Top Washington state Senate officials on Tuesday approved a trio of reforms aimed at boosting the chamber’s response to sexual harassment, representing the first policy changes made after a series of reports on sexual misconduct at the Legislature.
The Senate’s Facilities and Operations Committee’s most significant change was to approve annual sexual-harassment training for staff and lawmakers. Typically only new staff and legislators have been getting the training when they arrive at the Capitol.
Lawmakers have been promising a response after more than 200 women signed a letter to leadership titled “Stand With Us” that said the current system for reporting misbehavior isn’t working. The group was made up mainly of current and former lobbyists, leaders from advocacy groups and a bipartisan mix of lawmakers. It was sent to leadership last week with more than 170 signatories, although more have signed on since.
The letter followed a story in November from The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network in which women described experiences ranging from groping to inappropriate comments they have dealt with on the job. Accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced against two former lawmakers soon after, roiling the Capitol.
The changes also come 25 years after other allegations of inappropriate conduct caused a stir at the Legislature, leading to a front-page article in The News Tribune titled, “Sexual Harassment, Olympia Style.” One of the main sources for that article, who was granted anonymity at the time, came forward last week to talk about her experiences and praise the latest demands for change.
“I was glad to see that folks were coming forward and trying to make another surge towards equality,” Kristina Hermach said of the women who signed the “Stand With Us Letter.”
Senate leaders on Tuesday called the latest changes only the beginning of efforts to improve the environment for women working in the Legislature.
“What we have in place today is a start, but obviously it is not enough,” Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson of Maury Island said in an interview.
Along with the increased training, the Senate committee agreed to boost awareness of the chamber’s existing sexual harassment and misconduct reporting policies. The committee directed the Senate to post the policies on the internet, and make them available to lobbyists when they register through the Public Disclosure Commission.
Many women who lobby at the Capitol have said they have been worried about reporting inappropriate behavior on the job out of concern the fallout might hurt the chances of legislation they care about or harm their careers.
Lastly, the lawmakers decided to appoint a GOP and Democratic legislator to track progress on the issue.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, formally suggested making the harassment policies more available and increasing harassment training in a letter to the committee last week. She urged fast change to make it known the chamber is taking the issue seriously.
“I think that it’s just very important for us to act swiftly and with certainty to send a message to the people of this state who expect us to be the paragon of ethical behavior even though we may not always meet their standards,” Rivers said at the committee meeting Tuesday. “They expect us to be better than this.”
The House is currently having a consultant look at its policies and procedures on sexual harassment.
Beyond fast change, lawmakers say cultural change and broader improvements to policy must take place and be monitored to make sure the Legislature doesn’t revert to its old ways.
That idea was echoed last week by Hermach, who served as a communications official for Senate Democrats in the early 1990s before being fired, she believes, for unintentionally drawing the attention of male lawmakers.
Hermach was an unnamed source for the story by The News Tribune in 1992.
It was written to describe the culture at the Capitol after a sexual-harassment scandal engulfed Olympia: Former state Sen. Stan Johnson had resigned following allegations he made unwanted sexual advances to his former legislative aide.
That article described Hermach as “young, terribly dedicated and anxious to do well” and “professional yet pleasant.” Then she lost her job.
“I’ve been told (by supervisors) it was because I was so young and so pretty that the (legislators) were afraid they’d say something to incriminate themselves,” she told The News Tribune’s Patti Epler and Elizabeth Moore in 1992.
Although Hermach, now 50, says she can’t prove that’s why she was fired, she saw it as a clear sign the Legislature would do anything to protect lawmakers, rather than forcing them to not behave poorly.
Sitting in her Olympia home, Hermach recounted other memories from her time at the Capitol in an interview with The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network. She was often forced to “duck and dodge” around certain lawmakers. At times legislators would give her greeting cards.
“Just ‘attagirl, good job, I wanted to tell you that you look great today, I love having you in this arena, in my life,’” she said the lawmakers wrote. “I can’t say that I remember them exactly, but they were uncomfortable.”
The stories were reminiscent of women who told the three outlets earlier this month that they try to avoid men who give them lingering hugs, or touch their arms or lower backs.
There were other parallels, too.
Concerns about lawmakers having power — and women being afraid to report misconduct — were a key feature of the 1992 News Tribune story.
Hermach said she noticed a lot of “ the same behaviors” in the story from the present day that she and others experienced in the 1990s. Rather than express disappointment she said she was “heartened that people were telling their stories again.” She said she sees the national reckoning this year with sexual harassment and assault — brought forward by allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and now many others — as a platform to make change.
It also helped prompt her to speak on the record, 25 years later.
“I was glad to see that folks were coming forward and trying to make another surge towards equality,” Hermach said of the women who signed the “Stand With Us” letter.
After the stories in the 1990s, King County Councilwoman Jeanne Kohl-Welles helped rewrite the sexual-harassment policy in the Washington House as a new legislator.
Kohl-Welles, in an interview, said they made strides, but she said more must be done now. She also urged more routine training along with the more challenging task of culture change.
On Tuesday, top lawmakers in the Senate promised just that.
To start, they said they would convene with lobbyists to talk about other reforms needed at the Legislature. A group of lobbyists is meeting Wednesday evening to talk about what they might pitch to legislators.
The Senate’s immediate changes are a small step in the right direction, Rivers said. She called for “longer term steps” in the future so the public knows lawmakers are “taking this seriously and that we don’t tolerate this type of behavior.”
Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein