Soon after the Harvey Weinstein scandal upended Hollywood, more than 140 female legislators, staff members, political consultants and lobbyists signed a #MeToo letter denouncing sexual misconduct in California’s state Capitol.
“Each of us has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces,” the letters says. “Men have groped and touched us without our consent, made inappropriate comments about our bodies and our abilities. Insults and sexual innuendo, frequently disguised as jokes, have undermined our professional positions and capabilities. Men have made promises, or threats, about our jobs in exchange for our compliance, or our silence. They have leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like.”
In the three weeks since, a few of the women have stepped forward to share their stories.
The state Senate and Assembly, meanwhile, have grudgingly acknowledged paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to settle harassment claims.
And the public learned that Democratic leaders in the Assembly backed the successful candidacy of a high-ranking staff member, Raul Bocanegra, who was accused of sexual harassment, resulting in one of those costly settlements.
None of this squares with the progressive ideals espoused by many of these same elected officials who are now scrambling to limit the fallout from their past inaction.
There have been predictable expressions of shock and anger, coupled with lawyerly circumlocutions about not witnessing acts that probably didn’t take place in public venues.
The damage control continues with a promise this week to release a summary of pertinent information, to be followed by a subcommittee hearing later this month.
But even those responses stand as bleak reminders about the double-standards that shield state lawmakers from a full public accounting of what goes on under the dome.
Consider, for example, the promised summary of pertinent information. In a letter to the Sacramento Bee, senior legislative administrators said details of complaints and investigations would be withheld to protect the “privacy rights of victims, witnesses, and others.”
Call us cynical, but we can’t help but suspect that the “others” includes perpetrators.
Because public access to legislative records is governed a more permissive law than the one covering other state agencies, such routine information as appointment calendars and emails are seldom available for scrutiny. That has made it difficult for journalists to identify some of the legislators accused of gross sexual misconduct.
Another tactic has been to tailor settlement agreements to discourage victims from sharing their stories publicly. At least two of the state Senate’s settlements included a non-disparagement clause forbidding the claimants from making “derogatory comments” about their former employer, the Associated Press reported last week.
Some of the employees who complained say they were soon fired from their jobs.
Unlike most other public employees, legislative employees have no protection against retaliation if they complain about sexual harassment or anything else.
And in each of the past four years, the Senate Appropriations Committee has buried a bill that would have extended whistle-blower protection enjoyed by executive and judicial branch employees to people working in the Legislature.
That probably kept some victims from coming forward. But this kind of behavior can’t be buried as easily any more.