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The Colorado State Senate voted not to expel GOP Sen. Randy Baumgardner, in a Monday evening vote that may have raised more questions than it settled in regards to how to solve the issue of sexual harassment in the State Capitol.
Senate Democrats first submitted a resolution to expel Baumgardner (Hot Sulfur Springs) in February, after an investigative report concluded that he “more likely than not” grabbed and slapped the buttocks of a former legislative aide four times in 2016. Baumgardner still faces two other allegations of harassment, and refutes all three claims
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Nearly two months later—after an alleged deal for Baumgardner to resign fell through, and Sen. Lucia Guzman (D-Denver) stepped down from her role as Minority Leader in frustration—Senate President Kevin Grantham (R-Canon City) finally scheduled the Monday vote.
Democrats spoke first during the debate, saying that Baumgardner’s actions violated the legislature’s workplace harassment policy and merited expulsion. “Sexual harassment is haunting this place,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora). “Either we’re going to empower victims to come forward or we’re going to shame them into silence.”
Sen. Lois Court (D-Denver) read a statement from Baumgardner’s accuser: “For every complaint verified, there are several young men and women who hide in the shadows terrified. The question is now that the Colorado Senate knows the truth, will it act to protect its young employees?”
Several Republicans came to the podium to share their concerns about the investigation, which was carried out by the independent firm, the Employers Council. Sen. John Cooke (R-Greeley) went as far as to call the investigation “horrible.” One of the last to speak was Baumgardner, who said he did not defend himself prior to Monday’s vote out of respect for the process. “With few exceptions, this has been most difficult and humbling experience of my life,” he said.
It was the Colorado General Assembly’s third vote to expel a member in its history, and the second this year. In March, after a day of emotional testimony to a packed gallery, the House voted 52–9 to expel former Democratic Representative Steve Lebsock, who faced 11 charges of sexual harassment. In that case, House leaders waited until all formal complaints against Lebsock were found credible, then swiftly moved to publicly resolve the allegations. In an interview with 5280, House Speaker Crisanta Duran said having women in leadership made a difference in how sexual harassment was handled in the House. “It was mostly women who stood strong to be able to make sure that we called up the resolution,” she said.
“They said we don’t know if we’re going to have the votes…but this is the right thing to do.” During the House debate that followed, Lebsock’s accusers aired allegations of retaliation that ultimately swayed several Republicans to vote for his expulsion.
In the Senate, Monday’s vote was not nearly as dramatic. The vote was delayed by a recess until the evening hours, when there were only a handful of observers in the gallery and Senate leaders were confident the resolution lacked enough votes to pass the GOP-led chamber. In the end, the Senate voted 17–17 to expel Baumgardner, with one Republican, Sen. Ray Scott (Grand Junction), joining the 16 Democrats in favor. Baumgardner abstained from the vote, leaving 17 Republicans to vote against expulsion, which required a two-thirds majority (24 votes) to pass.
“I want this to be a turning point for us,” said Grantham during the debate, adding that the national #MeToo movement “opened up a wound in the country that needed to happen.”
Grantham, who voted not to expel Baumgardner, had previously expressed concerns over the Employers Council’s report’s “inaccuracies, bias, conflicts of interest, and inconsistencies.” Grantham also transferred the remaining two investigations against Baumgardner to a new company. On Monday, KUNC reported that Baumgardner delayed resolution of those charges by failing to schedule interviews with investigators, who turned in preliminary reports without Baumgardner’s input. Senators were not allowed to see the reports before Monday’s vote. Baumgardner reportedly has until April 11 to respond to the charges so the reports can be finalized. Grantham had until April 12 to introduce the resolution.
One of the complainants in the remaining charges against Baumgardner is former intern Megan Creeden, who went public with her claim that he made an inappropriate sexual comment to her and separately tried to persuade her to drink alcohol in his office.
Sen. Michael Merrifield (D-Manitou Springs) defended his former intern, after Republicans disputed the testimony, timing, and political motivations of the alleged victims during the debate. “I do feel it’s necessary that when someone has told the truth that they need to be defended and not attacked,” Merrifield said. “She spoke the truth.”
Grantham further muddied the process last week, when he concluded that a separate allegation against Sen. Jack Tate (R-Centennial), which was also found credible by the Employers Council, was not considered sexual harassment. Grantham’s refusal to honor the results of two outside independent investigations—intended to remove leadership bias from the process—angered many Democrats. “Nobody should be exempt from the consequences of their actions—elected officials least of all,” Senate Minority Leader Leroy Garcia said in a statement after the vote.
An independent review of the Colorado General Assembly’s workplace harassment policy, including recommendations on any needed changes, may help both chambers move forward. The legislature’s executive committee ordered the review in December and it was released publicly on Thursday.
The 235-page review makes it clear that sexual harassment is an ongoing problem at the State Capitol. Of 500 people surveyed, one-third saw or experienced harassment and half observed sexist or disrespectful behavior, but few reported it.
More than 90 percent of the sexual harassment witnessed at the State Capitol was done by elected officials—a clear illustration that harassment is more about power and control than sexual issues. About 60 percent of the incidents were observed in partisan working areas and public spaces under the Gold Dome. Nearly half were in legislators’ offices. “The current policy and practices are not effective in creating an environment where harassment is not tolerated,” the review authors state.
The review offers 25 recommendations on how to improve the workplace policies and environment, including removing legislative leaders from directly handling complaints. Leaders say they may need to work over the summer to decide what changes are needed and how to implement them.
Grantham says the findings “will open up another conversation for us here in this building.”
On that point, Garcia agreed. “Systemic, cultural change is the end goal,” he stated. “We will not let this go.”
Editor’s note, 4/6/18: This article was updated with new information from the review of the Colorado General Assembly’s workplace harassment policy, which was released on Thursday, April 5.