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Why sexual harassment persists in politics

New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., got her first tutorial about life as a woman in politics as a college intern at the statehouse in Jefferson City in 1974, when male lawmakers made lecherous remarks to her in the elevator; she took the stairs after that. When she became a state legislator in 1983, the lessons became more explicit when she asked the House speaker on the dais his advice for getting legislation passed.

“Claire,” she recalls his saying in a tone-deaf attempt at humor, “did you bring your kneepads?”

So “you can imagine how depressed I was,” the 63-year-old senator said the other day, recalling her reaction to news that a top Democrat in the Missouri General Assembly had sent explicit late-night texts to interns and that the Republican speaker of the Missouri House had exchanged “sexually charged texts” with a 19-year-old intern. Both men resigned last year.

It has been 25 years since Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee and propelled the term sexual harassment into the national spotlight. Once again, the nation is debating gender roles, amid a presidential campaign that features a woman, Hillary Clinton, who stands a chance of becoming the United States’ first female president, against a man, Donald Trump, who has been caught on a recording bragging about kissing and groping women whenever he wanted.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) speaks with an aide before a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 27, 2016. The news of multiple incidents of male lawmakers sexually harassing young interns in Missouri was particularly depressing for McCaskill, who can recall similar treatment as far back as 1974, as an intern herself in Jefferson City. (Drew Angerer/The New York Times)

Across America, women are increasingly emboldened to discuss the harassment they experienced. Last week, an Alaska lawyer accused Thomas of groping her at a dinner party in 1999; he has denied the claim as “preposterous,” as he did after the charges made in 1991 by Hill, who is now a Brandeis University professor. Since the release of the Trump recording, more than 10 women have accused the candidate of groping them — accusations that he too has denied.

But in this tumbling forth, there is another little-noticed truth: Politics and legislatures, like many other environments, remain rife with sexual harassment — and young people, including men, are particularly at risk, and still reluctant to speak out.

Power: In Tennessee, the House majority whip, Jeremy Durham, a Republican, was expelled in September after an investigation by the state attorney general uncovered “sexual interactions” with 22 women. They included a 20-year-old “college student/political worker” with whom the report says he had sex in his legislative office and at his home. None filed official complaints of harassment; the scrutiny came in response to investigative reporting by The Nashville Tennessean. Durham has denied wrongdoing, calling the reports “anonymous hearsay.”

In Texas, journalist Olivia Messer, writing in the Texas Observer in 2013, described a culture of “senators ogling women on the Senate floor, or watching porn on iPads and on state-owned computers.” In South Carolina, a 69-year-old Republican state lawmaker stepped down in April amid allegations that he had harassed a House page.

Experts in employment law and advocates of women’s rights say there are particular reasons that harassment can flourish in politics. At its core, sexual harassment is about power, and politics is the ultimate power profession. It draws in young people who are eager to advance and reluctant to make waves. And political organizations rise and fall around the fortunes of one central figure, a hierarchy that discourages reporting of harassment, because if the boss gets in trouble, everyone’s job is at risk.

“There’s an insular atmosphere, and people get heady with power,” McCaskill said. “When people are deferential to you for your position, I don’t think it helps.”

(The senator, who has often detailed her accounts of being a woman in a male-dominated political world, first told the kneepad story in her 2015 memoir, “Plenty Ladylike.” The legislator, Bob Griffin, Missouri’s longest-serving House speaker, could not be reached for comment and has never publicly responded to it.)

Taylor Hirth, who says that, as an intern, she was harassed by MissouriÕs former House Democratic leader, in Kansas City, Mo., Oct. 22, 2016. Hirth kept quiet for years but spoke out when other of his interns complained in 2014. (Christopher Smith/The New York Times)

Interns: Taylor Hirth, 31, said she remained silent when state Sen. Paul LeVota of Missouri, a former House Democratic leader, sent what she described as racy text messages inviting her to have drinks with him when she was his intern in 2010. “I make it a point not to drink alone with married men,” she wrote back to him. She said that the missives ultimately stopped, but that LeVota — who denied any wrongdoing when he stepped down — shunned her in the office afterward, denying her assignments.

She decided not to file a complaint. But when some of his other interns did complain, in 2014, they went not to state officials, but to their school, the University of Central Missouri. The university opened an investigation under Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law. The state Senate later hired an outside lawyer to investigate.

Then, in debating how to discourage harassment, some Missouri lawmakers proposed a new dress code for interns. McCaskill was furious. The new speaker rejected the plan.

Protection: Experts say employees of large private companies — and those in federal agencies — tend to have stronger protections than those who work in legislatures and are afforded better training about harassment. In a recent study, the National Conference on State Legislatures asked its members if discussion of sexual harassment laws and policies was included in orientations for new lawmakers. Of 48 legislative chambers that responded, only 28 said yes.

Here in Washington, Congress has set standards for itself that are different from — and less stringent than — those it established for federal agencies. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires federal agencies to conduct training and post policies regarding workplace sexual harassment, the commission does not have jurisdiction over Capitol Hill.

Instead, harassment complaints are handled by the little-known Office of Compliance. The office was created in 1995 after some high-profile cases — including that of Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, a Republican who was accused of making unwanted advances toward women — raised questions about why Congress was exempt.

The office has no authority to require workplace training. It has developed a voluntary program, but “not all members take advantage of it,” said Paula Sumberg, a deputy executive director of the office.

When Emily Martin, the general counsel of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, gave a talk to Capitol Hill aides, she said many raised questions about harassment and had no idea how to file a complaint. “There was the sense that it was just sort of the Wild West out there and they were on their own,” she said.

Rep. Ann McClane Kuster (D-N.H.) speaks at Hillary ClintonÕs campaign rally at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Oct. 24, 2016. Across America, women are increasingly emboldened to discuss their harassment;  Kuster recently spoke out on the House floor about the time a Òdistinguished guestÓ of Congress stuck his hand up her skirt during her internship there. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Congressional employees must undergo confidential mediation before their harassment complaints can go forward, “and the victim can face serious sanctions if they discuss it,” said Debra Katz, an employment lawyer. That restriction does not apply to other federal workers, she said. Katz represented young men who accused former Rep. Eric J. Massa, D-N.Y., who resigned in 2010, of harassment.

Women who have spent their professional careers in and around politics and legislative life know that the danger at 30 is not what it is at 20. They also acquire a kind of radar — some state lobbyists said they know which lawmakers not to visit alone — and develop a set of defenses, said Julie Mason, host of “The Press Pool” on Sirius XM radio.

“If you can’t handle this, you can’t cover politics,” Mason recalls her editor telling her when she was a reporter in Texas 25 years ago and she came to him in tears over politicians’ lewd gestures and remarks. So she toughened up, she said, and advises other women to do the same.

Much, of course, has changed here and around the country since the days when Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who served until he was 100, was accused of trying to grope Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in an elevator shortly after she took office in 1993.

Today, some men in Congress refuse to be alone with a woman when the door is closed, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Even before the Trump recording led to a new hashtag on Twitter — #NotOkay — women in politics were coming forward to tell their stories.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wrote in her 2014 book about a male colleague in the Senate who pinched her waist and told her, “I like my girls chubby!” Gillibrand did not reveal his name.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., kept silent for nearly 40 years: “My husband didn’t know, my children didn’t know,” she said. But she spoke out in June, on the floor of the House, about her own experiences, including the time a “distinguished guest” of Congress stuck his hand up her skirt when she was a 23-year-old aide on Capitol Hill. It happened at a fancy lunch; her congressman boss was seated next to her and had no idea. She was motivated to tell her story by something that happened outside politics: a rape at Stanford University.

Many women in politics say the culture will not change until there are more women around — and that is happening, albeit slowly. Today, women account for roughly 19 percent of Congress: There are 20 women in the Senate and 84 in the House. McCaskill’s chief of staff is a woman, as is her legislative director.

“I think that gives a signal to other young women,” she said. “It helps to have a woman in charge.”