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Capital Chatter: Specter of harassment hangs over Capitol

The Legislature, after a lengthy debate in the Senate, adopted rule changes for handling allegations of sexual harassment.

The specter of sexual harassment hung over the Oregon Capitol on Monday as the 2019 Legislature convened for its organizational session and Gov. Kate Brown took the oath of office.

Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem was re-elected handily to that position despite concerns raised by three fellow Democrats. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, counseled the House to create a harassment-free environment and to take this week's anti-harassment training seriously. The Legislature, after a lengthy debate in the Senate, adopted rule changes for handling allegations of sexual harassment.

As the day progressed, we learned that Courtney's longtime communications director had resigned after old allegations about him were recounted in the recent investigative report from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. At a press conference, a reporter asked Brown whether Courtney also should resign. (The governor did not answer directly, saying she supported the Legislature's presiding officers and believed their commitment to improving the workplace culture.)

BOLI's 52-page report about sexual harassment allegations in the Capitol raises is deeply troublesome, both for what it includes and what it leaves out. Overall, the report underscores that the Legislature's process "utterly failed," as Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, said on the Senate floor on Monday.

Having read the report several times, I keep coming back to an incident described on pages 31-32. It illustrates how a situation can be an interpreted in different ways, depending on the framing, and it raises questions about power, personalities and political relationships within the legislative realm.

According to the report, Senate President Courtney was in a coffee shop at Salishan when Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, confronted him with her ongoing concerns about the Capitol culture. The conversation escalated, he lost his temper and his wife had him leave.

Courtney subsequently apologized to Gelser in front of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Although the report doesn't include this background, the 18 Democratic state senators were at Salishan in November for their biennial caucus retreat, including electing their caucus officers. Ginny Burdick of Portland was re-elected as majority leader. Gelser was not chosen to continue as deputy majority leader; instead, the Democratic senators elected Elizabeth Steiner Hayward of Beaverton.

Here is a key fact: Gelser and Steiner Hayward had both filed formal complaints of sexual harassment against then-Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, but subsequently took different paths. Gelser remained outspoken, urging others to join the call for Kruse to resign, which he did as Senate leaders worked behind the scenes to oust him. Meanwhile, Steiner Hayward let the investigative and political processes play out. Legislative rules at the time dissuaded complainants from discussing their cases with others.

Gelser was among the "Silence Breakers" honored by Time magazine as 2017 Person of the Year for launching the #MeToo movement — standing up to sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, media, sports, academia, politics and throughout American life.

The BOLI report recounts in detail that Gelser did not feel supported by the Oregon Legislature's leadership, management and some colleagues. Yet the investigators did not interview Steiner Hayward, Courtney or Kotek, among others.

That takes me back to the coffee shop incident: Was it inappropriate for Gelser to interrupt and/or confront Courtney when he was at a restaurant with others? As the saying goes, "Timing is everything." But we all want to be heard; and if someone repeatedly feels stifled in having her concerns heard, what recourse is there other than to take every opportunity to do so? To quote a bumper sticker, "Well-behaved women rarely make history."

Politics is about relationships, which is why people may fear retaliation if they speak up or challenge the powerful. Legislators are effective only if they have solid working relationships with their colleagues and staff members and are mutually respected.

Thus, was Gelser an effective lightning rod for change, did she burn political bridges – or both?

A similar question applies to newly elected Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland. Courtney's campaign committee donated $5,000 to Fagan's campaign in August. On Monday, Fagan voted against Courtney as president and said in a vote explanation that Courtney was accused of "a gross misuse of power."

Another newcomer, Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, voted for Courtney but called on him to do more. So did Gelser, whose lengthy vote explanation said she followed through on her commitment made in November to support the Democrats' nominee for Senate president. In her statement, Gelser also said her request for a Democratic caucus meeting to discuss her concerns had been denied, and she hoped for an independent investigation into actions by the Senate President's Office.

The BOLI report quotes Gelser as saying, "I have heard a lot from [legislative] leadership, that I am unlikeable, that I'm disliked, that I'm unfriendly, grandstanding, media hungry."

Those descriptions of Gelser could be legitimate; they could be sexist; they could be a combination. They are not unlike labels applied to other high-profile individuals who embraced #MeToo.

To a lesser extent, similar remarks were made behind Steiner Hayward's back early in her Senate career. At the time, I was told that her controversial vaccination legislation failed in part because even fellow Democrats were irritated with how much she talked during floor debates. Again, that sounds sexist, but it could be legitimate. Lawmakers don't care for anyone, but especially a newcomer, who is seen as hogging the microphone.

Steiner Hayward is now a top leader in the Senate, including serving as co-chair of the powerful budget committee. The other Senate co-chair is Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who is known – even revered – for her independence. Gelser remains a committee chair but her political influence may have diminished.

Who's right? Who's wrong? The questions, let alone the answers, are not that simple. Except for this: Likeability, popularity, gender, age or role should never be cause for sidelining or dismissing a legislator's, or anyone else's, concerns about the workplace environment. The Legislature has an ethical and legal responsibility to promptly, effectively and compassionately investigate any allegation of sexual harassment, bullying or other misconduct at the Oregon Capitol.

Training shut down: The federal government's partial shutdown prevented staff of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from conducting the planned four-hour training for the Legislature and staff on "Respectful Workplace – Preventing and Reporting Harassment/Management Best Practices."

Other training held this week included "Building Full Inclusion at the Oregon State Capitol — Unconscious Bias Training," "Mandatory Reporting & Management Training — Reporting Abuse & Members as Managers," an all-day workshop on civility and a safety briefing from the Oregon State Police.

Republicans lead, temporarily: Sen. Jackie Winters, R- Salem, and Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, presided over their respective chambers on Monday until Courtney and Kotek were re-elected.

In another bow to bipartisanship, the opening-day script called for procedural motions to be made by Republicans as well as the supermajority Democrats.

After their swearing-in ceremonies and training this week, the 90 legislators will return to the Capitol on Tuesday to start their 2019 session.

Brown's last term: Gov. Brown said her inauguration on Monday was a little bittersweet because it marked the beginning of her final term as governor. Because she filled nearly four years of Gov. John Kitzhaber's unexpired term, under the Oregon Constitution she could run for only one additional four-year term.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.