New York Times - 10.17.2017
Women Denounce Harassment in California’s Capital [article]
By Adam Nagourney and Jennifer Medina
Oct. 17, 2017
LOS ANGELES — The groundswell over sexual harassment that has rocked Hollywood moved into California’s capital on Tuesday as more than 140 women — including legislators, senior legislative aides and lobbyists — came forward to denounce what they describe as pervasive sexual misconduct by powerful men in the nation’s most influential legislature.
Women complained of groping, lewd comments and suggestions of trading sexual favors for legislation while doing business in Sacramento. Their grievances, contained in a public letter and detailed in a series of interviews, mark the latest fallout from the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal.
The women who drafted the letter say they were flooded with anguished responses from women who reported enduring, or witnessing, sexual harassment from male legislators, aides and lobbyists, after they began circulating their statement in recent days.
The letter comes as the scandal involving Mr. Weinstein had set off a wave of investigations, recriminations and accusations across the nation, including in state capitals in Rhode Island and South Dakota. Women from all walks of life — from actresses to corporate leaders — have used social media to report instances of abuse, often marked #metoo.
“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,” the letter said. “It has not. Each of us has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men in power in our workplaces.”
“Men have groped and touched us without our consent, made inappropriate comments about our bodies and our abilities,” the letter said, adding: “Why didn’t we speak out? Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes out of shame. Often these men hold our professional fates in their hands.”
The California legislature has set the national agenda on a variety of issues, including the environment, immigration and taxes. Although the state has produced a number of powerful female politicians, about 80 percent of the legislature is male.
Cristina Garcia, a Democratic member of the state Assembly who signed the letter, said Tuesday she has been routinely accosted by men who harassed her and made comments about her appearance while she was trying to discuss legislation.
“Multiple people have grabbed my butt and grabbed my breasts,” she said. “We’re talking about senior lobbyists and lawmakers.”
Ms. Garcia, and the other women who came forward, did not name the lobbyists or lawmakers involved in the encounters. The letter was first published in The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday morning.
Pamela Lopez, a partner at a Sacramento lobbying firm, said that for years she has dealt with inappropriate suggestions from male officials, but the most disturbing episode came early last year, at a social gathering of lawmakers and lobbyists in a Sacramento bar.
As Ms. Lopez walked into the restroom, she said, she felt a large body pressing behind her. When she turned around, she saw that a lawmaker had locked the door behind him, had undone his pants and asked her to touch his genitals.
“He had exposed himself and begun masturbating,” she said. “All I was thinking was what do I do, what do I do. And of course, I didn’t want to cause a scene.”
“I said, ‘No, I am not going to touch you,’ ” she said. “I was firm and clear but I did not want to make a scene and he continued to masturbate and he kind of moved toward me and said, ‘Just put your hand on me.’ I said no.”
Karen Skelton, a political strategist and lawyer in Sacramento who signed the letter, said she experienced harassment firsthand when she was hired by a Fortune 500 company six years ago to run a campaign on behalf of a major legislative initiative. Her job included dealing with an elected California official involved with the issue.
“This guy did things to me like touch my leg under the table at lunch and brush back my hair over my shoulder and sending me texts at 1 in the morning asking where I was,” she said, declining to name him. “I felt creeped out. I’m a big girl. I can deal with it. What if I had been 22, someone new to this, who needed to support their family?”
There has been a long and notorious history of sexual misconduct in state houses and Congress going back over at least the past 50 years. Many state Capitols are famous for being old boys’ clubs. Many, including the one in Sacramento, are in relatively isolated parts of the state, away from family, friends and onlookers, in a culture marked by late-night dinners and drinking.
Albany, the New York capital, has had an outsize reputation for sexual misbehavior, exemplified by an episode in 2012 in which Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, a powerful Brooklyn Democrat, was found to have sexually harassed female staff members. The leader of the State Assembly at the time, Sheldon Silver, was harshly criticized for keeping Mr. Lopez’s behavior, and financial settlements to victims, secret, perhaps allowing additional women to be abused. Mr. Lopez resigned in 2013, and the Assembly enacted a series of reforms, including mandatory reporting of any complaint of sexual harassment, an independent investigator and a ban on confidential settlements.
Christine Pelosi, a signer of the letter who is the leader of the California Democratic Women’s Caucus, said that legislators “act differently in Sacramento — which is almost fantasy camp — as opposed to how they act as home.”.
Anthony Rendon, the speaker of the California State Assembly, said he did not think the Assembly ethics committee, which handles charges of sexual misconduct, could launch an investigation based on the letter, because it did not mention any names of offenders. He said the Assembly had created a committee in August to establish new rules aimed at cracking down on sexual harassment or intimidation.
“The letter shows that sexual harassment is as prevalent in the Capitol as it is anywhere else in society,” Mr. Rendon said.
Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist and former legislative aide who helped organize the drive, said many of the California women who signed the letter had overcome fears of retaliation, emboldened by the women who related their stories about Mr. Weinstein in stories published by The New York Times and The New Yorker.
She said until now women had routinely engaged on quiet rescue missions to help women caught what she described as predatory situations while working in lawmakers’ offices.
“We give each other tips on how to avoid certain situation – who might exercise predatory behavior,” she said.
“You are talking about power brokers in the largest state in the country,” she said.
Ms. Pelosi, who is the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, said it was difficult for many of the women to sign the letter. “I understand the courage of these women – Republicans and Democrats – coming forward. It is very, very, very hard.”
Kevin de Leon, the president of the state Senate, issued a statement saying he applauded “the courage of women working in and around the Capitol who are coming forward and making their voices known.”
Mr. de Leon, who announced this week he was running for the Senate, did not say whether he was aware of these kinds of episodes and did not return a request for comment.
Scott Wiener, a newly elected member of the state Senate, said he had been struck by the culture he had found since coming to Sacramento. “The kind of sexism and misogynism that is pervasive in our culture is definitely prevalent in Sacramento,” Mr. Wiener said.
New allegations of harassment have emerged in other states in recent days, too. Teresa Tanzi, a Democratic state representative in Rhode Island, said on Tuesday that a male lawmaker who outranked her once told her “that if I want to see my bills advance, there was one thing I could do to make that happen.”
“It was stated very matter of factly that if I would have sex with this person, it would increase the likelihood of my bills passing,” Ms. Tanzi said in an interview, although she declined to name the lawmaker or specify when the comment was made.
And in South Dakota, Angie Buhl O’Donnell, a former state senator, published a Facebook post last week accusing a legislative colleague of sexually harassing her after a 2016 charity dodgeball game in Pierre, the state capital.