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Past victims of sexual assault by Washington politicians say generational changes have helped women

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 30, 2017

Kari Tupper at her home in Seattle on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. (Patrick Hagerty / Patrick Hagerty/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Kari Tupper at her home in Seattle on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. (Patrick Hagerty / Patrick Hagerty/FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Sexual assault and harassment by powerful men isn’t new, but the way their victims are treated has changed in the decades since two of Washington’s top politicians – U.S. Sen. Brock Adams and Gov. Mike Lowry – were accused of assault or misconduct.

Adams and Lowry both left office under a cloud, but were not pressured into resignation like current members of Congress have been in recent weeks.

“On the one hand, we’ve come a long way,” said Kari Tupper, who reported Adams for drugging and sexually assaulting her in 1987. “On the other hand, we haven’t come far at all.”

Susanne Albright Rosenkranz, who served as a spokeswoman for Lowry before receiving a settlement for allegations of sexual harassment in 1995, agreed: “I think that it has changed, and it hasn’t.”

Powerful men still use their power to harass or assault women, she said. “At least some of these women are being believed and are supported by other women.”

Tupper was a 24-year-old congressional aide, former campaign worker and daughter of longtime Adams’ family friends and supporters in March 1987 when she went to Adams’ home in Washington, D.C., to discuss a job.

She later told police she was given a drink with some pink liquid in it that caused her to pass out, and awakened later in a bed with Adams fondling her. Police investigated, but after hospital reports were inconclusive, prosecutors declined to press charges.

Adams, a longtime Democratic congressman and former U.S.transportation secretary who had pulled an upset win over incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton five months earlier, claimed Tupper was trying to blackmail him.

There were no calls for an Ethics Committee investigation or resignation. Her family stuck with her, as did some local groups such as the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. But other women’s groups who liked Adams’ stands on their issues such as abortion rights continued to back him. Some Democrats accused Tupper of having political motives to ruin him.

Four years later, an investigation by the Seattle Times turned up eight other women who said Adams had sexually harassed or assaulted them over a period of some 20 years. Some even said they also were given a drink with pink liquid before passing out. When that news broke, Adams’ support from women’s groups evaporated, but he still wasn’t forced to resign or expelled from the Senate.

Instead, he announced he would not run for re-election that fall and served out the remaining months of his term. Some longtime Democratic women stuck by him initially, again saying the victims were politically motivated, with allegations coming as Adams was gearing up for his re-election campaign. Some even suspected other Democrats who wanted to run of orchestrating the complaints.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a good family man,” a Spokane County Democratic state committeewoman said the day after the Times stories broke.

In a recent interview, Tupper said people who worked with Adams in his congressional or legal offices and on his campaigns knew he behaved inappropriately around attractive women. It was known as “Brock’s problem,” some of those former co-workers or employees said later.

“There just wasn’t a critical mass of people willing to speak out,” she said.

There was also a general incredulity by the public who didn’t believe a powerful person would risk their position with such behavior, similar to the initial reaction to reports of drugging and sexual assault leveled against Bill Cosby.

Public opinion changed somewhat between the time Tupper leveled her sexual assault charges and 1995 when Albright Rosenkrantz said she was resigning her job in Lowry’s communications office because of repeated sexual harassment – unwanted touching, lewd jokes and bursts of anger from the governor. Lowry denied the allegations, but later agreed to a $97,000 settlement in exchange for her not filing a lawsuit.

“I had pretty good political support from women like Chris Gregoire, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell,” Albright Rosenkranz said.

But other women who told her they had experienced similar treatment by Lowry initially said they’d come forward, too, only to change their minds.

Like Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers and others who have been accused of sexual assault or harassment recently, Lowry was “good on women’s issues,” Albright Rosenkrantz said. She worked on his campaign and believed in what he said he wanted to do.

The bottom dropped out of Lowry’s political support after he paid the settlement, although he remained in office. A poll by The Spokesman-Review eight months after the settlement was announced showed only 14 percent of those surveyed would vote to re-elect him; less than two weeks later he said he wouldn’t run again.

Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center and a supporter of Tupper in 1987, said she senses at least a partial shift in the way victims are treated when they come forward.

“There’s not a question for the victim like ‘Are you sure?’ or ‘What are you after?’ ” she said. “We’re all saying the behavior is bad. The thing then is, what do you do about it?”

Social media, with things like the #MeToo campaign, have been an important part of helping victims come forward. Stone said: “It gives people a degree of comfort that they will be believed.”

But many victims remain silent because they’re in jobs where they have less power, fear retaliation and can’t afford to lose their jobs, she added.

There also seems to be different standards, based on politics, Albright Rosenkrantz said. Donald Trump managed to get elected even after being caught on tape talking about grabbing women’s genitals. Supporters of Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, said they didn’t believe the women accusing him of assault, or said even if true they wouldn’t vote for a Democrat.

“It’s easy to look at people on the other side and say ‘I can see he’s a pig,’ ” she said. “When you’re on the same side, it’s not so easy. It’s really, really important for women to stop playing the game and acknowledge what they already know.”

Paul Berendt, who was the Democratic Party state chairman when the Lowry settlement was announced, said he sees some slow progress on issues of sexual assault and misconduct.

“One big difference is that women are taking control of making sure that accusations are acted on,” he said.

Murray, who won Adams’ U.S. Senate seat in 1992, said she was motivated to run because she saw women’s voices were not being heard, believed or represented. Earlier this month, she was one of nine female senators calling for Sen. Al Franken’s resignation.

“The biggest change I’ve seen over my time in Congress is that more and more women are refusing to accept sexual harassment and assault,” she said in an email. “I’m going to keep working to change culture and policies in Congress and elsewhere so that this behavior finally stops.”

Tupper said she believes men are part of the solution.

“They have to continue to be supportive, calling out their peers and saying ‘This is not OK. You need to knock it off or you need to go,’ ” she said.

In the years since the assault, Tupper married, had children, went back to college, received a Ph.D in English and worked with gender equity and social justice issues. She’s now a freelance writer in Seattle and stays active in politics, including supporting newly elected Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who represented her years ago free of charge.

At campaign events for Durkan, longtime political workers would recognize her name and tell her that they, too, suffered through sexual harassment and assault and were told “that’s part of working in politics.”

But one thing that has changed, she said, is the attitude that such behavior can be shrugged off with “boys will be boys.”

Albright Rosenkrantz worked in public relations after leaving the governor’s office, but eventually had to leave because of stress. She has a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been exacerbated by recent reports of sexual assault and harassment.

“It all just comes flying back into your consciousness,” she said.

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