Almost certain to be an issue in the race against Rep. Leonard Lance is his role defending a colleague accused of sexual harassment while serving as Minority Leader of the New Jersey State Senate more than a decade ago.
Five weeks after he won a second term in 2001, State Sen. Tony Bucco found himself in the middle of a sexual harassment scandal. His former legislative aide alleged that her job on Bucco’s Senate staff required that she engage in a sexual relationship with him. The aide claimed that Bucco’s wife learned of the affair and demanded that she be fired from his staff, and from a job at the Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board – a post she said Bucco helped her get. A harassment suit was filed in federal court against Bucco and the New Jersey Senate; Bucco countersued his ex-staffer.
In a different era, the allegations didn’t stop Senate Republicans from elevating Bucco from Assistant Majority Leader to Co-Republican Majority Leader. He was re-elected in 2003 by a 55%-45% margin, despite documents produced by Blair MacInnes, his Democratic opponent, showing that the state was paying legal fees related to the Bucco scandal.
Lance became Senate Minority Leader when the new Legislature convened in 2004. Later that year, the lawsuit against Bucco and the state were settled on the condition that the terms remain confidential. As the leader of the Senate Republicans, Lance would have had to be party to any discussions regarding the Senate in that lawsuit. To be clear, there have never been assertions that Lance – a somewhat starchy kind of guy — acted improperly.
But those were different times. Jump ahead to 2017, and Lance has a seat on the House Ethics Committee, where he will lead the investigation of at least one Republican colleague accused of harassment, Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas.
In November 2017, Lance introduced legislation that would prohibit taxpayer-funded settlements of sexual harassment claims against Congressmen, and require details of harassment suits filed against Members of Congress, including the amount of settlements.
“Such secrecy is a gross betrayal of public trust and must end immediately,” Lance said in a statement announcing his Ensure Transparency and Honesty in Congressional Settlements (ETHICS) Act.
In an interview with CNN, Lance said he was not aware that public funds were being used to secretly settle allegations of sexual harassment, and that tax dollars should not be used for that purpose.
Considering the high-profile Lance has chosen to take on the issue of sexual harassment in the Congress, it is reasonable to expect that some of his Democratic rivals will bring up the Bucco issue and press him for details of his role in avoiding transparency in the settlement.
As for Bucco, the scandal seems to be in his rear-view mirror. He’s been re-elected five times since the story broke in December 2001. Bucco was re-elected last November with just 52% of the vote against a first-time candidate, Lisa Bhimani. He would never have survived in today’s political climate, but voters get to decide what issues they care about and when they care about them.
The Bucco issue highlights the path New Jersey Democrats took to capture control of the State Senate. Republicans went into the 2001 election with a 25-15 majority – that number includes Raymond Zane, who was elected eight times as a Democrat and was now seeking re-election as a Republican. Zane lost to Democrat Steve Sweeney, and a new legislative map that heavily favored Democrats led to a 20-20 split on Election Day.
Two years later, Democrats won control of the State Senate. Republican Co-Senate President John Bennett, accused of overbilling local governments while serving as a municipal attorney, lost to Ellen Karcher. Bennett and Bucco, the two GOP Senate leaders, spent a combined $1.3 million defending two Senate seats that ought to have been safe Republican. The conventional wisdom is that the extra money would have saved Republican State Sen. George Geist, who lost to Democrat Fred Madden by just 63 votes.
Had Bennett and Bucco stepped aside, for the good of their party, Republicans would likely have held their twenty seats for another four years. A lack of a clear line of succession might have dramatically changed New Jersey political history one year later, when Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned.