For years, she prided herself on “not being one of those women who couldn’t take a joke.”
To be successful, she figured, she needed to earn the title of “good old boy.”
The sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have kicked off a national debate about the treatment of women that has spread to statehouses across the country, including Salem.
Earlier this week, Sen. Sara Gelser accused a state fellow lawmaker of inappropriately touching her starting in 2011 and spanning over several years.
Dilkes says it’s not just Gelser, but rather a pervasive cultural problem in Salem.
Now a veteran lobbyist, Dilkes felt a responsibility to give a voice to her female colleagues who have been subject to unwanted touching in the state capitol.
For years, Dilkes said, she worked to cultivate respect in the building. So when a certain male staffer would lean in close and wrap his arm around her waist, she would simply try to slide out of his grasp. He touched her shoulders. He urged her to smile more. She never reported him. She simply tried to avoid him.
There’s an unwritten code amongst the lobbyists in Salem: The more you know, the less you say.
“You don’t earn trust by being known as someone who talks,” Dilkes said.
This staff member had the power to kill her bills, affect her livelihood and damage her reputation.
He also never propositioned or groped her. She often cringed and felt uncomfortable in her work place. But she second guessed herself sometimes: Was his behavior actually sexual harassment? Was she overreacting?
“You can deal with overt situations. This is often more subtle,” she said.
Over the years, Dilkes has adopted certain techniques. If she sees him coming down the hall, she will change directions or keep an eye on him to make sure she doesn’t need to move.
She used her briefcase as a physical barrier and maintained a certain distance.
And there are other men with whom she knows to stand defensively when chatting.
In general, members of the lobby are often “on alert,” she said.
“We’re constantly thinking about, ‘Is the door closed? Should it be closed?” Dilkes said.
The conversation about appropriate workplace behavior has spread across the political spectrum. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, only the state’s second female governor, has worked in the state capitol for more than 20 years. She knows exactly the kind of behavior Dilkes is talking about.
“It’s subtle,” the governor said. “It’s humiliating, and it’s embarrassing.”
But Brown has long been in a position of power as an elected official. For lobbyists, who rely on personal relationships to promote their clients’ interests, it can be tougher to stand up to harassment or inappropriate behavior.
“We all rely on relationships to do our jobs,” Brown said. “It’s really hard even for me to say, ‘That’s uncomfortable.’ I can’t imagine what it’s like for lobbyists.”
The governor pointed out that well-known, high-paid actresses had a difficult time speaking out about being harassed by Weinstein. Now, she said, envision how hard it would be for a woman who doesn’t make millions of dollars a year, who depends on her job to put kids through college or pay a monthly mortgage.
“This is really about a culture change, right? We all play a role,” the governor said. “We can’t expect the culture to change by relying just on women. Men have to step up, too.”
Gelser and another unnamed senator have accused Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Republican from Roseburg, of inappropriately touching them.
Gelser has declined to say what Kruse did specifically, but told OPB that women in Salem have experienced a range of inappropriate behavior.
She said that includes: “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 the allegations. He told Roseburg’s News-Review that he never inappropriately touched Gelser. Kruse did admit to smoking in his office despite state law. In a letter made public this week, Senate President Peter Courtney said Kruse’s continued smoking demonstrates a “disrespect for the laws of the state and the Capitol as a workplace.”
Courtney called for removing the door to Kruse’s office. He also stripped Kruse of all his committee assignments following the allegations about inappropriate physical contact.
“Continuing to touch women at work is inappropriate workplace conduct of which you have already been warned. Let me be very clear,” Courtney wrote. “Women in the Capitol do NOT want you to touch them.”
Since Gelser’s accusations, a chorus of voices have called for a cultural shift in the Oregon Capitol.
Gelser said she’s received an overwhelming amount of support since going public with her accusations against Kruse. But she said some of the reaction points to the reasons women don’t share their stories.
For example, some people immediately questioned whether she acted quickly enough and whether the touching warranted being called “sexual harassment.” One registered lobbying organization - the Oregon Firearms Federation - took to Facebook to question whether Gelser was attractive enough to warrant being sexually harassed.
“This is happening for women in our building all the time. Sometimes it’s staff and sometimes it’s legislators and sometimes it’s lobby,” Gelser said. “It’s part of the culture of that capitol building, and it’s very difficult to address because it’s based on collegiality and relationships and trying to get along with people.”
Gelser said she initially filed an informal complaint with the Legislature’s human resource and legal department in 2016, which started an investigation into the allegations. Action was taken in a quiet way, Gelser said, and Kruse was asked to stop. He did not, she said.
Gelser said she had no intention initially of making the allegations public. Her story came out after a legislative aide accused her on Twitter of taking a campaign donation from Weinstein. He gave the Oregon Democratic Party a $5,000 contribution in the 1990s, before Gelser was in the legislature.
“The goal wasn’t to embarrass anyone or cause any problems,” she said. “I just wanted to go to work and not be touched, and I know other people felt like that, too.”
It took Rep. Julie Parrish, a Republican from West Linn, about 30 minutes into a conversation about how women are treated in Salem to mention she’s often referred to as “bitch” or “crazy” in the Legislature. It was as if such treatment is so commonplace, it’s barely worth mentioning.
“If you are a woman in politics you’re sometimes perceived as crazy, a bitch or a crazy bitch,” Parrish said. “You have to be more forceful … and then get the reputation, ‘She’s difficult to work with.’”
Republican Rep. Jodi Hack, a second-term legislator and the only GOP woman in a leadership role, said she’s witnessed examples of what could be considered a hostile work place. She declined to give details.
“The culture exists in Salem, like it exists in California and everywhere else,” she said. “It happens … And I want to take this opportunity to pave this way for the next generation of women. This is really the (start) of a culture change.”