State Watch

Harassment, then helplessness, in state capitals

After being groped in public by a powerful committee chairman, one young state legislator in an eastern state, serving her first term in office, decided to take the political risk of reporting the assault.

She learned she would need to report the incident to the ethics committee overseeing her state's legislature.

Then she learned the chairman of the ethics committee was the man who assaulted her.

For women in state legislatures across the country who routinely experience what they call a pervasive culture of sexual harassment, assault and retaliation, there is often little or no recourse.

Those who have experienced inappropriate behavior say they have found themselves with nowhere to turn, a realization that compounds the harm they experience.

Many say they keep quiet because they want to maintain professional relationships in politics or because they want to be included in the clubby atmosphere of a small and close-knit state capital.

"While I want to be in the club, if I need to start my own club, then that's what I'm going to do," said Emily Miller, a public affairs consultant in Illinois who dealt with day-to-day harassment in Springfield as part of her job.

"I don't want to be in this club anymore. It's a shitty club," she said. "We need a new club. It's a club that's not working for an entire gender."

Miller recalled having to slip away from a colleague who tried to follow her back to her hotel room.

After the man was fired from his job for harassing another young woman, Miller called his boss to share her story. She got a quick view of how difficult it can be for women, whether they are lobbyists, aides or state lawmakers themselves, to get justice.

"I feel like I could have prevented this, but I didn't think you would believe me," Miller told the man's boss.

"You're right," she said the boss told her. "We wouldn't have."

In Kansas, Abbie Hodgson endured years of inappropriate contact by legislators, one of whom explicitly asked for sex, when she served as chief of staff for the state House Democratic Caucus. She was even more alarmed when she learned some legislators, who had reputations for harassing young women, were using underage female interns as designated drivers after hours.

She raised both issues with her boss, state Rep. Tom Burroughs, the former state House Democratic leader, as well as with other members of legislative leadership. Other legislative leaders told her she had overstepped her authority. So she quit.

Burroughs refuted Hodgson's claims, saying that once she raised the issue of interns being used as designated drivers, he and House Democratic leaders put a stop to the practice.

"Allegations were brought to our attention over the years, yes," Burroughs said in an interview. "Although there's no formal procedures when allegations of that type come forward, these are issues I take very seriously."

Many women working in state capitals say they keep quiet because their only other option is to take the risk of speaking out, exposing themselves to criticism and threatening the political careers they have worked their entire lives to build.

"Any time you have an environment where there's people in a position of power and others who are very enthusiastic about being involved in the industry, whether it's Hollywood or Sacramento, you have a system that's ripe for exploitation," said Laura Friedman, a California assemblywoman.

In some states, women legislators have worked with leaders to begin a conversation they hope will change the culture.

Members of the Women Legislators of Maryland formed a special committee that has worked with House Speaker Michael Busch (D) and Senate President Mike Miller (D) to formulate new policies for dealing with sexual harassment. One new measure allows witnesses to report inappropriate behavior to the proper committee. Another includes protections for lobbyists who might be targets of unwanted advances.

"As legislators, we're leaders. And showing strength is really important. Showing vulnerability is not always rewarded. It's important to me when we do talk about these things that we talk about finding solutions. I don't want the focus to be on me as the victim or colleagues as victims," said state Rep. Ariana Kelly (D), who spearheaded the new effort to modernize the policies.

New York's legislature adopted its rules covering harassment in 1984. Last year, the legislature adopted new rules that require those in supervisory positions - including legislators themselves - to report harassment allegations to the proper authorities.

"The culture of harassment is not as prevalent in Albany as it was years ago. It's been shut down, and I think that the current leadership is doing a great job ensuring that it doesn't boil up again," said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D).

And in California, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) created a special subcommittee, chaired by Friedman, to craft new ways to prevent harassment, discrimination and retaliation. Last week, 140 women who work in and around the California legislature signed a letter calling out the culture of harassment in Sacramento.

In a statement after the letter was released, Rendon said the Assembly will work with employees to change that culture.

"Our commitment to preventing harassment is profound," Rendon said. "We will take all complaints brought to us seriously, and we will ensure there is no retaliation of any kind."

But in many other states, the pace of change is slow, or stagnant.

Most state legislatures have formal, written policies or guidance for legislative employees barring sexual harassment. But in many states, those policies don't cover everyone who interacts with the legislature, including lobbyists and advocates. Some state policies do not apply to legislators themselves.

"People are afraid to come forward, and that can't be the case," Friedman said.

Have you witnessed harassment in your state capital? Tell us your story here.

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