As Outcry Over Sexual Harassment Grows, Focus Shifts to State Legislatures

Women in state capitols are saying #MeToo.
by | October 18, 2017
California Assemblywoman Laura Friedman is one of six legislators in the state who signed a letter shining a light on sexual harassment in the Capitol. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Hundreds of thousands of women in recent days have turned to social media – many using the hashtag #MeToo – to indicate that they have been sexually assaulted or harassed in the past. The movement, which has exploded in the wake of allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, has brought attention to sexual harassment on college campuses, in Hollywood and in corporate America.

And many of the women who are speaking out have pointed to their time in and around state capitols.

In California, more than 140 women in politics on Tuesday launched a campaign called “We Said Enough,” with the promise that they would no longer tolerate the widespread harassment in the political establishment.

“Each of us has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces. Men have groped and touched us without our consent, made inappropriate comments about our bodies and our abilities. Insults and sexual innuendo, frequently disguised as jokes, have undermined our professional positions and capabilities,” the women wrote. “Men have made promises, or threats, about our jobs in exchange for our compliance, or our silence. They have leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like.”

Lawmakers in other states have spoken out as well. In Rhode Island, for example, a handful of political leaders added their own messages, as reported in the Providence Journal. “I can say that as an elected official, as a state representative I have experienced this first-hand,” state Rep. Teresa Tanzi told the newspaper. “I have been told sexual favors would allow my bills to go further.”

Such descriptions could apply to many other statehouses as well. So far this year, sexual harassment scandals have roiled state capitols in Iowa, Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Those incidents resulted in secret settlements, a seven-figure jury award and the departure of at least four state lawmakers, on top of the personal consequences for the victims.

Sexual harassment scandals have toppled many powerful lawmakers in recent years. Two years ago, the Missouri House speaker lost his job after he was caught texting lewd messages to a 19-year-old intern. Three years ago, the House majority leader in Wisconsin went to jail for a groping incident. Four years ago, one of the most prominent members of the New York State Assembly stepped down before an expulsion vote, after an ethics commission found he harassed at least eight staffers.

“If you can run a state, you should know the boundaries of personal relationships," says Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers political science professor and a scholar at its Center for American Women and Politics. "You should know what harassment is, and what is appropriate and inappropriate.”

‘Welcome to Capitol Hill’

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery’s office interviewed dozens of women last year as it investigated sexual harassment complaints against then-Rep. Jeremy Durham. Slattery’s report not only implicated Durham, but it also cast a pall over the entire legislative culture in Nashville.

“As legislative clerk Jane Doe #12 explained, when she told Rep. Durham that his requests for drinks with her in 2013 were inappropriate because he was married and she was engaged, she said his response was, ‘Welcome to Capitol Hill,’” the report stated. The attorney general’s office concluded that Durham had “inappropriate contact” with 22 women. The dossier included allegations that Durham sent inappropriate text messages, groped lobbyists and had sex with a 20-year-old intern. In a rare move, the Tennessee House expelled Durham last September, by a 70-2 vote.

Even after that rebuke and a new policy that required lawmakers to watch a 15-minute movie on sexual harassment, the House soon had a second sexual harassment case on its hands. The leadership was investigating Rep. Mark Lovell, a freshman Republican, until he resigned his seat in February. His departure ended the House’s investigation before more details became public.

Even within the male-dominated political world, state legislatures can be especially treacherous places for sexual harassment to thrive. A makeshift community of lawmakers, lobbyists, staff members, interns and pages convene for long hours – often far from home. Socializing, often with the addition of alcohol, is often par for the legislative course. And there are huge power disparities that make it difficult to police or punish sexual harassment.

And it’s not just legislators who harass women. It’s lobbyists and staffers, too.

“In this [California] legislature, [sexual harassment] is more prevalent among the lobbyists than it is among the members. The lobbyists have nothing to lose. They’re not in the public eye. The members, even though they’re not at home, they still have potential to be outed and named as harassers,” says Susan McKee, who served as a district director for Darrell Steinberg for 17 years, including when he was president of the California Senate.

In a 2015 piece called “The Wolves of Jeff City,” The Kansas City Star described the atmosphere at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City:

The Capitol poses a ceaseless onslaught of unnerving and sometimes treacherous situations.

One woman recalls being asked the color of her underwear while lobbying a lawmaker on a bill. Another talks of late-night texts from her boss asking if she would like to come to his apartment for a drink. A former intern says that when she finally got her boss to stop sending flirty text messages, he began treating her coldly and left her out of important projects.

Accounts of unending come-ons, of retaliation for sexual rejection, of false accusations that they must be sleeping with the boss, are legion.

Some women who spoke with The Star were ready to share their stories publicly. Most were not, fearing it would only damage their careers or leave them ostracized in the Capitol.

With friends and family many miles away, fundraisers and lobbyist-funded parties fill the evenings – offering no shortage of free alcohol to fuel the atmosphere.

“The culture of Jefferson City is very anything goes,” said former state Sen. John Lamping, a St. Louis County Republican who left office in 2014. “We’re in town three days a week, and we don’t work particularly late very often. So the mentality is, ‘Wow, this is so much fun. We’re doing crazier stuff than we did in college. But now we have power, prestige and money.’”

One of the big problems with changing the boys-club atmosphere in state capitols is that the culture is so ingrained, it’s hard for anyone to change it, even if the number of women in the legislature increases, reported the Texas Observer in 2013:

Even the most powerful women in the Legislature experience it. When I started interviewing women lawmakers, they all – Republican and Democrat, House and Senate, rural and urban – said that being a woman in the statehouse is more difficult than being a man. Some told of senators ogling women on the Senate floor or watching porn on iPads and on state-owned computers, of legislators hitting on female staffers or using them to help them meet women, and of hundreds of little comments in public and private that women had to brush off to go about their day. Some said they often felt marginalized and not listened to – that the sexism in the Legislature made their jobs harder and, at times, produced public policy hostile to women.

Yet, despite their strong feelings, women in the Capitol rarely talk about, except in the most private discussions, the misogyny they see all the time. It’s just the way the Legislature has always been.

For years, researchers and advocates thought that simply increasing the number of women in politics would reduce the amount of harassment and violence they encountered. But that hasn’t turned out to be the case, even in places where the numbers of women in high government office have been on the rise, says Mona Lena Krook a Rutgers political science professor. “The resistance to women’s participation has just taken new forms," she says. "There’s been a pushback against women’s inclusion.”

But Krook says there’s a growing move globally, including in the United States, to curb sexual harassment in politics. Raising awareness through efforts like the “me too” or “We Said Enough” campaigns is an important step to change the culture, but institutions like legislatures also need to come up with clear processes for handling sexual harassment, she says.

Increasing safeguards

At least 37 of the country’s 99 state legislative chambers had a written policy on sexual harassment in 2016, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But those policies vary widely in their substance and effectiveness.

Kentucky mandated three hours of sexual harassment training for its legislators in 2014, a year after the state paid $400,000 to settle sexual harassment lawsuits against three lawmakers, one of whom resigned.

But state Sen. John Schickel says the sexual harassment training is mostly a waste of time, and he introduced a bill earlier this year to cut back the mandated instruction from three hours a year to 30 minutes. (It didn't pass.) He criticized the training for including advice to not slam doors or raise your voice. The training, he says, amounted to a “political correctness seminar.”

“They run out of things to talk about. It’s not humorous, it’s sad. Legislators are in there on their laptops doing other work, because they hear it every year,” he says. “If you have to train a legislator how to behave when they come to the state capitol, that in itself to me is sad. A legislator elected by the people in their district shouldn’t have to be trained how to behave by the government.”

But Merrick Rossein, an employment law professor at the City University of New York School of Law, says sexual harassment policies must be constructed well for them to work. Rossein helped the New York Assembly draft its policies after a sexual harassment scandal led to the resignation of Assemblyman Vito Lopez in 2013.

In drafting New York’s policies, Rossein says he followed several key principles:

  • Lawmakers can’t investigate sexual harassment claims themselves. They don’t have the experience to do the investigations professionally. Plus, their positions of power could influence their decision-making process. Rossein argues that legislators should hire independent investigators with expertise in employment law to handle the claims. In the New York Assembly, the investigator reports to a legislative committee.
  • Lawmakers must guarantee confidentiality for accusers. That also means lawmakers who are accused of harassment shouldn’t be able to talk to their accusers until a designated time in the process.
  • The legislative ethics committee has to make sure employers don’t retaliate against employees making the accusation. The punishment for retaliation must be severe.
  • Every lawmaker and employee who is a manager should serve as a mandatory reporter of sexual harassment. If they see or learn of sexual harassment, they are required to inform the ethics committee about it.
  • Training should be interactive and done in small groups.
  • Hearings should have clear due process protections.

“What they have to understand is that sexual harassment really is abuse of power," Rossein says. "You have powerful people, so you have to know it’s likely to happen. So, knowing it’s likely to happen, what would a prudent, reasonable person or institution do to prevent it or to stop it when it occurs?"

Putting strong, new policies in place can send a message, he says. "It’s a process of changing the culture and saying: Yes, this is serious.”

This story has been updated.