The chair of the Oregon Democratic Party urged members of the Oregon state Senate on Monday to “take whatever steps are necessary” to show they are committed to eradicating harassment at the state Capitol.
The letter from Jeanne Atkins to members of the Senate Democratic caucus comes amid questions about Senate President Peter Courtney's leadership, and it urges strong action to “establish a new era of positive and respectful dynamics” at the statehouse.
Courtney has come under increasing scrutiny for the way he has handled claims of harassment. There is also mounting pressure from some Democrats who worry that Courtney’s leadership could derail an ambitious agenda for this legislative session — including attempts to raise $2 billion in taxes for schools and passing a cap and trade policy — if harassment issues remain unresolved.
Two editorials published in The Oregonian/OregonLive last week had very different takes on Courtney's handling of harassment at the statehouse. Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, thanked Courtney for addressing her concerns regarding former lawmaker Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, who was forced to resign amid accusations of sexual misconduct. Audrey Mechling, a former legislative staffer, argued it's time for new leadership.
“I can say with near certainty that none of the (other) complainants shares Steiner Hayward’s good fortune,” Mechling wrote. “I know that I am not alone when I describe my reporting of sexual harassment in the Capitol as a traumatizing experience in which I was intimidated into years of silence.”
Last week, Courtney addressed the harassment claims and his response for one of the first times publicly. Courtney has been named in a lawsuit by two former legislative interns, he is at the heart of ongoing mediations with the labor commission, and he recently came under fire for how he handled claims of harassment at Western Oregon University in 2000.
In a floor speech, Courtney said recent workplace training taught him how to interact with people in a more respectful manner:
“I myself found the training very helpful,” he said. “And I even started to implement it in my office in terms of saying things like 'hello,' when I come in the morning, and 'goodbye' when I leave.”
The letter from Atkins addresses those comments. “It is with alarm and confusion that (grassroots Democrats) hear it reported that new commitments to politely greeting staff are described as significant change," she wrote. “They understand that experiences vary among women in the Capitol but are frustrated to hear the accounts of any women being disputed or dismissed.”
Atkins’ letter also raised concerns that division among the Senate ranks is undermining the message that “harassment and abuse of authority, including everything from overt discrimination to the use of intemperate language with the public and subordinates, will not be tolerated in the Capitol.”
Senate Democrats held a caucus meeting on Monday without Courtney, who was reportedly not feeling well. Lawmakers didn’t allow staff into the meeting.
Atkins, who is not running for another term as party chair, said she believes she is speaking for many Democrats when she said she hopes the party takes advantage of its significant majorities in both legislative chambers.
“We understand that you face a good many significant policy issues this session and these issues of accountability for the Capitol environment may drain some of the good faith relationships you need to solve economic, revenue and other problems facing Oregonians,” she wrote.
This story may be updated.