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Wednesday, December 12, 2018  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Spin Control: We need a better policy to fight sexual harassment, women tell top lawmakers

OLYMPIA – The Capitol steps on the north entrance to the domed Legislative Building will be the site of many demonstrations during the upcoming 2019 session. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – The Capitol steps on the north entrance to the domed Legislative Building will be the site of many demonstrations during the upcoming 2019 session. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

In Olympia, where bipartisanship is often invoked but more rarely practiced, members of both parties joined forces to say “Enough.”

To sexual harassment.

In a letter to House and Senate leaders, women legislators, lobbyists and staff members questioned the official claim of “zero tolerance” for such activity.

“We stand together to change a culture that, until now, has too often functioned to serve and support harassers’ power and privilege over protection of those who work with them,” they wrote. “At some point in our lives, every one of us has experienced, witnessed and counseled others through unwanted advances or a range of dehumanizing behavior – from innuendo to groping, from inappropriate comments and jokes to unwanted touching and assault.”

They called for a safe process for legislators, staff and lobbyists to report harassment and “create a range of meaningful consequences when lines are crossed.”

Before you write this off as bandwagon-jumping by a small handful, know the letter is signed by 175 women, including long-time legislators of both parties. Some stalwart liberal Democrats signed, like Seattle’s Maralyn Chase and Karen Keiser of Des Moines, as did prominent conservative Republicans like Northeast Washington’s Shelly Short and Ann Rivers of La Center. Prominent lobbyists for major interest groups also added their names.

It comes in the wake of reporting by colleagues Walker Orenstein of the Tacoma News-Tribune and Austin Jenkins of Northwest News Network of women speaking up about sexual harassment and lewd comments by legislators to lobbyists. And by lobbyists to legislators. Of warnings that more experienced women give young colleagues to not attend meetings with certain people alone.

That was followed by Democratic leaders’ admission that Rep. Jim Jacks became a former representative in 2011 after being accused of inappropriate sexual behavior toward a female staff member. At the time, leadership said he resigned for “family and personal reasons.” He told The Columbian he left because he was an alcoholic, something he still blamed for what he called “the incident” in an email after the real reason for his departure broke.

In a separate story, Rachel La Corte of The Associated Press reported that four women accused former Rep. Brendan Williams of sexual advances or harassment. Williams, who left office in 2005, denied the allegations and told the AP he has never engaged in workplace harassment “though, clearly, it appears I upset people outside work. Heartbroken over that.”

Like Harvey Weinstein and Mark Halperin, Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey, such alleged cretinism makes a guy ashamed for his gender. Journalism isn’t immune. Last week a former colleague who is now an expert on journalism ethics took to social media to mention men who helped her while maintaining “healthy boundaries” … and it wasn’t a very long list. That was because she was pressed for time, she said. One can only hope so.

Some women who talked to reporters in Olympia have been carrying the incidents around for years. Some still aren’t willing to be named because they fear reprisals.

Sexual harassment in Olympia is something reporters have suspected or heard about second- or third-hand for years. Did we believe those stories were true? Yes, because any reporter who has written about sexual assault or harassment knows it’s about power, not sex. Olympia is layered with people exercising power over others.

Confirming it was the problem because such reports about lawmakers are confidential. Any emails to or from a legislator that might detail the complaint are kept from disclosure under an exemption the Legislature claims from the state Public Records Act. That helps provide cover when lawmakers slink off after someone complains and leadership acts, cover that may keep other victims from stepping forward.

The lawsuit filed by The Associated Press in conjunction with The Spokesman-Review and other news organizations challenges that exemption. One of its roots is in refusals to provide information about sexual harassment complaints.

In the face of recent revelations, Keiser said she will introduce legislation to exempt sexual harassment and assault cases from “gag rules and secrecy.” She’d also like to get rid of nondisclosure agreements for such cases in the private sector.

After reading news reports and receiving the letter, Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, told her caucus staff she realizes she could have known more and done more to protect victims. Nelson may soon become current Senate majority leader because of Tuesday’s election. She wants to meet with all concerned for suggestions on how better to support victims and, give them a way to feel confident about reporting incidents to people they can trust without facing reprisals afterward.

That’s a good start unless it drifts into yet another group of “stakeholders” talking for months and coming up with proposals the Legislature ignores.

A better plan might be pushing Keiser’s legislation through the Senate and House. Or firing the outside lawyers the Legislature is paying to fight the exemption lawsuit and dropping the pretense that legislative records and emails need more protection from disclosure than those of other state and local officials.

If that’s too difficult, how about no longer letting a lawmaker guilty of inappropriate sexual behavior ooze away with a prevaricating euphemism like he’s doing it for “family and personal reasons.”

Nobody ever believed that canard, anyway. But if it keeps up, stories about anyone with such a vague official reason should include the disclaimer “…a phrase previous lawmakers accused of sexual harassment have been allowed to use.”

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