Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek said the state Legislature will hire an outside consultant to review personnel policies after recent sexual harassment allegations in Salem.
“We clearly need to do more,” Kotek said.
About 130 women who have worked in the Oregon Capitol — lawmakers, lobbyists and activists — joined the growing public conversation spurred by the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
The Oregon government insiders, from both sides of the political spectrum, signed a letter calling out an environment where sexual harassment is pervasive and the power dynamic makes it particularly systemic. Oregon has more women in political leadership than most states, with a female governor and two top Democratic positions in the state House held by women.
“But it’s still not enough,” read the letter, which is meant as a sweeping public statement of solidarity.
“As women working in the halls of our democratic institutions, we want to empower women to speak up without fear when they have been harassed, bullied, or dehumanized,” the women wrote. “… No more sweeping it under the rug, no more being made to feel like you should have done something to prevent it.”
The Oregon letter echoes one written by female lawmakers and lobbyists in California earlier this week. House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said leaders in the Oregon statehouse want to demonstrate their support for a cultural shift in Salem.
Williamson said it’s important that anyone who enters the state Capitol, no matter their position in the power structure — intern, lobbyist, staffer or lawmaker — feels comfortable reporting action that makes them uncomfortable.
Rep. Jodi Hack, R-Salem, pointed out that although sexual harassment happens in workplaces across the country, statehouses are a unique environment.
“We’re in the capitol for six months in a very intense way,” Hack said.
Relationships are also crucial in the halls of state government. Everyone relies on collegiality to accomplish their work, and there is a pressure to maintain working relationships.
Earlier this week, Sen. Sara Gelser accused a state fellow lawmaker of inappropriately touching her starting in 2011 and spanning over several years.
In an interview with OPB’s “Think Out Loud,” Gelser would not describe the nature of Kruse’s behavior but said that women at the Oregon Capitol have experienced a range of inappropriate behavior by men.
She said these include “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.”
Kruse denied groping or sexually harassing women. He did acknowledge to The Oregonian he hugged his colleagues but said the actions were always friendly in nature.
Kotek said she’s hoping to capitalize on what might be a unique moment to improve mandatory trainings and personnel policies. She hopes an outside consultant will identify where current sexual harassment trainings fall short.