In the midst of the #MeToo movement, Oregon’s legislative leadership said they were committed to changing the culture of the statehouse in Salem.
A hearing at the state Capitol on Thursday provided a glimpse into how difficult that might be.
For the first time, lawmakers heard from the group crafting rules that would govern harassment policies. The conversation revealed the complex nature of the statehouse: where power dynamics are often at play and different world perspectives play a role.
P.K. Runkles-Pearson, the chair of the Oregon State Capitol Workplace Harassment work group, started by telling lawmakers it was evident the statehouse was clearly a work environment that presented a “culture in need of repair.”
“The existing shared cultural understandings in this building have not yet evolved to create a place where everyone works together to create a welcoming environment for everyone, every time,” Runkles-Pearson said.
A group of lawyers, former lawmakers, judges, lobbyists and other stakeholders have been working for months to address culture change at the Salem statehouse.
They presented a wide range of draft recommendations, including creating an equity office primarily to tackle investigations and conduct climate surveys and training.
But the meeting also revealed how a shift in culture is not only about more robust training, explaining generational differences and clarifying rules and regulations, but also how that change could be complicated by factors like geography.
Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, who was until recently the House Minority Leader, pointed out that the statehouse is full of people who come from all over the state and have a range of perspectives.
He asked about one of the provisions under the “protected status” section of the commission’s report. McLane pointed out that some people from rural parts of the state, in particular, do not believe there are more than two genders and a person is born with the gender that they should be identified by.
Some people “see the world very differently,” McLane said.
"Could using the wrong pronoun get a conservative lawmaker in trouble?" he asked. "I would sure hate someone from Prineville or Paisley to be deemed to have harassed by a standard that is from Northwest Portland."
Runkles-Pearson said the process of "dead naming" a person, which is using a transgender person’s former name or pronoun, makes someone feel unwelcome. And she said these are the types of conversations lawmakers should be having.
“I do think these conversations are important and it’s important to open a conversation on how to make everyone feel welcome and a valued part of this community,” Runkles-Pearson said. “Rather than have transgender people sit in silence and feel unwelcome … [We shouldn’t] bury the clash. It’s important to bring it out in the open.”
But it’s clear the variety of perspectives could add to an already complicated task.
Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, was forced to resign his post after Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, came forward with allegations against sexual misconduct.
An investigation revealed Kruse had a longstanding pattern of harassing behavior, but there is still no consensus on whether he was treated fairly.
Newly elected Senate Republican Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. said he still feels the Kruse situation was overly politicized.
“When are we going to realize that nobody is perfect? Nobody is perfect … we’re all humans. We all make mistakes and the Kruse incident was unfortunate," he said. "Because all we did was concentrate on the bad things and nobody wanted to bring up the good things Sen. Kruse did. It’s just unfortunate."
Dirk VanderHart contributed to this report.