Published March 06. 2013 4:00AM Updated March 06. 2013 11:37AM
Hartford - State legislators including House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said Tuesday they were disappointed that state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, did not attend a meeting with the women of the Democratic caucus.
"I am deeply disappointed with Representative Hewett's decision not to attend today's meeting," Sharkey, who himself met Tuesday with many women from the caucus, wrote in an email. "Nevertheless, I will continue to work to ensure that the Connecticut House of Representatives is free from sexual harassment, and is a safe place where all of our constituents can be comfortable visiting."
On Tuesday Democratic leadership praised Sharkey for his response to Hewett's remark to a teen. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has called the remark "repugnant." The administration is confident Sharkey will continue to act decisively if new details come to light, said Andrew Doba, spokesman for Malloy. Hewett's handling of the situation, however, received mixed reviews.
In a letter to Sharkey on Monday, Hewett said he has apologized for the remark he made to a 17-year-old from the Connecticut Science Center at a public hearing and that he considers the matter "closed."
Hewett was stripped of his deputy speaker title last week, in response to a Feb. 20 Appropriations Committee meeting in which he said to a teenage girl: "If you're bashful, I got a snake sitting under my desk here."
He was responding to comments made by the 17-year-old who asked the committee to continue funding the Connecticut Science Center's ambassador program because it helped her overcome her shyness and get over her fear of snakes.
State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, took exception Tuesday to a statement Hewett made to the Hartford Courant. Hewett told the Courant Friday, "I've had female interns in the past that sit in my office all day. I thought it was totally weird and I didn't want another."
"He owes it to the women of his caucus to explain what that means because it is insulting," Urban said Tuesday.
A meeting between Hewett and the women of the Democratic caucus could have been a productive first step in dealing with the issue of sexual harassment at the Capitol, state Rep. Tim Bowles, D-Preston, said.
"I support any efforts that my female colleagues are making to try and bring this matter to the attention of the rest of us in the caucus," Bowles said. "I think we can all use some greater sensitivity to this area, and I include myself in that."
State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said it was Hewett's personal decision not to attend.
"I think he explained his reasoning," she said. "It is his call, absolutely his call."
It is clear from the speaker's actions, she said, that sexual harassment is not part of the accepted culture of the General Assembly.
"Of course there is not an acceptance of that kind of behavior," she said.
Urban said last week that addressing incidents of sexual harassment at the state Capitol was long overdue. State Rep. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, said on Monday that legislators still need to learn that sexual harassment is not acceptable. Representatives should do something about it, not just talk about it, she said. Flexer said, as the former chairwoman and current member of the legislature's Internship Committee, she was aware that Hewett was not assigned female interns because of "a history of bad behavior."
State Rep. Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, said the General Assembly does not have a culture that accepts sexual harassment.
"I am not aware of that going on at all, and I have never sensed that … you know it's not a frat house up there."
Moukawsher said he was "glad" Hewett didn't go to the Democratic caucus meeting held by women.
"I don't think there was anything really useful and productive that would come out of it," he said. "I am not sure why he would be required to go there."
Moukawsher said he has thought from the beginning that Hewett didn't do anything wrong. It seems that some members of the Democratic caucus have decided he said something wrong and are expecting him to answer to them, Moukawsher said.
He said these people should have met with Hewett privately if they were concerned and let Hewett explain himself instead of publicly humiliating him.
He also said he understood Hewett's comment about female interns. It wasn't a sexist remark, he said, but a statement about wanting to avoid any misconceptions that inappropriate activity might be going on because the intern is sitting in his office all day.
"He is the victim in this situation," Moukawsher said.
Former state Rep. Kathleen Tallarita, D-Enfield, who is a former chairwoman of the Internship Committee, said she could not remember an informal or formal policy that prevented Hewett from being assigned a female intern.
She added, "if they (male legislators) don't do well with females, the committee decides they're not going to have female interns."
A male legislator might have been "old-fashioned" or thought women were "lesser" than men," she said.
There wasn't a policy but as a committee member, "if you had a feeling, you let it be known," she said.
The committee was "not going to look for trouble, look to hurt some poor kid," she said.
The current director of the intern program, Steve Marcelynas, declined to comment.
On Friday, Sharkey said that he did not know of any formal or informal complaints against Hewett and that he did not think an investigation was warranted.
Neither Sharkey nor Hewett returned calls seeking comment Tuesday.