Zepnick on WTMJ

Josh Zepnick appearing on Milwaukee TV station WTMJ Wednesday.

Screenshot: WTMJ interview

State Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, said Wednesday of allegations that he kissed two women without their consent: "It happened and I regret it, and it wasn't intended to cause anybody any harm." 

Zepnick had responded to the allegations, first reported on Friday by the Cap Times, only through written statements. He was interviewed Wednesday by WTMJ-TV's Charles Benson

The lawmaker, first elected in 2002, was removed from his Assembly committee assignments by Democratic leaders after two women — one a former Democratic Party of Wisconsin staffer and one a former legislative aide — accused him of drunkenly kissing them without their consent at political events in 2011 and 2015. Both women requested anonymity, citing concerns with their careers. Their allegations were corroborated by friends and co-workers who said they were told about the incidents at the times they occurred.

In a statement issued last Friday, Zepnick said he had no recollection of the incidents, but added that as a recovering alcoholic, he has apologized for mistakes made during years of "irresponsible drinking." He said his life is "back on track" with two years of sobriety.

In the Wednesday interview, Zepnick said he does not recall the 2011 incident, but said he believes both women's stories. Both incidents occurred while he was actively drinking, but he said he is not placing the blame on his alcoholism. 

He said he has "no reason to believe" any more women will come forward with complaints. 

"I would have never done that if I had exercised better judgment and not been drinking. I would never intend to harm her or cause her any distress or hardship, and that I would want to be able to apologize to her in person," Zepnick said when asked what he would say to the former DPW staffer.

The former legislative aide said Zepnick grabbed her shoulders and kissed her at a 2011 election party for a Democratic Senate recall candidate. She said she does not remember whether his lips landed on her mouth or her cheek, but one of her former co-workers said she went out of her way to avoid Zepnick after the incident occurred.

The former DPW staffer said she and Zepnick had been talking for about an hour after a heated argument took place between Zepnick and former Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, at the state party convention in 2015. 

"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."

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She said it felt like Zepnick ended up licking her face as a result of her turning her head to dodge the kiss. Zepnick has said, in a written statement, "I did not put my tongue on any individual." 

Neither woman pursued complaints against Zepnick; both said they hoped to move on from the incident and put it behind them. Both said they had experienced their share of inappropriate behavior as women working in politics, but these particular incidents stayed with them in the years that followed.

They both decided to come forward now because of a recent culture shift that has encouraged women to make these stories public, and because of a desire to hold people accountable for their behavior.

Several lawmakers, including Assembly Democratic leaders, have called for Zepnick to resign. Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning and Zepnick's two accusers have made the same request. 

Zepnick said those calls, along with his removal from Assembly committees, are unfair. He has said voters should be allowed to decide whether to keep him in office if he runs for re-election in 2018.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.