Stories of sexual harassment at the Washington state Capitol are coming out of the shadows. In the last week, several news stories were published about lawmakers’ sexual actions toward other legislators, staff or lobbyists that long had been kept hidden — by victims and friends of the suspects.
The stories date as far back as 2009 and span several years. Recent revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein — whose sexual assaults led dozens of women to come forward and tell their stories — helped end this longtime silence at the Legislature.
Washington’s was the fifth statehouse where misconduct by males was recounted in recent weeks.
In one of a spate of stories, Washington House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, acknowledged for the first time that former Democratic lawmaker Jim Jacks of Vancouver resigned his seat in 2011 amid sexual harassment allegations. Sullivan confirmed this during an interview with The Olympian, News Tribune and Northwest News Network. House leaders told a different story at the time.
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The Associated Press also reported on four women coming forward to tell about unwanted kissing and touching by former Olympia representative Brendan Williams, a Democrat, who left the Legislature after 2010 and now runs a healthcare association in New Hampshire.
Samantha Kersul, who works for the campaign arm of state Senate Democrats, told of Williams shoving his tongue down her throat as she went to use a restroom in a downtown Olympia club in 2009. Between jobs, worried about her future and distrustful of the Legislature, Kersul said she didn’t report it.
Jessica Bateman, a former legislative aide who serves on the Olympia City Council, said she received unwanted touching during a dinner with Williams in 2015 — and later a kiss — at a time she was running for council. “He knew I wanted an endorsement,” Bateman told The AP. “He was using his political power to manipulate me.”
In an email, Williams said he did not commit harassment in the workplace, but he apologized for instances outside of work that “caused pain.”
The years-long dam of silence about past sexual harassment at the Capitol finally broke on Tuesday with a news story from Olympia-based Austin Jenkins of Northwest News Network and reporter Walker Orenstein of The Olympian and News Tribune. The reporters initially talked to nine women about the Legislature’s workplace climate. The reported abuse included unwanted kisses on the mouth, touching on legs or grabbed buttocks.
Only two women agreed to be identified. They were former lobbyist Nicole Grant, who now works for the King County Labor Council, and former representative Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle.
But it took six years after Jacks resigned for Democrats’ Sullivan to confirm during an interview that Jacks, who had told The Columbian at the time he resigned due to alcoholism, actually quit after an aide’s harassment complaint. Sullivan said the harassment details were withheld to protect the woman who had worked for Jacks.
This refusal by House or Senate leaders to disclose records or complaints runs deeper than one case. Earlier this year, The Associated Press and other news organizations (which include owners of The News Tribune and The Olympian) went to court to challenge lawmakers’ claim that they can withhold records such as disciplinary reports, calendars and emails.
As President Trump’s past actions suggest, there are no guarantees that speaking up about harassment can make a difference. Trump was elected — despite a more than decade-old video surfacing late in the campaign that showed him bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. Trump claimed it was just “locker room talk,” a claim at odds with complaints from many women.
But the breaking news of the past week shows that a few women finally feel confident enough they can speak the truth about public figures — even if years after the fact — and be believed.
Our Legislature now must move decisively to create a healthier workplace culture. Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser of Kent already says she will push to exempt settled sexual harassment and assault cases from secrecy or gag rule agreements.
But more training for legislators and legislative employees is also needed. An outside consultant’s review already under way was another good idea. It is also essential that women and men can trust that when they step forward they are heard and their complaints are taken seriously.
And women in the workplace, especially younger and vulnerable women, must understand that harassment is not their fault.
It is only a hope at this point that our larger society is at a tipping point on sexual harassment — or that men who transgress in this way will promptly stop doing it.