Legislators of #MeToo
Faith Winter, Toi Hutchinson, Karen Engleman
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As the #MeToo movement has caught fire over the past year, it has done more than force high-profile resignations in entertainment, media and national politics. It has fostered an ongoing national conversation about men, women and power.
It’s also begun a quiet revolution in state governments, beginning with an open letter in California signed by more than 140 lawmakers and other statehouse employees exposing a culture of sexual harassment in Sacramento. Nationwide since 2017, at least 30 state lawmakers have resigned or been kicked out of office over harassment allegations; another 26 have lost committee chairs or other leadership positions. By this summer, about half the state legislative chambers across the country had implemented new harassment policies.
It would be impossible to enumerate every person in state government who has helped shepherd these reforms over the past year. It’s a long and growing list of lawmakers that includes Assemblywoman Laura Friedman and state Sen. Holly Mitchell in California, state Rep. Teresa Tanzi in Rhode Island, and state Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas in Vermont. And it’s a list that includes more than a few men -- lawmakers such as Alabama state Sen. Bill Hightower and Delaware state Sen. David McBride.
But a trio of legislators -- Democratic state Rep. Faith Winter in Colorado, Democratic state Sen. Toi Hutchinson in Illinois and Republican state Rep. Karen Engleman in Indiana -- stand out among the vanguard of lawmakers in confronting the culture of harassment in state capitols. Together, they demonstrate the breadth of experiences that have shaped states’ responses over the past year, showing what’s possible when elected leaders start speaking out.
In Illinois, Sen. Hutchinson was a vital voice on the issue even before she and 300 others penned an open letter modeled on California’s. In the past, she has championed legislation on sexual assault and paid family leave, and in 2010 she successfully pushed to make Illinois the first state in the nation to mandate that police begin working through their backlog of untested rape kits. Starting last fall, she led hearings on harassment legislation and backed two different bills that were signed into law. One officially made sexual harassment an ethics violation and mandated training for lawmakers and lobbyists; the other extended the statute of limitations on existing complaints. In August, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a measure by Hutchinson requiring companies that do business with the state to have a sexual harassment policy.
Next door in Indiana, Rep. Engleman has also been intently focused on the issue. Since she arrived in the House after the 2016 election, Engleman says she’s “never witnessed anyone being unprofessional.” But her 12 years of prior experience as a county auditor had taught her the need for a comprehensive harassment policy. She’d already been drafting a bill requiring better training for incoming legislators; working with a colleague across the aisle, Engleman proactively decided to add sexual harassment training as well -- half a year before #MeToo. Her training bill was signed into law this March. “The reason you need a policy is because what one person finds offensive, another person might find to be quite all right,” she says. “It’s important to spell out the rules.”
For Rep. Winter in Colorado, the policy was personal. Even before she began serving in state office in 2007, she knew about “the list.” As a community organizer and nonprofit lobbyist working in the Capitol, she says, “people had always told me about the list -- the lawmakers that you shouldn’t be alone with.” After a fellow legislator made lewd comments to her at an event in May 2016, Winter decided enough was enough. She filed a private complaint with legislative leadership and they reached an informal resolution. Months later, she became aware of at least eight other women who had been harassed by the same lawmaker. “I felt so guilty that other people had been harassed and I hadn’t said anything,” she says. Winter filed a public complaint and ultimately led a group of five women in an effort to have the offending lawmaker expelled. This March, on an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 52-9, the House voted to remove him. Winter has also been working with a task force to set up an independent reporting commission for sexual harassment complaints and to create a victims’ advocate position in the Capitol.
The efforts of these women are a crucial step forward, but they’re only a start. Much remains to be done to shift the conversation about harassment in state capitols. “We are working on changing the culture,” says Winter, “and changing the culture is slow work.”
Hutchinson knows there’s a long, tough road ahead. Harassment, she says, “is a deep-seated cultural thing that there’s no way we’re going to be able to legislate away.” But at least now, she says, “we’re all starting to talk to each other in ways we didn’t before.”