Women See 'Surge' Opportunity To Address Sexual Harassment At State Capitol

Nov 15, 2017
Originally published on November 15, 2017 3:02 pm

In response to recent reports about sexual harassment at the Washington state Capitol, a state Senate committee voted Tuesday night to require all senators and staff to take annual sexual harassment training.

The vote by the Senate’s Facilities and Operations Committee was unanimous.

“I think that it’s just very important for us to act swiftly and with certainty,” said Republican state Sen. Ann Rivers, who first proposed additional training in a letter to the F&O Committee last week.

The Senate’s quick action follows reporting by public radio, The News Tribune and The Olympian on the workplace climate at the Capitol, as well as subsequent reports about misconduct by former state lawmakers. Since then, more than 200 women have signed a “Stand With Us” letter that calls on legislative leaders to create a safe workplace free from harassment.

More Reforms In The Works

Senate Democrats, who will take the majority in January, said they are planning to bring in an outside expert to provide sexual harassment training when the 2018 session begins on January 8. Senate Republicans indicated they want to participate in that training too.

The bipartisan F&O Committee also agreed to post the Senate’s sexual harassment policy online and will ask the Public Disclosure Commission to inform newly registering lobbyists that they are also protected under the Senate’s respectful workplace policy.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Republican state Senator Joe Fain acknowledged “failings” in the current approach to addressing sexual harassment and acknowledged that many women feel a reluctance to report misconduct.

“The difference in our environment is that there is such a large discrepancy in power between the individuals who could be exerting that power and the individuals on the receiving end,” Fain told his colleagues.

The Senate F&O Committee also agreed that the Democratic and Republican caucuses will each designate a “point person” to work with lobbyists and staff to improve the current policy and reporting process.

“What we have in place today is a start, but obviously it is not enough,” said Senate Democratic leader Sharon Nelson.

It’s An Old Story

This isn’t the first time the issue of sexual harassment has engulfed Olympia. Twenty-five years ago, a front page story in The News Tribune of Tacoma described a culture of “sexual gamesmanship” in the state legislature. The story began with a description of a young, dedicated legislative staffer who said she’d lost her job because her bosses considered her too pretty and a distraction to male lawmakers.

That anonymous former staffer was Kristina Hermach. Now, 25 years later, Hermach, who works as a lobbyist, has decided to speak on the record.

“I should take this opportunity to come out and try to make a safer place for those women and for my children and for the next generations,” Hermach said during a recent interview in the living room of her historic home in Olympia. “I definitely can’t do nothing.”

Hermach said she has friends who run their own lobbying firms who fear losing clients if they complain about a lawmaker’s behavior.

“I know women who have professionally asserted themselves,” Hermach said. “They’ve done that and then all of a sudden they’ve heard that that legislator is complaining about them to clients and asking for them to be fired.”

Hermach says the legislature needs to make it safer for women to report or address harassment.

Former Democratic lawmaker Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who is now a King County Councilmember, was a newly-appointed member of the Washington House in 1992.

Kohl-Welles said the challenge has always been how to change the culture in Olympia which is often described as “summer camp for adults.”

“I think the climate down there was and still is a situation where people act differently than they may normally act at home or in the usual type of workplace,” Kohl-Welles said.

In the early 1990s, Kohl-Welles helped rewrite the sexual harassment policy in the Washington House. Today, current lawmakers like Republican Senator Ann Rivers are picking up that mantle.

“It is on all of us to make sure that this institution is held to a very high standard,” Rivers said. “It’s really just about changing a culture, or shifting in the culture and what is acceptable.”

Democrat Beth Doglio, who’s new to the legislature, wants a unified approach that brings the House and Senate together with staff and lobbyists to craft solutions.

“We are open and raw and ripe for change,” Doglio said. “And so I think this is the moment to grasp it.”

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