Will Wisconsin Democrats keep campaign contributions from Zepnick?
State Rep. Josh Zepnick (D-Milwaukee) was accused Friday of kissing women against their will in two separate incidents at Democratic Party events. Democratic Party leaders are calling on Zepnick to step down but he has said he will not resign.
According to the Cap Times, the first incident occurred at a 2011 Recall Election party for a state senate candidate. By then, apparently, Zepnick already had a reputation. The Cap Times reported the story of the legislative staffer:
“We were in a huge room with a ton of supporters and people were drinking,” she said. “I remember I was on the left side of the room and he walked over to say hello, but this time he also grabbed my shoulders and he kissed me. Up until that point, his interactions with me had been entirely professional.”
She said she doesn’t remember whether his lips landed on her mouth or her cheek. She does remember feeling disgust and trying to “get away from him as soon as possible.” She recalls he was “pretty drunk,” so drunk that she’s not sure he would remember his behavior. She said she thinks other people witnessed it, but isn’t sure who, specifically, would have seen it.
The incident was not reported at the time because, the alleged victim told the Cap Times, she did not know if she could report it since it happened after business hours at a social function. However, others corroborated her story, according to the Cap Times, by saying that she refused to be near him after the incident.
The second incident, according to the Cap Times, occurred at the state Democratic Party’s 2015 convention held at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee. The Cap Times reported that the incident occurred after a heated exchange between then-state Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) and Zepnick in Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s hospitality suite. The Cap Times does not report what the disagreement was about, just that the two men had to be separated.
Barnes is currently a Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor. It is unknown whether the loss of temper by Barnes was an isolated incident or not, or what incited the former legislator that he had to be watched by Democratic staffers, as the Cap Times reported, while he calmed down.
Zepnick was taken to the lobby by a Democratic staff member to try to get him to an exit when the incident allegedly occurred, according to the Cap Times.
“We’re in the hotel lobby and he’s just, kind of like drunk people just retell the same story over and over, he keeps telling me he’s not going to drive drunk,” the woman said. “But we’re standing in the lobby and he gives me a hug and then he kisses me, and I just turn my head and I’m like, ‘What the f—?’ And he’s so gross, and I’m upset.
Everyone was upset — or at least annoyed — that night, said a friend of the woman’s who had been working with others to try to defuse the altercation. But when the DPW staffer rejoined her co-workers after dealing with Zepnick, he said, she was crying.
He remembers the way she described it — like Zepnick had licked her face as a result of her turning her head to dodge the kiss. He remembers being shocked, and then angry. His anger resurfaced, still fresh as he described the night.
Two other then-co-workers, both of whom still work in Wisconsin politics, confirmed that she was visibly upset when she returned to the room where they were gathered, and that she told them Zepnick had “gotten weird” and kissed her.
“I was in tears, thinking, ‘What the f—, I hate my job, I hate that I have to deal with these f—ing people who just — who does that? You can’t kiss me,’” she said.
Zepnick was arrested in October 2015 for drunk driving. Prior to his arrest, Zepnick was demonstrating erratic behavior that prompted former Milwaukee talk show host Charlie Sykes to ask Zepnick if the state representative was drinking when he posted a boycott threat against a local business that opposed the Milwaukee streetcar.
Zepnick told the Cap Times that, as a recovering alcoholic, he has been sober for two years. Zepnick claims that he does not remember the incidents, was never confronted with the incidents until Friday, but apologized to the two women for the alleged incidents.
The apology is not good enough for Democratic leadership who called on Zepnick to resign. Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) issued a statement on Twitter:
The Assembly Democratic Leadership Statement on Rep. Josh Zepnick. pic.twitter.com/mIIHfjVxz2
— Gordon Hintz (@GordonHintz) December 2, 2017
Hintz’s statement that those who “have been made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe will always have our full support” given that he once threatened a female colleague during the Act 10 debate on the Assembly floor by saying, “you’re f–k–g dead!” Hintz’s record on respect for women is questionable considering he was once arrested for solicitation of prostitution at a massage parlor. The incidents involving Hintz occured in roughly the same time frame as those involving Zepnick.
Democratic Party Chairman Martha Laning has also called for Zepnick’s resignation. “In light of these serious and corroborated charges against Rep. Zepnick, and high standards to which we hold our public officials, we ask that Rep. Zepnick immediately step down,” Laning said in a statement. Laning has not issued any statements regarding Hintz.
State Rep. Dana Wachs (D-La Crosse), a Democratic candidate for governor, also called on Zepnick to step down. “These staffers should be safe and comfortable with the knowledge that they will not be harassed or assaulted,” Wachs said in a statement. As a Democratic member of the Assembly, Wachs was part of the unanimous vote to elect Hintz as minority leader, despite Hintz threatening a female colleague.
Assembly Democrats have not said that they will seek to remove Zepnick from office. In 2010, Assembly Democrats blocked Republican efforts to remove then-state Rep. Jeff Woods (I-Plover) after his fifth arrest for driving under the influence. Woods was a former Republican legislator who caucused with the Democrats at the time of the third, fourth and fifth arrests.
Democrats have also not said if they will be returning campaign contributions from Zepnick in light of the alleged sexual harassment incidents. Since 2008, Zepnick has made nearly $10,000 in contributions to various political campaigns and campaign committees. The contributions include $986 to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, $435 to Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), $202 to state Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), $200 to state Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), $150 to state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee), $50 to state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), and $85 to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
Zepnick also gave $100 to Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, a former Democratic candidate for state Attorney General and a possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2018.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) issued the following “joint statement” from Assembly leadership regarding Zepnick:
“As the leaders of the Assembly, we take accusations of sexual harassment and assault seriously. These latest allegations are no different. Rep. Zepnick’s behavior was reprehensible and conduct that’s unacceptable for any human being, let alone a state representative.
“Rep. Zepnick has the responsibility to reflect on whether he can effectively represent his district in light of these circumstances and then, decide what’s best for his constituents and the institution as a whole.”
In the release, Vos’ office stated that no formal complaint has yet been made about Zepnick’s conduct.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) also called on Zepnick to resign.