist.