Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, has said he will not step down despite requests from Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairwoman Martha Laning and Democratic leaders in the state Assembly to resign immediately in light of allegations that he kissed two women without their consent at political events in 2011 and 2015.
Zepnick said he had never been confronted with any such allegation until he was contacted by a Cap Times reporter Friday morning. In a follow-up statement released late Friday night, he apologized to the women and said he would not resign.
"As Democrats we lead with our values. Sexual harassment will not be tolerated under any circumstance in our party," Laning said in a statement. "We are disturbed by the incidents that came to light this afternoon involving Rep. Josh Zepnick's behavior at two statewide events in 2011 and 2015, directed at an employee of our Democratic Party of Wisconsin and a legislative staff member. In light of these serious and corroborated charges against Rep. Zepnick, and high standards to which we hold our public officials, we ask that Rep. Zepnick immediately step down."
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, tweeted a statement attributed to Assembly Democratic leaders, saying they took the allegations seriously.
"Those who are willing to speak out about instances where they have been made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe will always have our full support," the statement read. "While we acknowledge Josh has taken steps to deal with his abuse of alcohol his past actions should not be minimized. Accordingly, it is our hope that Representative Zepnick will take the appropriate action and resign."
Two of Zepnick's Democratic colleagues in the state Assembly had also called, individually, for Zepnick's resignation on Friday following the Cap Times report.
Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, said lawmakers are "expected to exemplify leadership through example" and that Zepnick should step down.
Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said he was "disgusted" by the allegations.
"Legislative staffers often work long hours for little pay and are asked to attend events outside of normal work hours on behalf of their political party. These staffers should be safe and comfortable with the knowledge that they will not be harassed or assaulted," Wachs said in a statement.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, also tweeted: "Considering the credibility of the allegations, and the lack of a denial by Zepnick re the validity of the claims, I agree with Reps Wachs and Anderson. We must lead by example."
Two women accused Zepnick of kissing them without their consent, one at an election party in 2011 and one at the DPW state convention in 2015. Neither one filed a complaint at the time, but both allegations were corroborated by friends and co-workers who said they were told about the incidents at the times they occurred.
In response to questions about these alleged incidents, Zepnick wrote in an email Friday afternoon: "No legislative staffer ever confronted me with any such allegation nor did their employer; nor anyone from Legislative Leadership or the Assembly Chief Clerk office. No one from the Democratic party staff has ever said anything to me, and since that time, I have had many interactions with political staff which have been professional, positive, and without any suggestion of this type of activity."
He did not respond for several hours to a text message asking to clarify whether he denies the claims.
Late Friday night, he issued a follow-up statement, noting that, as a recovering alcoholic, he has apologized for "many mistakes" made during his "years of irresponsible drinking."
"While I have no recollection of these alleged incidents, there is never an excuse for inappropriate behavior," Zepnick said. "I take the claims seriously and respect the feelings of the women involved. I apologize to both women for my actions and for any distress that I may have caused. My life is back on track and I've been sober for over 2 years. I will not be resigning and I will continue to work hard on behalf of my constituents."