#MeToo and the Colorado Legislature

In late 2017, a man allegedly groped Rep. Daneya Esgar at a banquet. While she did not name him publicly, she said they regularly work together. She felt a hand wrap around her thigh “and start moving upward.” When she gasped and said, “Oh my gosh!” he replied by saying, “Now, darling. You don’t need to make a scene.”

Actually, we do need to make a scene. Time’s up. This behavior is disgusting. We won’t tolerate it anymore.

As has been made abundantly clear in the Colorado Capitol since this past November, sexual harassment in politics is a systemic problem and a significant barrier to women’s full participation in government. You shouldn’t need a bodyguard to work at the capitol. Five different male legislators – from both parties and both chambers – have had formal complaints filed by staffers or colleagues alleging sexual harassment in the workplace. All five have issued denials.

One, Rep. Steve Lebsock, propositioned a fellow lawmaker for sex at an after-hours event. “I said no, five times… I used all the tools women have to say no. I laughed it off, I told him to go home to his girlfriend, I said no directly. Nothing worked,” said Rep. Faith Winter. When Lebsock didn’t stop, another male lawmaker intervened to help. That was just one of 11 allegations from five different women that were found to be credible by a third-party investigator. On March 2, after an intense seven-hour debate, the Colorado House voted to expel him from the legislature

Four other complaints have met with differing results.

One involved a gay man – Paul Rosenthal – allegedly grabbing the inner thigh near the crotch of another gay man at a campaign event. That complaint was dismissed due to the timeframe of the alleged occurrence.

Another legislator, Sen. Randy Baumgardner, has faced three formal complaints. After the first complaint — that he slapped or grabbed the buttocks of an aide on multiple occasions last year — was investigated and found to be credible, Baumgardner agreed to take sensitivity training and voluntarily stepped down from one chairmanship. Yet he faced no formal censure and retains the chairmanship of another committee. The two other separate complaints are still under investigation.

Accusation No. 4 is against Sen. Larry Crowder. A third-party investigation found credible the allegation that he pinched the buttocks of a female lawmaker in 2015 and made an inappropriate sexual remark to her in 2017. The two met in a private mediation session with two other legislative leaders in February, at which time Crowder apologized, but did not admit to doing anything wrong. There appears to have been no further corrective action.

It’s been two months and nothing has been done – at least publicly – since a formal investigation concluded it was more likely than not that Sen. Jack Tate harassed an 18-year-old intern. Over several months last year, he leered at her, nudged her and made comments about her clothes. One time, she alleged, Tate said to her, “if she wanted to move up in the world, give him a call.” The power discrepancy here is inescapable. Tate retains a committee chairmanship.

“I want him to answer for his actions,” the victim said recently. “The onus has to be put on the people in power to make that decision. It’s one small voice who is deemed credible. All I can hope for is the men in power who I looked up to do the right thing.”

A common thread of entitlement runs through these stories. These men somehow felt entitled to touch, grab, slap, pinch and say all manner of things. They are (or were) in positions of authority and they abused their power. And we know that the problem is not limited to these five individuals.

We cannot accept a statehouse where 40 aides and interns feel the need to write a letter to legislative leaders calling for more security because of the widespread sexual harassment. We cannot accept a situation where a few souls are brave enough to file formal complaints, but numerous others won’t for fear of losing their jobs.

Since 2016, there have been encouraging signs for women in politics, with record numbers of women running for and winning office across the country. But we can’t continue to ask these women to sign up for hostile work environments like the one that persists in the Colorado Capitol. It’s like saying, “Yay, you were elected! Now watch out for him, him and him.”

It’s time we start asking some different questions of candidates – Have you ever been accused of harassment? What will you do to ensure a safe working environment at the Capitol and every other workplace in the state?

We also need different candidates. A recent article from the Harvard Business Review says hiring and promoting women addresses the two root causes of sexual harassment. In the parlance of politics, that means we have to elect and appoint more women if we want a safer workplace under the gold dome.

Besides, we think our democracy works best when it reflects the population. White men comprise 31 percent of our country’s population and hold 65 percent of elected positions, says Who Leads US. Women of color comprise 19 percent of our population and hold just 4 percent of elected offices.

While Colorado ranked first in the nation in the percentage of women legislators for several years with 42 percent, we actually dropped to fourth with 38 percent after the 2016 election, says the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. Represent Women gives Colorado a grade of “D” in part because we have never had a woman governor or a woman U.S. senator.

All Americans and Coloradans should want to help end sexual harassment. Women lawmakers, aides, interns, lobbyists, secretaries and cleaning staff deserve to work in safe environments.

Bodyguards and extra security may be a necessary short-term fix, but the real solutions are real consequences for the men who commit these offenses, and ultimately,  to elect more women.

Update: Since we wrote this post, the Colorado Senate considered expelling Sen. Randy Baumgardner. The resolution failed 17-17. Also, a formal sexual harassment complaint has been filed against State Senator Daniel Kagan for allegedly using the women’s bathroom repeatedly. He says he used it once by mistake due to lacking signage and a broken keypad, but other lawmakers are accusing him of using it multiple times.

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