State Rep. Abby Major (R – Armstrong/Westmoreland) went public with harassment allegations against State Rep. Mike Zabel (D – Delaware) that he propositioned her and followed her to her car while intoxicated at a political gathering held at a hotel in November.
Less than four hours later, news broke that Zabel would resign from his seat on March 16.
After finishing her remarks at a Wednesday morning press conference, Major then gave Broad + Liberty permission to reveal her as the anonymous source behind an article published on March 1 that provided the same story details and same allegations. That story also named Zabel as the alleged harasser of an SEIU lobbyist who put her story into the public sphere in January but did not name Zabel directly at that time.
Speaking on International Women’s Day, Major and other Republican women renewed their call for Zabel to resign.
Major spoke about the difficulties and confusion she faced, not only in the evening the alleged harassment occurred, but also in deciding how and when to come forward.
(Major begins speaking at 3:25)
“I did not feel that my story alone was enough to file a complaint and that maybe because my sexual-harassment meter is completely broken — years of working in male-dominated fields, including the military, have given me an incredibly thick skin for this type of thing, and this isn’t even near the worst that I’ve endured,” Major said.
“I never wanted to be the face of this story,” she said. “As I said earlier, my story is one of the mildest of the ones that I personally know. [SEIU lobbyist Andi Perez] was so brave standing up. I wanted the rest of our stories to back hers up to show that this was not a one-time event. I didn’t want them to say it was a misunderstanding or try to sweep it under the rug. I wanted to scream, ‘This is a pattern!’ I wanted the evidence to be overwhelming.”
After the Broad + Liberty report on March 1, Perez soon thereafter directly named Zabel as her harasser in a story at Spotlight PA. Close on the heels of that, a former campaign director for Zabel also made allegations that Zabel had inappropriately touched and approached her.
Two days later, Zabel was still insisting he would not resign, and while select Democrats were calling for his resignation, the caucus as a whole was resisting that step.
Besides adding the backbreaking pressure to Zabel’s incumbency, the Wednesday press conference put the spotlight back on the debate over the House rules that will govern this year’s session — a political conflict that has already absorbed nearly the entire year.
House Democrats passed their rules package last Wednesday, one day after the bipartisan compromise speakership of Rep. Mark Rozzi (D – Berks) ended and the speakership of Rep. Joanna McClinton (D – Philadelphia) was begun.
Major lauded the progress made on increasing the avenues people have to file ethics complaints but still worried that the rules fell short of what was needed.
“While these rules are revolutionary in that any individual can now file a complaint and [are] a step in the correct direction, it seems to only count as a violation if the member is performing their official duties on state House property or at a state House-sponsored meeting or event. To my understanding, that might not apply to these stories [against Zabel] we have heard so far, or the other stories I have yet to hear.”
When Andi Perez, the SEIU lobbyist, made the public allegations against a then-unknown state representative in January, she also made a complaint identical to Major’s — that the rules needed the broadest possible expansion.
Perez praised Rep. Kate Klunk (R – York) for introducing a bill that would “expand the language in the official House rules to include those advocates like me who are regularly in lawmaker’s offices and not limit the location of harassment to inside the Capitol building. This piece of legislation, despite having bipartisan support, was never even heard, let alone adopted.”
Klunk’s bill was in play by April last year, but a report in June seemed to signal that the idea quickly devolved into a stalemate, even though Republicans held a solid majority in the lower chamber.
Jason Gottesman, spokesman for the House Republicans, said, “We were trying to do things responsibly and get buy-in from Democrats, but they were not interested in making the change at the time. That is further evidenced by the fact that, while both of our top leaders co-sponsored the Klunk language, only one member of their entire caucus did likewise. The sexual harassment rule they adopted as part of their partisan operating rules is far less explicit and comprehensive than the Klunk language we were pressing for and remains an unfortunate muddying of the waters on this important issue.”
A request for comment from the Democratic caucus was not returned.
Also in the new rules passed by Democrats is a new definition of what makes a majority.
“‘Majority Party’ shall mean the political party that won the greater number of elections for the 203 seats in the House of Representatives in the general election preceding the term of service that began on the first day of December next after the general election,” the new rules say.
Historically, a majority was defined as the party with the most duly elected members seated in the legislature at any given time.
Republicans are widely expected to win the upcoming special election to replace Senator Lynda Culver, who was recently elected to fill a vacancy in the state legislature’s upper chamber. This definitional change means that even in a 101-101 House, Democrats would remain the “majority party” rather than be compelled to reach a power-sharing agreement until such time a special election for Zabel’s district is held and the matter is settled.
Gottesman slammed the new definition.
“This is just part of a pattern of Democrats redefining well-established terms and undeniable truths to fit their worldview and ability to retain power,” he told Broad + Liberty. “Ultimately, the numbers do not lie, no matter what Democrat definitions might have people believe.”
Again, a request for comment on this specific topic was not returned by the spokesperson for the Democratic caucus.
The Democratic caucus also did not share a statement about Zabel’s resignation with Broad + Liberty, but through other outlets they said:
“After conversations with leadership, Rep. Zabel has chosen to do what is best for his family, the people he represents, and the state House of Representatives. The House Democratic Caucus reaffirms its commitment to a safe work environment that encourages people to come forward to have their concerns addressed responsibly and thoroughly — an environment that did not exist for 12 years under Republican leadership and a broken system every Republican voted to preserve just a week ago.
“As part of our caucus’s ongoing commitment to protection and transparency, a website will soon be available to the public to learn more about the newly empowered Ethics Committee’s process for collecting and investigating reports of discrimination and harassment. Additionally, the House Democratic Caucus will keep former Rep. Zabel’s district offices open to ensure members of his community continue to have access to state services,” the statement concluded.
The timing of Zabel’s resignation also raises important questions about any internal political calculations within the Democratic caucus given their razor thin majority. Zabel’s resignation is effective March 16, rather than immediately.
Section 2778 of the Pennsylvania code states that the Speaker must set the date for a special election within ten days of a sitting legislator’s resignation. That election is to be no less than 60 days after the issuance of a writ of election. It also should not be scheduled beyond the next primary, municipal, or general election that arrives after the 60-day window has closed.
When Zabel’s resignation goes into effect on March 16, it will be 61 days before the primary, meaning Speaker McClinton will have one day to issue a writ of election to ensure the special election for House District 163 happens on the primary, should she desire that.
Should she fail to issue that writ on March 16 for whatever reason, then a separate special election for Zabel’s seat could legally be delayed until the general election — or, eight months after his actual resignation from office.
Zabel represents House District 163, mainly centered in Upper Darby Township in Delaware County.
While the district leans Democratic after recent redistricting, Republicans, especially at the municipal level, have had reasonable success there in off-year elections.
Speaker McClinton will have ten days after Zabel’s resignation to announce the date of a special election.
The Pennsylvania House has already witnessed three special elections thus far this year, and, including Zabel’s seat, still has at least two more to go.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports