Sept. 1, 2018: SACRAMENTO BEE - After women said #MeToo, here’s how California lawmakers confronted sexual harassment
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By Alexei Koseff
The bombshells began dropping during the legislative recess last fall.
In October, as an unfolding sexual abuse scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein dominated the news, nearly 150 women signed a letter decrying widespread “dehumanizing behavior by men” in California politics. Among them were lobbyists, consultants, legislative staff and six sitting lawmakers.
The campaign launched a discussion about a culture of fear and retaliation at the Capitol, which women said had discouraged them from reporting pervasive harassment and allowed it to go unpunished. By the time the Legislature reconvened in January for the new session, two of its members had already resigned amid accusations of sexual misconduct and complaints had been lodged against at least three more.
In this moment of reckoning, inside the building and society at large, lawmakers passed more than a dozen bills addressing workplace sexual harassment by the close of the two-year session Friday night. Experts said these measures could make California a national leader on the issue. The Legislature also spent months developing a new process for handling its own investigations of inappropriate behavior.
“I’m proud to say we walked through that door — both as employers and as policymakers,” said Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who helped lead the committee that rewrote the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy.
Whether that has led to sustained changes in behavior around the Capitol, however, remains to be seen. A widely acknowledged shortcoming is that the Legislature does not yet have a way to deal with harassment coming from individuals who do not work in the building, such as lobbyists and constituents.
Women who signed the letter said the serious revision of internal rules had provided a boost of confidence in the institution. But it will take legislative leaders doling out real discipline for misconduct, they said, for harassers to understand that their actions will no longer be tolerated.
“Like with any relationship, when the trust is violated, the person can’t just do whatever to earn it back, whether it’s buying you chocolate or flowers or dinner, or whether it’s holding a committee hearing,” said Elise Flynn Gyore, a Senate chief of staff who spoke publicly last fall about being groped by former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra. “Trust is a journey, and I think we’re on that journey.”
The legislative proposals that emerged in response to the #MeToo movement were expansive and ambitious, reaching all the way to the top of the corporate ladder with a requirement for public companies to have women on their boards of directors.
A handful of the measures, such as a mandate for hotels to provide panic buttons for employees who work alone in guest rooms, faltered. But most that failed were regulations of the Legislature itself, including bills to make elected officials pay for their own settlements instead of the government and to allow staff members to unionize.