Women who signed a “Stand With Us” anti-harassment letter to Washington legislative leaders in November say they want a “safe, neutral space” to formally and informally report allegations of misconduct.
That’s one of several “next steps” outlined in an email obtained by the Northwest News Network, The News Tribune and The Olympian. The email was sent Thursday to more than 230 lobbyists, legislators and staff who signed the “Stand With Us” letter.
Currently, reports of misconduct go through the House or Senate administrations, which the women say can be a deterrent to reporting.
“Institutions exist to protect institutions and that doesn’t always align with protecting people who work within them,” said Rebecca Johnson, a lobbyist who was one of the driving forces behind the “Stand With Us” letter and who authored the next steps email.
Johnson said it’s not clear what a new reporting process would look like, but that the goal would be to make victims feel safe and supported if they decide to file a report about harassment or assault.
The email also calls on the Washington House and Senate to work together to tackle workplace climate issues at the Capitol. Currently the two chambers have their own anti-harassment policies and work groups.
“What we’re asking for is to unify those conversations,” Johnson said. “This is so clearly an issue that cuts across political affiliations, cuts across the caucuses, cuts across the chambers.”
Johnson said the proposals came out of a recent gathering of nearly 60 women who met to talk about their experiences with harassment at the Capitol. That meeting and the “Stand With Us” letter followed news reports about allegations of sexual misconduct at the Legislature.
The first of those reports by the Northwest News Network, The News Tribune and The Olympian quoted women who said, over the years, they had experienced everything from inappropriate comments to lingering hugs to pats on the bottom by both lawmakers and lobbyists.
In a statement, the newly appointed secretary of the Senate, Brad Hendrickson, said he plans to review the requests from the “Stand With Us” group and that “addressing these issues is a top priority.” The Senate has already mandated annual sexual harassment training for all Senators and staff.
The chief clerk of the Washington House, Bernard Dean, said he hasn't heard directly from the "Stand With Us" group, but plans to meet with lobbyists on the topic, likely in January when the Legislature reconvenes. Dean also said the House plans to distribute an anonymous survey to employees this week, followed by some focus group sessions. The House has been working for several months with an outside consultant to update its workplace policies and has ramped up sexual harassment trainings in advance of the 2018 session.
In recent weeks, current lawmakers in several states, including Oregon, have been accused of sexual misconduct. That has not happened in Washington state, although allegations against two former state representatives did emerge. Johnson, the lobbyist, said she is aware of women who work in Olympia who have had “experiences with folks who are still around today.”
Previously, some lobbyists said they keep an informal list of lawmakers and lobbyists who have made women feel uncomfortable or worse. Johnson confirmed there are ongoing conversations about putting that list in writing and sharing it more widely within the lobbying and legislative community.
“The culture of sexual assault, the culture of sexual harassment thrives in secrecy and that veil of secrecy has been lifted, and I think that’s what changes the culture, that’s what changes the institution,” Johnson said.
This story was reported in collaboration with Walker Orenstein with The News Tribune and The Olympian.