State lawmakers plan action on harassment

State lawmakers plan action on harassment

CORONADO, Calif. — State legislative leaders are planning aggressive new training and reporting policies to combat cultures of pervasive sexual harassment in state capitals across the country, amid a growing tide of allegations lodged against elected officials. 

In interviews with legislative leaders here, at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, several said they had already taken steps to take advantage of the current moment of cultural awareness. But some leaders said they would need to begin by assessing and defining just what constitutes inappropriate behavior in the modern world.

“I think clarity is needed on what exactly is assault, what’s harassment,” said Joyce Peppin, the Republican majority leader in Minnesota’s House of Representatives. “We’re not living in the same reality we were 20, 25 years ago.”

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In recent months, women in more than a dozen states have publicly accused legislators of sexual harassment. At least six state legislators have resigned following sexual harassment allegations, including two in Minnesota: Last month, state Sen. Dan Schoen (D) and state Rep. Tony Cornish (R) tendered their resignations after being accused of harassing women. 

More than a dozen other legislators have been accused of improper behavior, and a handful have been stripped of their leadership positions or committee chairmanships. 

In Congress, Minnesota Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken offers Dems a line of questioning for Kavanaugh's 'weirdly specific bit of bulls---' The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — GOP lawmakers race to find an immigration fix Richard Painter puts out 'dumpster fire' in first campaign ad MORE (D) said he would resign, and former Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersPortland activist stages ‘reparations happy hour’ Conyers III won't appear on primary ballot in race to replace his father Conyers's son in danger of missing ballot in Michigan MORE Jr. (D-Mich.) stepped down after multiple women accused him of misconduct. Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdEx-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups Republican wins right to replace Farenthold in Congress Supreme Court rules for Texas in redistricting case MORE (R-Texas) and Rep. Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonLatina Leaders to Watch 2018 Unending Pruitt controversies leave Republicans frustrated Hillicon Valley: Judge rules Trump can't block Twitter users | ISIS content finds a home on Google Plus | Rubio rips ZTE demands as 'terrible deal' | Bill would protect kids' data MORE (R-Texas) both said they would not seek reelection after similar reports.

“With social media, the ‘Me Too’ movement is bigger now that it ever has been,” said Deb Peters, a Republican state senator from South Dakota and the president of the National Conference of State Legislators. “It’s going to be interesting to see if policies actually change or if awareness is enough to make it work.” 

Legislators said they were taking new steps to combat harassment, including mandatory training for legislators, staff, lobbyists and even members of the media; and new reporting avenues that allow a victim to speak to an independent overseer. Some states are considering whether to make harassment investigations and settlements public.

“We’re changing our rules to make sure that every single legislator and every staff member, every session, has mandatory ethics and harassment training, because I want to make sure that especially women feel like politics is a place where they have a chance to make a big impact,” said Robin Vos, the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly.

Legislative staff in Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee will soon be required to undergo mandatory anti-sexual harassment training. The Illinois legislature passed a law requiring training after a state senator was forced out of his leadership post amid harassment allegations. The California legislature has begun interviewing outside law firms to conduct investigations into alleged harassment. 

In Idaho, victims of harassment will be able to report inappropriate behavior to an outside body, independent of the legislature, said Brent Hill, the Republican president of the state Senate. Victims will have the opportunity to report abuse to a person of the same gender. Hill also said his chamber would clarify what, exactly, constitutes harassment.

“Many things in harassment are intuitive, but not everything is. And so we’ve got to see what is legal, what is illegal,” Hill said. “We don’t want to get so sterile that we can’t have interpersonal relationships as friend to friend or as colleague to colleague in the legislature.”

It is likely that more legislators will be publicly accused of improper behavior, the leaders said. And behind the scenes, some members with well-known reputations for making overt and unwanted advances are already being pushed toward the door.

“Some of our members who have a history of this are being pressured to resign,” said Roger Goodman, a Democratic state representative in Washington state. “Some of our members have had to adjust. And I think it’s refreshing. It’s been buried too much in the conversation.”