State Watch

In state capitols, women see rampant sexual harassment

Two weeks after Cristina Garcia won a seat in the California Assembly, a high-powered lobbyist in Sacramento grabbed her rear end.

An older male state senator witnessed the event, which took place in 2012. But he told Garcia, then 33 years old, to keep quiet.

“The senator told me not to say anything because the lobbyist was powerful,” Garcia told The Hill in an interview.

Garcia’s experience is far from unique.

{mosads}More than a dozen female state legislators, staffers and lobbyists in states across the country interviewed by The Hill say they routinely face unwanted advances from their male colleagues, ranging from inappropriate comments about one’s appearance and invitations to private meetings to physical contact and, in extreme instances, assault and rape.

Many of the women used one word to describe the culture of harassment in their state capitols: pervasive.

And even though about half of the country’s state legislatures either have training programs or laws and policies meant to prevent, report and punish sexual harassment, many women say they feel like their complaints are never addressed or they are pressured to keep quiet in a male-dominated environment where retribution and retaliation are common.

“The thing here is the power dynamics. If an elected official does something to me, there is no way it’s going to be beneficial to speak out,” said Kady McFadden, who runs Sierra Club Illinois’s political program.

“I’ve had hands up my skirt. I’ve had my hair pulled,” McFadden said. “There’s just kind of nothing you can really do.”

McFadden said recent reports about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long pattern of harassment and assault, and the subsequent #MeToo campaign of women on social media sharing their own experiences, brought up inescapable comparisons.

“It was hard for me to not be constantly thinking about comparisons to Springfield and the world of politics,” she said. “It’s probably hard to find a woman in Springfield who doesn’t have a story about what’s happened to them.”

The epidemic of sexual assault and harassment is not limited to one party or to one state. Both Republicans and Democrats in states across the country told The Hill they had experienced harassment and retaliation when unwanted advances were spurned.

In South Dakota, state Rep. Matthew Wollman (R) resigned his seat in January after admitting to sexual relationships with two interns. A former state senator accused one of her colleagues of inappropriate comments about her breasts. A lobbyist this week said she had been raped by a man who works in the capitol after an after-hours event. 

In Missouri, House Speaker John Diehl (R) and state Sen. Paul LeVota (D) both resigned their seats in 2015 after allegedly harassing interns. Ohio state Sen. Cliff Hite (R) resigned his seat this week after admitting to inappropriate conversations and contact with a state worker.

The state of Iowa reached a $1.75 million settlement with a former staffer for the Senate Republican caucus who alleged she was fired after highlighting what she called a rampant culture of sexual harassment.

In California, among the most liberal legislatures in the country, Garcia was among 140 women — including six sitting state legislators — who signed a letter this week calling out a culture of harassment, a letter initiated by a top Visa lobbyist who was the victim of harassment earlier this year.

“As women leaders in politics, in a state that postures itself as a leader in justice and equality, you might assume our experience has been different. It has not. 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,” the women in California wrote. “We’re done with this.”

Women in states around the country described boy’s club atmospheres, in which casually made inappropriate comments are dismissed as jokes and where even more serious misbehavior goes ignored.

“What has been really shocking to me is the culture that’s been created at the state capitol. It’s incredibly mysogynistic,” said Isela Blanc, a freshman Democratic state representative in Arizona. “I imagine it’s everywhere.”

That is, in part, because politics is still a male-dominated industry. Of the 7,383 state legislative seats across the country, only 1,840 — or 24.9 percent — are held by women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In the 99 state legislative chambers across the nation, just 17 are led by women.

Many women in politics are hesitant to share their stories publicly, for fear of reprisal.

One Democratic legislator from an eastern state said she did not want to tell her story publicly because she feared it would impact her chances of winning reelection.

One Republican legislator, who asked not to be named, said two male colleagues had harassed her repeatedly after she won election in 2012.

A state senator made repeated advances, even claiming credit when one of her bills passed the state Senate to try to persuade her to engage in a relationship. At an out-of-state conference, he showed up at her hotel room, uninvited, with a six-pack of beer.

Another legislator blocked her bills from advancing after she refused his advances.

The legislator said she raised both issues with House leadership. But she was told nothing could be done, because the state House did not have a written policy on sexual harassment.

“There’s nothing you can do. It’s not a boss environment like the private sector. There’s no HR, there’s nowhere to go. They don’t have a boss, nobody has a boss. It’s an impossible system to work through. It became debilitating, and I had really no recourse,” the legislator said.

“The only thing I could do was completely adjust my behavior. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I had to overcompensate for the fact that nobody would do anything about it,” the legislator said. “What you end up doing is changing you, to accommodate the inappropriate behavior. And you all of the sudden realize, why am I doing that?”

The habit of changing one’s behavior to avoid harassment is as common as the harassment itself. Garcia, the California assemblywoman now serving her third term in office, said she makes sure to have a buddy, a fellow woman legislator, at any post-work event she attends.

Post-work events can be cauldrons of harassment. Many women interviewed cited a rampant culture of drinking that takes place after hours in state capitols across the country, often at lobbyist-sponsored events where informal networking takes place.

“You go to an event and what happens happens frequently,” said Susan Eggman, a California assemblywoman who signed the letter. “There’s alcohol involved.”

“The powerful people like to blame it on the drinking culture,” the eastern Democratic lawmaker said.

There are few vehicles for addressing sexual harassment in state capitols. Only 25 state legislatures have some form of sexual harassment laws and policies on the books, according to a tally maintained by the National Conference of State Legislators.

Garcia, for one, has raised concerns about the atmosphere of harassment with California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D), who in June established a new subcommittee on harassment, discrimination and retaliation prevention. In a statement, Rendon said he would take all complaints seriously and ensure no retaliation took place.

“We need to make sure we have a process that people trust and encourages people to come forward, and by extent discourages that behavior,” said Laura Friedman, the California assemblywoman who heads the new subcommittee who also signed the letter.

“We shouldn’t be satisfied with where we’re at,” Garcia said. “We’re not going to be satisfied until there are no more victims.

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

Tags Sexual harassment State capitols state government
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