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On Tuesday evening, in the waning hours of the 120-day legislative session, Colorado lawmakers passed one of the year’s most significant and toughly negotiated bills. Senate Bill 1 invests nearly $3 billion into the state’s transportation system after years of partisan deadlock, including $645 million over the next two years. It was a huge legislative accomplishment for a General Assembly that was plagued by workplace harassment from the first to last day of the session.
Amidst a flurry of headlines that included dramatic leadership changes, historic expulsion votes, and the chilling revelation that some lawmakers were so fearful about a colleague that they were donning bulletproof vests, lawmakers did manage to get many of their priorities passed. They approved a multibillion-dollar budget, increased rural broadband access, funded education, reduced gerrymandering, renewed civil rights agencies, and, in the session’s final hours, invested in the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA). Thanks to a last-minute compromise—and a late-night visit from Gov. John Hickenlooper—lawmakers agreed Wednesday to spend $225 million a year to help make up a projected $32 billion shortfall for PERA, with employees contributing 2 percent more from their paychecks.
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But still, the shadow over the gold dome hasn’t lifted.
“The ongoing harassment scandals have absolutely cast a shadow over this legislative session, but I don’t think it’s taken a large toll on our productivity,” says Senate Minority Leader Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo). “We’ve gotten a lot done, and I continue to be impressed with the professionalism of my colleagues.”
That professionalism was evident in the passage of the much-needed transportation bill. In the Senate, the bill’s co-sponsor, Randy Baumgardner (R-Hot Sulphur Springs), faced multiple sexual harassment allegations (he denies all charges) and even survived an expulsion vote in early April. In the House, Transportation and Energy Chair Faith Winter (D-Westminster) authored the bill’s amendments while simultaneously coming forward as one of the women who accused former Representative Steve Lebsock (D-Thornton) of sexual harassment. Lebsock was expelled from the House after an emotional day of debate in March. The fact that lawmakers were able to come together to pass transportation funding in a split legislature, amid these scandals, is both proof of their strong work ethic and a reminder of the weak workplace policies that allowed such actions to thrive in the first place.
On Wednesday evening, as lawmakers celebrated the session’s wins at an annual afterparty at Stoney’s Bar and Grill—ironically the site where Winter claimed Lebsock harassed her in 2016—it was harder to account for the lost accomplishments of the lobbyists, aides, interns, and volunteers whose careers have been derailed by sexism and gender discrimination at the Capitol. Nor was it easy to measure the lost productivity of legislators who worked to resolve the host of complaints that poured in during the session.
“This session has been haunted by workplace harassment and sexual misconduct,” says Sen. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora). “This is not what we are supposed to be working on. We are just supposed to be lawmakers making laws.”
House Speaker Crisanta Duran (D-Denver) says her leadership team put in triple time to handle the increased workload of dealing with the harassment and managing their legislative responsibilities. “In my eight sessions, this one was the most unique,” she says. “I think that our actions really displayed that we kept a very high priority on all of the issues impacting hard-working Coloradans while at the same time working to reform the culture at the Capitol.”
Leaders will now spend time over the summer analyzing a review of the Colorado General Assembly’s workplace harassment policy commissioned in December. It offers 25 recommendations to improve workplace policies and culture in the State Capitol, where more than 90 percent of sexual misconduct allegations were levied against elected officials by individuals with less power—lobbyists, aides, interns, and legislative staff, according to the report.
Ultimately, reform starts with understanding that sexual harassment is not about sex, but sexism. The naughty innuendos, blouse unbuttonings, and buttocks slaps described in the formal complaints are both inappropriate and offensive. But focusing solely on the actions can obscure the more pervasive harm of systemic gender discrimination on victims’ careers. “For women who are not in positions of power in the building, the cumulative impact of that pattern of behavior diminishes their ability to succeed in this building,” says Rep. Matthew Gray (D-Broomfield). “It’s a shame and we need to change it.”
Many say the best solution to curbing sexual harassment is having more women in leadership roles—a long-term goal of the Time’s Up movement. In the Democratic-led House, it was the female leaders who pushed the vote to expel Lebsock. “Women should never have to feel like they must endure inappropriate behavior to be able to get ahead,” says Duran. “As the first Latina speaker of the house in Colorado, I think the challenges and barriers in front of women to be able to reach their full potential are real, and we have to tackle these issues head-on.”
It was a much different story in the Republican-led Senate, where President Kevin Grantham (R-Cañon City) faced criticism for taking too long to resolve complaints against Sen. Baumgardner, even after three independent reports determined that he created a hostile work environment and engaged in inappropriate behavior. Just days before the session ended, Grantham, who is term-limited, removed Baumgardner from four committees—a decision that Senate Democrats called a slap on the wrist. Garcia said that Democrats will continue to call for Baumgardner’s resignation or expulsion. (Grantham and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Going forward, lawmakers say it’s important to make changes that encourage more victims to come forward. “Many of those who experience harassment do not report these incidents. They do not have faith in our current harassment policy, and do not believe anything will come of their complaints. Until we fix this core issue, nothing will change,” Garcia says. Ultimately, how victims are treated impacts everyone working at the Capitol—and their work on behalf of all Coloradans. “It’s not all about just one victim,” Fields says. “It’s about all of us.”