RI leaders rally around Rep. Kazarian after harassment allegation

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Three of Rhode Island’s five statewide officers have so far weighed in supporting state Rep. Katherine Kazarian after Target 12 revealed she alleged years of sexual harassment by a higher-ranking lawmaker.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo spoke out soon after Target 12 first revealed the existence of Kazarian’s March 11 email to Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, in which she made the accusation against state Rep. Cale Keable.

Keable, D-Burrillville, has denied harassing Kazarian. He was put on leave by his law firm shortly before the report aired, and Mattiello remove him as chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee soon after. Mattiello has strongly defended his handling of Kazarian’s complaints about Keable, which date back to early 2015.

“Everybody deserves to be able to go to work in a harassment-free environment,” Raimondo told reporters on Tuesday.

“These allegations are disturbing, and this is the sort of stuff that erodes the public’s confidence in government,” Raimondo said. “So it’s disturbing, we all have questions, and we’ll see where it goes from here. But I do know there should be no tolerance in any workplace for sexual harassment.”

Raimondo’s Republican opponent, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, promised that “there will be zero tolerance for sexual harassment regardless of party” if he becomes governor.

Democratic General Treasurer Seth Magaziner went out of his way to praise Kazarian, who like him is one of the few Millennials to currently hold elected office in Rhode Island.

“I know Representative Kazarian, as a colleague and a friend, to be a person of the strongest character,” Magaziner said. “For that reason, I believe her and she has my full support.”

“I admire her bravery in continuing to go to the State House every day, working for her constituents, under such difficult conditions,” he continued. “Sexual harassment is unacceptable at the State House or anywhere else and leaders throughout the state must come together to stop a culture that enables it.”

Democratic Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who campaigned for Mattiello’s re-election in Cranston just last week, backed Kazarian in a tweet:

None of the four men in Rhode Island’s federal congressional delegation – Democrats Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse, David Cicilline and Jim Langevin – have discussed Kazarian’s allegation publicly so far. But a host of other individuals and organizations have weighed in over the course of the week.

Republican Steven Frias, who is running against Mattiello for a second time in Cranston’s House District 15 after nearly defeating him in 2016, said: “We appear to be on the verge of another epic scandal involving another member of Speaker Mattiello’s leadership team.”

“Although the details of the sexual harassment allegations are unknown, it is clear that they appear to be of a serious nature since Chairman Keable’s employer put him on leave,” Frias said. “We also know that Mattiello knew about these allegations for years but allowed Keable to remain chairman of House Judiciary.”

Mattiello campaign spokesperson Patti Doyle responded by suggesting Frias was “politicizing a highly sensitive situation, which is unfortunate.” She noted that Mattiello had detailed “how he learned of the situation and the steps he took to mitigate it at the request of Rep. Kazarian.”

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell suggested that Keable “should simply drop out of his race for re-election.” (Keable is facing Republican David Place next week.) Bell also argued all Rhode Island Democrats should say whether they believe Mattiello handled Kazarian’s allegation acceptably.

In a tweet, Bell mocked “Mattiello’s Animal House,” linking the Keable revelation to a previous Target 12 investigation that discovered top Mattiello aide Frank Montanaro accepted about $50,000 in free tuition while working for the speaker, as well as Rep. Moira Walsh’s criticism of how much drinking goes on at the State House.

Other Republicans also sought to capitalize on the news. The Coventry Republican Town Committee asked on Facebook, “Do the Coventry candidates who have taken BUCKETS of money from Mattiello condone sexual harassment and other bad behavior?”

Another Republican, House District 25 candidate Dorinne Albright, questioned why Kazarian’s allies failed to come forward about her complaints:

Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, asked similar questions: “By her own admission in this article, [Rep. Teresa] Tanzi was leader of a group of House Democrats who covered up for a known/suspected sexual harasser in exchange for… what exactly? How is this at all OK? What kind of leadership is that? What the heck has been going on in the Dem caucus?”

Tanzi and others close to Kazarian have rejected suggestions they covered up Keable’s behavior, saying they were respecting Kazarian’s wishes to try and handle the matter privately with Mattiello. “To me, this is as about the speaker,” Tanzi said. “This is less and less about Katie and Cale. This is about him and his inability to understand there was a toxic work environment up there.”

State Rep. Ray Hull, D-Providence, described Mattiello’s response to the situation as “disgraceful” and said he would not vote to keep him as speaker. Hull suggested Mattiello’s announcement that he will call a caucus of House Democrats just two days after the election to vote for speaker shows he is concerned about his hold on power.

“I’m not a progressive coming after the speaker,” Hull said. “I’m a decent human being who is offended at the way he treated a female colleague and his repeated failure to show respect to women in this chamber. This is about a speaker who had the chance to do the right thing and chose to bury a serious complaint from a respected co-worker.”

State Rep. Carol McEntee, D-South Kingstown, said of Mattiello, “If his recent removal of Rep. Keable from his chairmanship is the right thing to do then he should have done this in March.”

State Rep. Susan Donovan, D-Bristol, said she agreed with retiring Rep. Joy Hearn’s call for a more diverse House Democratic leadership team. “The House should be more inclusive of women,” she tweeted.

The Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee unanimously passed a resolution Thursday opposing another term as speaker for Mattiello, citing the Keable situation as well as his opposition to bills that would codify abortion rights and restrict guns in schools.

“The Portsmouth Democratic Party takes very seriously the allegations of sexual harassment by a committee chair appointed by the speaker,” Town Committee Chair Len Katzman said in a statement. “And we are troubled by the lack of timely and effective action to resolve those complaints.”

The National Organization for Women’s Rhode Island chapter said, “Today we support Representative Katherine Kazarian and all victims of sexual harassment. At the same time, we condemn the actions of Representative Cale Keable, who is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. RI NOW also denounces the inaction of House leadership, who knew of the abhorrent behavior of Keable toward Kazarian and took no action.”

The Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence offered similar sentiments. The nonprofit Women Project urged Mattiello and Keable to both resign.

“Rep. Kazarian’s story is unfortunately too familiar for so many young women and men who go up to the State House with the best intentions,” said a statement from the Young Democrats of Rhode Island, whose board said the House need new leadership.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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