Leaders in the state Senate have taken a necessary step to address the Legislature’s problem with sexual harassment, but more needs to be done. Rules and procedures for filing complaints must be consistent between the Senate and the House in order for guidelines to be effective.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement that has served as an awakening to the issue of sexual harassment, more than 200 women who have worked at the Capitol — including past and present female legislators — signed a letter earlier this year decrying the culture surrounding the Legislature. “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 read, in part.
The letter stressed that the women felt they had no neutral place to report harassment and had little confidence that meaningful consequences would result.
Recently, Senate leaders approved the establishment of a new human resources office to handle complaints of misconduct. That follows recommendations from Senate staff, but it also demonstrates a disconnect between the Senate and the House of Representatives. The chambers failed during this year’s legislative session to create a joint task force to craft new policies, and a House group is devising its own approach to the issue.
Sooner rather than later, the Senate and House must reconcile their work and create a single nonpartisan office to hear and address complaints. It would be self-defeating to have different rules on the two sides of the Capitol and different offices to vet complaints. The Senate also must do more to address harassment of lobbyists, who work in the Capitol but are not employed by the Legislature.
For those who attempt to diminish harassment reported by women, we offer a simple question: What if your wife or daughter were treated in such a fashion? What if your sister were harassed by a legislator who had a say in her current and future professional prospects? Nobody in a professional setting — or anywhere else, for that matter — should be subjected to unwanted innuendo or sexually aggressive behavior.
In 2011, Rep. Jim Jacks, D-Vancouver, resigned and told The Columbian it was “because I’m an alcoholic.” Last year, revelations emerged that sexual harassment accusations led to his resignation, and a lobbyist recalled: “He’s tall, he does the arm on the shoulder, inappropriate hug, fingers accidentally grazing your breast. It happened frequently. Every time, not an accident.” Jacks responded in an email to Northwest News Network: “I deeply regret my actions that were inappropriate during my tenure as a state legislator. I think the conversations today about workplace harassment are important and necessary and can create lasting change — I want those safeguards for my family, my wife and children.”
That must be the goal of any policy. Victims must have a trustworthy outlet for complaints and assurances those complaints will be taken seriously. Those who work in the Capitol also must have clear guidelines about what constitutes harassment.
The #MeToo movement has led to the downfall of many powerful and prominent people and has turned a spotlight on unacceptable behavior. But the true power of the movement can be seen when that spotlight reaches into the places where accusations do not garner headlines.