Who would be surprised that the growing chorus of sex harassment complaints now includes some of the most powerful men in Texas who occupy the State Capitol?
As the Texas Tribune reported Tuesday, the allegations from female interns, legislative staffers and some lawmakers have been circulating for years. Female reporters covering the legislature have often traded stories about elected officials who linger a little too closely, make suggestive sexual comments and can’t keep their hands to themselves.
The Tribune reported interviewing two dozen current and former lawmakers and legislative aides who described upsetting and degrading incidents that included inappropriate touching and sexual advances. One former staffer recalled attending a party where a lawmaker seated at her table “shot his hand” up her skirt.
What’s notable about the Tribune’s story is that most of the women recounting these incidents want to remain anonymous. They don’t name the male offenders in the story — though they identify some as elected officials. The women said they didn’t report the degrading events to House and Senate administrators because they didn’t think there would be any consequences for the offensive actions. The women feared they’d lose their jobs or be professionally punished if they went public.
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Texas lawmakers should consider themselves lucky. So far, they are not being named.
But now that we’re finally talking about this not-so-secret secret, what measures should be put in place to stop the behavior under the state’s hallowed pink dome and provide victims a safe place to report?
Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, has an idea that may be a good start.
She wants state lawmakers to create an independently appointed committee that would investigate sexual harassment complaints. Garcia, who has just filed to run for the congressional seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, has asked her legislative staff to look at what other states are doing to hold powerful political people accountable.
Rep. Linda Koop, R-Richardson, has put the ball in the Governor’s court. She’s written a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking him to develop protocol to protect those who work at the Capitol. Here’s a chance for the Governor could exert his leadership by seriously responding to that request with a plan. Koop notes Capitol staff are often young and not aware of how and where to report misconduct. She wisely suggests providing education on how to effectively do that.
Dallas Attorney Ed Cloutman, a labor and employment specialist, says the good old boys who’ve been behaving badly for years should be aware there may be civil or criminal consequences for sexual harassment in the workplace even if you’re a powerful elected official. The outcome could be more than a slap on the wrist.
“If the activities merit a criminal investigation the complaint can be forwarded to the district attorney,” he said.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal has opened a Pandora’s Box that should make every office, industry, and organization sit up and take notice. Women are speaking out even though they’re often still concerned about retribution. What was never acceptable increasingly is not being tolerated.