Capitol (copy) (copy) (copy)

The Oregon State Capitol in Salem. 

Mark Ylen

The news shouldn't have been a surprise, especially as it has become clear over the last few weeks just how pervasive sexual harassment is in American culture.

But somehow it was still startling, the news that harassment apparently extends into the halls of the Oregon Legislature, and even to the floors of our legislative chambers.

And it took an extraordinary event in Oregon politics to focus attention on harassment in the state Capitol.

"Let me very clear," says a letter Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney sent last week to Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Republican. "Women in the Capitol do NOT want you to touch them."

Courtney, a Democrat, told Kruse in the letter that he  previously had been instructed by officials in the Legislature not to touch women. But Courtney, pointing to two new alleged incidents, took the highly unusual step of removing Kruse from the committees he sits on, stripping the lawmaker of much of his power.

Courtney's letter apparently was prompted by complaints from Democratic Sen. Sara Gelser of Corvallis that another senator was making unwanted physical contact with her; on Monday, Gelser identified that senator as Kruse. She said she had filed complaints with the Legislature's human resource officials and attorneys.

For his part, Kruse has denied any inappropriate conduct and has said he's being deprived of due process.

But it's not just the Oregon Legislature that suddenly is grappling with sexual harassment issues in the wake of the stunning downfall of movie executive Harvey Weinstein. 

For example: In Illinois, an open letter is making the rounds noting harassment and intimidation for women trying to negotiate legislation and work on campaigns. In California, the Senate hired a law firm to investigate what women called a culture of sexual intimidation. Female lawmakers in Rhode Island have spoken up to report incidents in which they were told that sexual favors might help advance legislation.

Sex scandals, of course, are as old as politics. But just as it feels as if the national discussion about sexual harassment has turned a new page in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, something feels different about the discussions that we're having today on how harassment rears its head in the halls of political power. (And everyone knows it's only a matter of time before this particular spotlight gets turned on the U.S. Capitol.)

"I did not know it was as serious or as a big a problem as it was since I saw the letter," said California state Sen. Connie Leyva, referring to a letter making the rounds in that state alleging sexual harassment and intimidation in the statehouse. "Enough is enough. I can't believe it's 2017 and this is still happening."

But it is 2017. And it's still happening.

Part of the reason why it's been happening for many years in the corridors and backrooms of political power is that these venues frequently include many of the risk factors for sexual harassment that have been identified by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Lack of diversity? Check. (Women make up just 1 in 4 state lawmakers, according to data collected by the Center for Women in Politics at Rutgers University. In Oregon, the numbers are a little better: Women make up a third of the state's 90 legislators.)

Let's get back to that checklist of risk factors: Power disparities, especially between legislators and staffers? Check. Tolerating or encouraging alcohol consumption? Check. Many young staffers? Check.

"Every industry has its own version of the casting couch," reads the letter making the rounds of the Illinois Legislature. And that includes our political process as well.

"It is long past time for these issues to be openly discussed and directly addressed," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement Tuesday. We're having the discussion now, and that's good. But, as Brown's statement suggested, that's just half the battle. (mm)

1
0
0
1
1

Load comments