The two women who have accused Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, of sexual misconduct are joining Democratic leaders in calling on him to step down.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning and Democratic leaders in the state Assembly urged Zepnick to resign immediately in light of allegations published Friday by the Cap Times that he kissed two women without their consent at political events in 2011 and 2015. Assembly Republican leaders stopped short of calling for his resignation, but called Zepnick's behavior "reprehensible" and "unacceptable," and said he must decide what is best for his constituents and the Legislature.
Zepnick initially responded to the allegations by saying he had never been confronted about any such behavior until asked Friday morning by the Cap Times. He did not respond for several hours to a text message asking to clarify whether he denies the claims, then issued a statement late Friday night apologizing for his behavior.
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, adding that he will not resign.
A spokeswoman for Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said Democratic leaders are evaluating "all options" to respond if Zepnick does not step down.
Both women who shared their stories with the Cap Times requested anonymity, citing concerns with their current careers. One, a former legislative aide, no longer works in Wisconsin politics. The second, a former Democratic Party of Wisconsin staffer, still does.
The former DPW staffer said she was not surprised by Zepnick's refusal to resign.
"I question the self-reflection he did while crafting two public statements over the course of several hours trying to salvage his political career," she said. "Rep. Zepnick grossly violated me when he put his tongue and lips on my mouth and face without my consent. Since the 2015 convention, I've had numerous interactions with him where he would request that I smile more in his presence and I would shudder in response, remembering how his tongue was in the corner of my mouth and how powerless he made me feel."
She said she has spent years "dreading, avoiding and fearing any and all interactions with him."
"The women of the Legislature deserve a safe workplace where they are free of his leering and predatory behavior," the former DPW staffer said. "His constituents deserve to be represented by someone who doesn't physically violate women."
The former legislative aide described a similar response, and one former co-worker said he remembered she avoided Zepnick after the 2011 incident.
On Monday, she also called for his resignation.
"Two women is two too many and being drunk is not an excuse. I’ve had to relive my nightmarish experience on perpetual replay for the last six years while he hasn’t once given his actions a second thought until now. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen to anyone else is for Rep. Zepnick to take responsibility and resign," the former legislative aide said in an email.
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.