The ABCs of Washington state’s government
An inquiry by a high-ranking legislative staff member found no evidence that any member of the Senate Democratic caucus made sexist or racist statements in closed-door meetings during the 2019 legislative session.
The review by Senate human resources officer Tara Parker was prompted by a June 25 article in the Kent Reporter about a speech by State Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent. Speaking to the Kent Chamber of Commerce legislative forum, which was videotaped, Das accused her Senate Democratic colleagues of using “coded language” during caucus meetings. She did not name anyone.
Das, who was born in India and moved to the United States with her family when she was eight months old, said in the speech: “The hate, sexism, racism and misogyny I experienced when that caucus room door closed would shock only the white folks in the room because the brown folks know it’s there.”
The secretary of the Senate requested an investigation into Das’ allegations to determine whether Democratic senators used demeaning and derogatory language, which would violate the chamber’s Policy on Appropriate Workplace Conduct. Das did not file a formal complaint.
Parker said she didn’t find any evidence after interviewing 12 Democratic senators, including seven of the eight members of color. She also interviewed two Republican senators and three House members, whom are not identified in the report.
“Sen. Das spoke at length with me about her statements to the Kent Chamber of Commerce. She regretted that the language she used conveyed something quite different from what she had in mind,” Parker wrote in her 8-page memorandum to Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson. “Specifically, when she spoke of `hearing misogyny and racism and sexism from people you would not expect,’ she did not mean to suggest that her fellow caucus members used overtly racist and sexist terms or expressions.
“Instead, she was referring to ‘a few’ colleagues who were purportedly dismissive and disrespectful when members of color raised concerns that specific legislation could disproportionately impact communities of color. She declined to name the members she was referring to.”
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane said it was “gratifying but not surprising” that Parker found no incidents of racism or sexism in the Democratic caucus room.
“Those are not reflective of the values of the Senate Democratic Caucus. In fact, we have worked hard to elevate marginalized voices and to pass policies that work to address institutional bias. I am proud of our record on these issues, but we can always do more,” Billig said. “As the report states, institutional biases exist in the Legislature as they exist in most institutions. It is our job to continue to move the Legislature forward and foster an environment that ensures all voices are heard.”
Parker wrote that several senators, including members of color, said they very dismayed by Das’ statements to the Kent Chamber of Commerce.
“First, they were upset because her assertion that members said sexist and racist things in the caucus room was untrue and disparaging. Second, they felt that her reference to caucus room debates was a breach of professional trust that may inhibit open and candid exchanges moving forward,” Parker wrote. “They noted that her statements diminished the trust and respect that is necessary for the Caucus to engage in sensitive policy debates, including those regarding racial equity, diversity and inclusion.”
Parker said her inquiry found “broad agreement” among Senate Democrats that “institutional and unconscious bias are problems that need to be addressed in the Senate and in every institution.”
Parker said Das, first elected to the Senate in 2018, told her that traditions in the Senate reflect an inherent bias in favor of seniority.
“She emphasized that it was common for senior members to tell new members that they should generally refrain from speaking in caucus. She said this was conveyed as intended to help the new members ‘listen and learn.’ Sen. Das explained that she felt like it created a culture where voices like hers, and the perspectives of the marginalized people who had not had legislative representation, were ‘silenced,’ “ Parker wrote.
In a written statement after the inquiry was released Monday, Das said: “During my time as a senator, I hope to be an advocate for people who traditionally haven’t had a place in our government and other positions of power. I’m proud to be a member of the most diverse Legislature that has served Washington to date, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to address institutional racism in our government and throughout Washington.”
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said the outcome of the inquiry didn’t surprise her because she works closely with Senate Democrats.
“I couldn’t see any of the people I worked with in that caucus doing any of the things that they were accused of,” she said.
Rivers said Das’ speech to the Kent Chamber of Commerce legislative forum hurt several people, from her fellow Senate Democrats to the Kent Reporter journalist who covered the event.
After the speech, Das said the newspaper mischaracterized her words. The Kent Reporter released a video of the Chamber of Commerce meeting, which showed the newspaper did not misquote or mischaracterize Das’ remarks. Das told reporters that she regretted her accusation against the newspaper and had apologized to the reporter.
“I feel like there has to be a consequence for such a misrepresentation,” said Rivers. “Otherwise, it’s that ‘no blood, no foul’ kind of attitude that I think is reprehensible, especially when the nature of this particular attack was pretty vicious.” When asked what that consequence should be, Rivers said she didn’t know but said she hopes the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee considers it. The panel manages administrative and operational matters.
An aide to Das said she was out of town and unavailable for an interview.