Women sign letter calling for change at state Capitol

Lawmakers, others call out culture of sexual harassment

By

Published:

 

Local Angle: Most female legislators from county sign on

Nearly every female member of Clark County’s legislative delegation has signed on to a letter calling for the legislative branch to change how it responds to sexual harassment.

Republican Sens. Lynda Wilson and Ann Rivers signed the letter, as did Democratic Sen. Annette Cleveland and Reps. Sharon Wylie and Monica Stonier.

Rivers said she hopes the letter will send a message to legislative leaders and constituents that lawmakers take the issue seriously.

“Olympia is very relationship-based, and so there is a fear of speaking out,” said Rivers, who noted that staff members or lobbyists fear consequences if they report inappropriate behavior. “I just think for the sake of the institution and for the workers there that we have to do our level best to create a healthy work environment.”

Cleveland said that when she first entered the Legislature five years ago she felt like she had “stepped back 30 years in terms of how women were treated.”

She said that first step to addressing the problem is to point it out, which she said is difficult.

“It’s powerful to me to see so many willing to take that risk and point to the problem,” she said.

Stonier said that she’s seen a range of inappropriate behaviors in the Legislature from overt acts to subtle comments or touching. They build up over time. She said that recent revelations that state legislators have been accused of harassment have made it clear that women in leadership positions need to have an active role in changing the culture.

“Now, we have more women, we have younger women, we have women (in leadership positions in politics) who have good relationships with other aspiring women in our communities,” she said. “And we really have the responsibility to see that we have safe work environments.”

While Stonier said it was encouraging that so many lobbyists as well as legislators from both parties across the state have signed on to the letter, she said it’s a first step.

“We will have to keep beating the drum,” she said.

Neither Vicki Kraft of Vancouver nor Liz Pike of Camas, both Republican state representatives, signed the letter.

Pike wrote in a text that she was out of the country on vacation and did not hear about the letter until Monday night.

In a text, Kraft, who is in her first term, wrote, “I am reviewing and considering signing on to the letter.”

She added that she’s “not had to deal with this issue at the state Legislature or had any significant issues previously. However sexual harassment or assault should never be allowed or tolerated in any circumstance. If it happens, it should certainly be addressed.”

— Jake Thomas

OLYMPIA — More than 170 women — including lobbyists and lawmakers — signed a letter Monday calling for a culture change at the Washington state Capitol dealing with sexual harassment.

The signers, who include more than 40 lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle, say that as “women serving and working in the legislative and political realm, we add our voices to the chorus of ‘enough.’ ”

The group said its members “stand together to change a culture that, until now, has too often functioned to serve and support harassers’ power and privilege over protection of those who work with them.”

The fallout from sexual harassment and assault allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein and others in Hollywood has stretched to Legislatures, with hundreds of lawmakers, lobbyists and consultants across the nation calling the problem pervasive. Accusations have also emerged in Oregon, Rhode Island, Illinois and California.

The letter in Washington comes a week after four women said publicly that former Democratic Rep. Brendan Williams sexually harassed them. Also last week, leaders at the Washington state House acknowledged for the first time that the reason for former Rep. Jim Jacks’ sudden resignation in 2011 was because of allegations of inappropriate behavior toward a female staffer.

“At some point in our lives, every one of us has experienced, witnessed, and counseled others through unwanted advances or a range of dehumanizing behavior – from innuendo to groping, from inappropriate comments and jokes to unwanted touching and assault,” the letter reads. “Our political world is one of explicit and implicit power differentials.”

The letter challenges legislative leaders and members of both chambers “to lead the way in our state by working together with us to change the culture from one which silently supports and perpetuates harassment to one which supports and preserves safety.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said last week that after the 2011 incident, the chamber changed policies to create a chain of command on how to report harassment. He noted that another review has been ongoing this year, and that a private consultant is expected to release a report and recommendations in a few weeks.

Previously, Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib — who serves as the presiding officer of the Senate — said he would be reaching out to Senate administration to discuss ways to improve policies and procedures surrounding reporting of harassment in that chamber.

Republican Sen. Randi Becker, who signed the letter, said in a written statement that it’s “important that everyone who works at the Capitol feels safe and comfortable in their work environment.”

“If there’s anything we can do to improve the Senate’s grievance process so that those who have been subjected to sexual harassment trust the system more and come forward, we owe it to them to do so,” she wrote.

Also Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to state agencies noting recent news stories that “are showing us how pervasive this kind of behavior can be and how challenging it is for victims to speak out.”

“Some employees may not feel they have a safe, confidential and trusted source to go to for help,” he wrote. “That’s one of the things we can improve and I will report back to you as we make changes.”

Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said that Inslee has also asked all of his agency leadership teams to assess their internal processes and procedures “in an effort to ensure we are continuously strengthening and improving our expectations related to workplace culture and conduct.”

Eight House Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Frank Chopp, wrote in a joint statement that it’s “unconscionable that in this day and age we still face the ugly fact that sexual harassment is all too commonplace.”

They wrote that they would work with other caucuses, legislative staff and lobbyists to coordinate efforts.