Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Peter Courtney picked up the Senate gavel again Thursday morning, taking an unexpected break from an ongoing medical leave.

The reason for the Senate president’s surprise appearance didn’t thrill everyone present.

Courtney, who’s faced repeated allegations that he hasn’t taken reports of sexual harassment seriously, had come to vote for a resolution showing support for sexual assault survivors. Before the hearing was finished, he wound up making his most public apology to-date for harassment in the Capitol.

“I publicly apologize to any and all survivors who have experienced any form of harassment … in the state capitol,” Courtney said. “We must do better. I must do better. That is why I made sure today I was coming here to vote ‘yes’ on this.”

The statement was remarkable for Courtney, who has weathered a sexual harassment scandal that emerged in 2017 despite allegations that he’s downplayed reports of harassment — both in the Capitol and while he was an official at Western Oregon University.

But it wasn’t a statement that the Senate’s longest running presiding officer had taken to the floor Thursday planning to make. And it offended some sexual assault and harassment survivors, who saw it as a political move that took away from the sentiment of Senate Concurrent Resolution 25.

“Survivors in the Capitol wrote a resolution to support survivors of sexual violence,” Audrey Mechling, a former statehouse employee and assault survivor wrote on Twitter. “Courtney decided to come back in order to vote yes so that he could co-opt their hard work and save face. This is not what leadership looks like. Our advocacy is not your photo op.”

The resolution declared the Legislature’s support for survivors, that lawmakers believe them, that more needs to be done about sexual violence and that it is a fundamental social problem.

“We need to believe those who have the courage to come forward with the truth of their experiences,” state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said while introducing the measure Thursday. “That must always be our first reaction, our first response.”

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, suggested the resolution was “the first step” toward a culture change. “Because the first thing you must do to change our culture is to support and believe survivors. They are among us today. They might even be you.”

In fact, some of those in attendance privately bristled at Courtney’s decision to attend the hearing. And state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who has had a leading role in bringing harassment issues to light, gave a floor speech that offered an unsparing view of Courtney’s leadership.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Capitol in Salem, Ore.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Capitol in Salem, Ore.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Gelser recounted coming forward about inappropriate touching by a former state senator, Jeff Kruse, in 2016. She noted that Kruse remained in office after those concerns, and went on to victimize others in the building.

The case eventually led to two investigations — one by the state’s labor bureau. Earlier this month, the Legislature settled with nine harassment victims, agreeing to pay out more than $1.3 million.

“And yet every person in power still has their job,” Gelser said. “No person who could have spotted this, has engaged in this, has paid a fine.”

She continued: “It’s not time to move on until we have genuinely apologized, told these people that we believe them, that we know it was not just that one man.”

Following the meeting, Gelser said that Courtney’s presence had taken focus off of where it should have been: on the survivors of sexual assault. 

“The gesture of being here for that resolution I’m certain was well intended, but it did not have its desired effect,” she said. “It kind of had the effect of bumping a scab off of a gaping wound. The point is empowering the voices and making this focused on the people who have experienced assault and harassment.”

The resolution passed unanimously. Afterward, apparently swayed by Gelser’s speech, Courtney made his public apology — apparently the first he’s made that wasn’t written in a press release, and certainly the broadest. The business of the Senate continued.

Toward the end of the floor session, Courtney issued another apology — this one seemed to dispel the notion he might step down amid controversy. The apology was for his having to take medical leave for what his office has said were issues with his eyes.

“I want to apologize to the Senate for not taking better care of myself,” Courtney said. “I let you down. I let the institution down.”

He continued: “This institution continued to run like clockwork, and I can’t thank you enough.”

Courtney’s office said he planned to return home for medical leave following the hearing.