In the midst of an investigation into sexual misconduct in the Salem statehouse, Sen. Sara Gelser learned two law students had reported being the target of harassment.

She panicked that the man accused of unwanted touching — Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg — was still in the building and in contact with one of the young interns who had reported his harassment.

That can’t happen, Gelser told a task force charged with creating recommendations for the rules governing harassment in the Oregon Legislature.

Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, is pictured at the Oregon Capitol in this undated file photo. 

Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, is pictured at the Oregon Capitol in this undated file photo. 

Casey Minter/OPB

Gelser told the task force this week she never anticipated how difficult it would be to go public with allegations against Kruse.

Gelser accused Kruse of touching her breasts and placing his hand on her thigh under a dais last year. Her accusations prompted a high-profile sexual misconduct investigation that revealed Kruse had a pattern of “engaging in unwelcome physical contact toward females in the workplace.”

Kruse resigned amid pressure.

“I did not anticipate what it would feel like to turn on the radio to hear my name associated with the word ‘breast,’” Gelser said.

Gelser, a Democrat, described physical threats left on her voicemail and people who talked to her about the incident while she was shopping for groceries. People openly commented she was, “too fat or too ugly or too whatever to have experienced this behavior.”

“And I was a person in privilege to do that and I can’t imagine being a 23-year-old intern in that process, going through that process. That is why people don’t come forward and talk about these things,” Gelser said.

The state senator from Corvallis urged the task force to consider a handful of changes:

  • Create a pathway to put an elected member of the Legislature on temporary leave and/or removing them from the building while under investigation for sexual harassment.
  • Expedite the sexual misconduct investigative and hearing process, ensuring it isn’t drawn out.
  • Create a third, outside party, not affiliated with any political entity, where people can feel comfortable making reports of misconduct.

And perhaps the most difficult task remains: addressing the need for a cultural shift in the statehouse where politics and power dynamics are in constant play between lobbyists, the public and elected officials.

Even in the midst of the investigation into Kruse, Gelser said one male lawmaker asked her why she was complaining and said he would love it if he was harassed by an attractive female.

Former Republican state lawmaker Vicki Berger who sits on the task force commended Gelser for coming forward.

“I know what it’s been like for you. It’s been hell. The culture won’t change, the background comments won’t change until this kind of thing forces it out,” Berger said.

Legislative leaders have asked the commission to finish its work in time to introduce legislation and new policies during the 2019 legislative session.

The commission will meet again next month and is seeking input from the public.