Sen. Sara Gelser returned to the Oregon Capitol for the first time this week since she accused a fellow senator of sexual harassment.
Gelser said she was nervous at the thought of returning to work. But she was greeted by a bouquet of red roses from a legislative staffer and a pile of supportive postcards, many with the words “we believe you” written across the front.
“If everyone received this support, people wouldn’t be as afraid to come forward,” she said.
Stories of sexual misconduct in the hallways of statehouses across the country have prompted a broader conversation about what type of training and reporting structures are in place to protect victims — especially in an environment in which personal relationships are key.
The Oregon Capitol, like others, has a process in place for reporting harassment. And lawmakers receive regular training in how to avoid inappropriate behavior. But the accounts of Gelser and other women in Salem suggest the current structure isn’t working.
Last month, after reports that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused of harassing scores of women, Gelser accused Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, of inappropriately touching her multiple times over a period of years.
She was, she said, hoping to quietly resolve the issue. She didn’t anticipate the media attention or the decision by Senate leaders to strip Kruse of his committee assignments. She said she purposely filed an informal complaint with legislative human resources officials to avoid a special conduct committee — a public process — investigating the manner.
Gelser said it was hard to come forward. But it must be even harder, she said, for young legislative staffers.
“We have many women in the Capitol that don’t have as much security and privilege as I do,” Gelser said. “When we get through this, we have to see a change. We have to see the culture change and that people who act this way are held accountable. I hope there is no ambiguity that touching people when they don’t want to be touched is wrong.”
Despite having no committee assignments, Kruse was also in Salem this week. On Tuesday morning, he walked out of the office belonging to Dexter Johnson, the Legislature’s head attorney. He was back in Salem, he said, to focus on health care issues.
“I still have a job to do. There are some big issues and I want to get back to business,” Kruse said.
Kruse has denied the allegations made by Gelser. And he said he wants to let the current investigation, which is underway with legislative counsel, play out before commenting further.
“The process is the process,” he said.
Training Happens, But ...
Before the start of every legislative session, Salem lawmakers and staff gather for sexual harassment training.
A PowerPoint presentation covers the basics: what is harassment, what is discrimination and how to report both.
Harassment, the slideshow points out, could be a wide range of offenses from telling nasty jokes, viewing sexual images or asking a person about their sex life. Discrimination is treating someone differently because of their protected class status, such as race or religion. The training reminds legislators that complying with the law is important. Another slide warns lawmakers they don’t want to end up in the press for this type of behavior.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, said the examples used in the trainings often feel implausible. And they often miss “the subtle way of harassment,” she said.
Former Democratic lawmaker Mary Nolan also remembers the training being a rote process. “I had colleagues who didn’t take it seriously,” Nolan said. “They came late, left early … sometimes giggled through it. What was expected was to check a box; you breathed the air where the training was happening.”
Sexual harassment training has been happening for decades, said Patricia Wise, an Ohio-based lawyer who was part of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s task force examining sexual harassment training and policies in 2015 and 2016.
The data shows the PowerPoint presentations aren’t working.
“After decades of trainings we haven’t seen any improvements,” Wise said. “People aren’t engaged. People need real-life scenarios, they have to be realistic and leadership has to prioritize it.”
It’s not clear what would be the most effective training, since the data and research doesn’t yet exist, Wise said. Most employers don’t have the resources or will to engage in a workplace study to examine what actually works. But she’s hoping that’s about to change. Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the Legislature plans to hire an outside consultant to audit personnel policies and the Capitol environment.
When it comes to reporting, one thing is clear: “Reporting is the least likely response for someone who has been a victim of harassment,” Wise said. They’ll often tell a friend or family member, she said, but research shows most harassment victims avoid filing an official complaint.
Jennifer Drobac, a professor at Indiana University and an expert in sexual harassment law, said she believes having an independent hotline or ombudsman where people can report misconduct is helpful. Having an independent service take over any investigation can ensure the person investigating doesn’t have any conflict of interest.
“I keep emphasizing transparency, accountability and responsibility,” Drobac said. “This problem isn't going to change until legislators really internalize they need to treat women with respect and dignity and they won’t do that until there are consequences for failing to do so.”
Few Formal Complaints Are Filed
Lawmakers in Salem currently have two options if they feel they’ve been harassed.
They can file an informal complaint as Gelser did, when they want the behavior to stop and hope to avoid a public exploration of the action. In those cases, the legislative counsel and human resource department investigate the reports and speak directly to the person being accused of inappropriate behavior.
Two women made informal complaints about Rep. David Gomberg, a Democrat from Otis. The complaints were made years ago to Speaker Kotek, Gomberg said, and he doesn’t know who made them. He said he took “proactive personal steps,” including attending counseling after the allegations were made so he could better understand how to correct his behavior.
“I’ve done a lot of introspection on this,” he said, adding he was told his actions weren’t perceived as “sexual in nature” but that they made women feel uncomfortable.
“I thought I was a good judge of body language and of boundaries, and I was wrong about that,” Gomberg said. “Someone indicated I made them feel uncomfortable and I feel horrible about that.”
He’s noticed an increase in training over the years, which he finds helpful.
“More attentive and more sensitive to it, that’s the beginning of a solution isn’t it?” he said.
In Gelser’s case, she first reported her concerns about Kruse’s behavior in 2016. Johnson, the attorney for the Legislature, confirmed he spoke to Kruse, clearly articulated the problematic behavior and requested it stop.
Gelser has declined to say what Kruse did specifically, but told OPB that women in Salem have experienced a range of inappropriate behavior.
She said that includes: “being touched too long, having a hand on your thigh either above or below your skirt in what someone believes is just a friendly way, a hand around the shoulder where the fingers are going beneath your shirt, having someone pull you in too close, a hand that’s lingering on your lower back, or someone talking to you so closely that your ear is wet when you pull away.”
Gelser said the behavior with Kruse didn’t stop, and she filed another informal complaint last month. An investigation is ongoing.
Lawmakers can file a formal complaint or report to the counsel’s office. But doing so sparks a special conduct committee, made up of lawmakers, to publicly investigate. For formal complaints, there is an independent fact-finding investigation by someone unaffiliated with the legislative branch — such as an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice. Investigators make a report to a special committee on conduct, which exists in both chambers, who then conduct what essentially amounts to a hearing. Both the accused lawmaker and alleged victim present testimony and witnesses to the committee.
From there, the committee recommends action to the larger legislative body as a whole. Lawmakers could vote to take no action, to reprimand, censure, or make a motion to expel, which requires a two-thirds vote of the body.
Since 2013, there have been 5 informal complaints made to the Employee Services and Legislative Counsel concerning lawmakers, according to Johnson. Not all of them have been related to sexual harassment. No lawmaker has filed a formal complaint in the last decade, Johnson said. A special conduct committee has never been convened in the House or Senate to discuss a sexual harassment case in the same time period, according to Johnson.
There have been 12 informal reports concerning legislative employees in the same time period. For legislative staffers, there is a similar process in place but they can be disciplined by their direct supervisor. That's not the case for elected officials, which is why there is a special conduct committee option. One legislative staffer has filed a formal complaint.
When Gelser considered her options, she thought a special conduct committee would be too public and take too long. And Gelser pointed out, since it would be made up of her Senate colleagues, it would mainly consist of men. There are only eight woman in the 30-person Senate.
Gelser said she's not exactly sure what needs to change — other than men keeping their hands to themselves. But she is hoping lawmakers in Salem set a clear tone in the next couple of weeks that it’s time for a shift in the culture and an examination of the policies at the state Capitol.
“If we just go through this bubble and nothing happens and it goes back to the status quo and people get exposed to the same behaviors, rather than a moment of progress — it will be a step back,” Gelser said.