City Council President Ben Stuckart apologized Thursday for his handling of a sexual harassment claim against Richard Rush brought by Kate Burke, who is now running to join him at City Hall.
Burke’s allegations of harassment by Rush, who was fired from his position as a legislative aide to Candace Mumm last year amid complaints from other women about harassment, were first published Thursday in the Pacific Northwest Inlander. Burke said she hoped her story, and frustration after Stuckart and others in the community appeared not to take her seriously, would convince those experiencing harassment to come forward and share their stories.
Burke, 28, said her decision to publicly give her account had “nothing to do with the election,” and that she felt she’d been put on the defensive with questions about the timing.
“When people come out and they tell their story, they’re completely vulnerable and wide open to hateful words,” Burke said. “I opened myself up to that.”
Burke’s story comes amid a now-international outpouring of stories alleging sexual harassment and abuse, giving rise to the social media hashtag #MeToo. Burke said it took several months to garner the courage to share her story publicly.
Rush, a 65-year-old Democrat and former city councilman, visited Burke in her Hillyard home in March 2016, a few months before he was fired from his position at City Hall. He asked her to cuddle in her bedroom, answer some questions aimed at couples from a New York Times column and take a walk by the river, all invitations Burke declined.
“I felt completely violated. I didn’t want to be alone in my house ever again,” Burke said.
In an interview Thursday, Rush didn’t deny his actions but said he meant nothing sexual by them.
“I’m apologizing for the way she feels, and also for my poor communication skills and my cluelessness,” he said.
Burke said that apology missed the point.
“For me, it’s not about what somebody says, and how they say it,” she said. “It’s about how you receive it.”
After Rush was fired from his position following a Human Resources investigation into other harassment claims, Burke told Stuckart her story. He responded “horribly,” Burke said, making her feel as though the council president was dismissive of her story.
Stuckart, who’s endorsed Burke in her race against Tim Benn and given money to her campaign personally and through his former congressional campaign committee, declined to answer questions about Burke’s statements.
He instead issued a statement apologizing for his response and pledging to codify mandatory sexual harassment training for city employees. That training, and revisions to the city’s harassment policies, were put into motion by a settlement Mayor David Condon agreed to in an ethics complaint brought by the National Organization for Women following the ouster of former Police Chief Frank Straub.
“I applaud Kate for having the courage to come forward with her story. I am sorry that my conversation with her contributed to feelings of dismissal and hurt,” Stuckart wrote in the statement.
“When the issue first came forward I handled it swiftly and professionally, resulting in Richard Rush no longer being employed by the city. But I now know that I should have been a better listener and more sensitive to her experience,” he continued.
Stuckart called on Burke, if she’s elected to the City Council, to support his ordinance. Chris Cavanaugh, the city’s human resources director, said the city would meet its deadline of putting all city employees through sexual harassment training by the end of the year. A new sexual harassment policy is being discussed with the city’s bargaining units, Cavanaugh said.
Burke has been critical on the campaign trail of Condon’s handling of allegations of sexual harrassment against Straub. Those complaints, lodged by former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton, came to light in public records the city released two years ago, months after Condon had announced Straub’s departure as chief and following the mayor’s re-election.
“I think (Condon) really took sexual harassment in the workplace, and threw it under the rug,” Burke said at a candidate forum hosted by The Spokesman-Review earlier this month.
Burke said Thursday she appreciated Stuckart’s apology and accepted his invitation.
“I’m very excited to continue the conversation that I’ve tried to have with him,” Burke said. “I want to expand policies, beyond what he’s stated.”
Benn, who is Burke’s opponent in the council race, said it was unfortunate she felt she couldn’t talk about her story for so long.
“I think businesses, and the city, should take sexual harassment seriously,” Benn said. “They should deal with it swiftly and as immediately as possible.”
City councilwomen Karen Stratton and Lori Kinnear defended Stuckart on Thursday for his fairness in the workplace, though both said they didn’t have any details on how the Rush matter was handled.
“(Stuckart) is pretty even-handed,” said Kinnear, who served as a legislative aide to Rush before being elected to the council.
Stratton, who has pushed the revisions to the city’s sexual harassment policies, said she appreciated the sensitivity of Burke’s story, but wished it could have been discussed sooner and directly with Stuckart.
“For somebody that stepped in and tried to help, he deserved at least a phone call, or a conversation that she wasn’t satisfied with how it was handled,” Stratton said.
Burke said she tried, and that’s part of the reason it became difficult to tell her story publicly.
“I did have time to talk to Ben about it. He responded horribly,” she said. “I think that was part of the whole pain of this process.”