Editor’s Note 12/18/2017: Legislative leaders agreed Friday to take new steps to fight workplace harassment: Hiring a human resources professional, hiring an independent consultant to review the legislature’s current policies, and conducting mandatory yearly trainings on workplace harassment prevention.
As allegations of sexual misconduct continue to unfold at the Colorado State Capitol, leaders in the House and Senate are examining ways to create a safer workspace for everyone who works under the gold dome.
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Since November, formal complaints of sexual harassment have been filed against four Colorado state legislators, all of whom held key committee positions: Democratic Reps. Steve Lebsock (who is also running for state treasurer) and Paul Rosenthal, and Republican Sens. Randy Baumgardner and Jack Tate, according to media reports. All four men denied or skirted any wrongdoing.
On Thursday, Lebsock claimed he passed a private polygraph test that “exonerated” him of allegations made public by Democratic Rep. Faith Winter in November. Winter stood by her formal complaint, which is still being investigated: “My account and at least 10 other accounts of harassment need to be taken seriously. Steve Lebsock’s story has changed multiple times, my story has never changed,” she said in a statement. “We won’t be silenced, an independent investigation is underway, and its findings will speak for themselves.”
These allegations come upon the rising tide of the #MeToo movement, which has unveiled a culture of sexual misconduct across a wide range of industries, including government. So far, three U.S. Congressmen have resigned over allegations. On Tuesday, December 12, the movement hit a peak when voters in the staunchly conservative state of Alabama elected Democrat Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate over Republican Roy Moore, who has been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct or assault by nine women, including several who were teenagers at the time of the alleged offenses. The same day, more than 50 Democratic Congresswomen—including Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette—signed a formal letter demanding an investigation into at least 17 claims of sexual misconduct against President Donald Trump, who denies all allegations.
Amid the national turbulence, Colorado’s House and Senate leaders are holding a public meeting at the Capitol on Friday at 10 a.m. to discuss ways to improve the General Assembly’s sexual misconduct policies. Lawmakers and staff are expected to focus on issues including filing complaints, confidentiality, patterns of harassment, and training in the workplace, according to a joint press release from the House and Senate.
Under Colorado’s current policy, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President receive, investigate, and resolve harassment complaints. House Speaker Crisanta Duran has temporarily removed both Lebsock and Rosenthal from their leadership positions, and called on Lebsock to resign. (Duran herself faced questions for appointing Lebsock as the chairman of the Local Government Committee after a colleague made an earlier claim of sexual harassment against him, but clarified that she believed the complaint had been resolved.) In the Senate, Baumgardner and Tate still retain their leadership posts while investigations are underway.
Duran supports having a neutral third party handle complaints in order to remove politics from the process and to find a way to track complaints in order to identify patterns of abuse, while keeping investigations confidential. Both Duran and Senate President Kevin Grantham support annual sexual harassment prevention training, according to a statement from Grantham, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Any rule changes must be approved by a majority of the House and Senate.
But solving these issues in the Statehouse is more complicated than in other workplaces, where credible allegations of harassment can lead to swift terminations. Politicians can’t be fired for sexual misconduct, though in rare instances they can be expelled through a two-thirds vote by their colleagues (the last and only time this happened in Colorado’s Statehouse was 1915). Usually, however, Congresspersons leave their posts after being voted out of office, recalled, or resigning, which could leave the legislature with unresolved conflicts leading into an election year.
Further complicating the issue, informing voters about allegations of sexual misconduct against elected representatives could infringe on the rights of survivors to remain anonymous. “It’s not any one survivor’s job to protect the community and to hold an offender accountable. We should not be putting that on them,” says Brie Franklin, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA), who added that survivors are more likely to come forward anonymously. “It’s the community’s job to change the culture.”
Although Colorado has one of the highest percentages of female legislators, Franklin is skeptical that this gender balance will be enough to undo decades of patriarchy. “The culture at the capital is very much an old boys club and has always been that way,” says Franklin. “Solving this is really more about accountability and changing expectations.”
Duran hopes that this discussion will go a step further, by helping to provide women with equal opportunities to thrive at the Statehouse. “To ensure that there is systemic change, we need to work to reform the culture at the Capitol,” she says. “Success in any workplace should be based on merit and skill and hard work.” Duran also wants to ensure that the historic wave of women running for office won’t be discouraged by concerns over a hostile workplace. “Inappropriate and unacceptable actions and rhetoric can’t become normalized,” she adds. “We need to evaluate the messages we are sending to young people about what it takes to get ahead.”
Editor’s Note 12/15/17: This article incorrectly stated that the accused Representatives all held leadership positions in Colorado’s General Assembly. This has been corrected.