Colorado Legislature May Once Again Lead Country in the Fight for Gender Equity

Colorado Legislature May Once Again Lead Country in the Fight for Gender Equity (5)
Westword photo Illustration/istock
Colorado has long been a progressive voice for women’s rights. It was the first state in which men voted for women’s suffrage, nearly three decades before the 19th Amendment was adopted. The first state to elect female state representatives — again, decades before women across the country had a voice at the ballot box. The first state to loosen abortion restrictions, years before the U.S. Supreme Court would take up Roe v. Wade.

Fast-forward to October 2017, when the #MeToo movement took the Twittersphere, and then the world, by storm. Women and men outed their abusers, and powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and so many more came tumbling down from their ivory towers, unable to recover from the social fallout.

The #MeToo movement hasn’t just brought down Hollywood stars and media personalities on the coasts, however. It has reached the steps of statehouses across the country, including right here in forward-thinking Colorado.

After Representative Faith Winter spoke up in November about her sexual-harassment experience involving a legislator — an act of defiance on her part against what has been described as a “culture of silence” under and outside the gold dome — a stream of women and men have come forward to publicly name their alleged abusers. Four senators and two representatives have been formally accused of sexual harassment this legislative session alone.

“There has been a lot of sacrificing in order to try and bring the truth to bear,” says Senator Lucia Guzman, who stepped down in late March as minority leader, citing her inability to work across the aisle because of how Republican senators handled sexual-harassment complaints. “I think that’s why the #MeToo movement has been so important — it’s made up of thousands and thousands of people across this nation. Hopefully the sacrifice [of victims] will be honored by change.”

But what is supposed to be an empowering experience at the Capitol — women and men coming forward to speak their truth — has been riddled with accusations of political gamesmanship, lack of due process and consistency, drawn-out investigations and bickering over credibility. In addition, cracks have been revealed in the process for reporting and dealing with harassment at the Statehouse. But Republican and Democrat leaders both say they want a safe, harassment-free work environment — and to that end, legislators are coming to terms with their shortcomings, pushing reform efforts and, most important, working to re-establish trust with those who feel let down.

Colorado’s Capitol is by no means unique in its fight for gender equity and a more transparent process for reporting harassment. Every statehouse in the country is looking inward in the wake of the #MeToo movement to either review the efficacy of existing sexual-harassment policies or to codify protections for the first time in their histories. And some aren’t waiting to take action. Arizona expelled a state legislator in February, and a California senator abruptly resigned after colleagues called for his expulsion, generally the most severe punishment available for legislators. Colorado expelled Representative Steve Lebsock of Thornton, the first expulsion at the Capitol in more than 100 years. All were sparked by sexual-harassment allegations.

click to enlarge Longtime senator Lucia Guzman stepped down as the Senate minority leader over how lawmakers were handling sexual-harassment complaints. - JEFFREY BEALL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Longtime senator Lucia Guzman stepped down as the Senate minority leader over how lawmakers were handling sexual-harassment complaints.
Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons
In true Colorado fashion, the Centennial State may again lead the way in the fight for gender equity in state politics. Colorado is the only statehouse that has recommendations in hand for what could be the most robust system in the country for dealing with sexual-harassment complaints. But reforming our Capitol could be a challenge as political leaders in both parties struggle with how, exactly, to hold public officials accountable for their actions.

Representative Winter has advocated for women in politics for more than a decade in Colorado and across the country. She worked with Emerge Colorado, a nonprofit that helps women get elected to local and statewide office, and the-now defunct White House Project, which did the same but on a national level. After years of being that step up into elected office for women and eight years serving on city council, the Westminster Democrat made it into state office.

She wasn’t a new face at the Capitol. She had organized visits to the Statehouse for college-aged women interested in political careers and worked a short stint as an environmental lobbyist with Colorado Conservation Voters.

Those experiences tuned her in to the whisper network — a means of warning others about potential predators at the Capitol — before her election. The message: Don’t ever meet alone with those on the secret blacklist, be formal, and don’t let your guard down.

“The women in the building talk and protect each other, and that was the problem. It was mostly done in whispers behind the scenes on who people knew were not always respectful or up front or acted appropriately with women,” Winter says. “I had lobbied, and therefore knew many of the legislators in the building — for better or for worse.”

But she couldn’t have anticipated what happened in May 2016, when she and some colleagues were celebrating the end of the legislative session at Stoney’s Bar and Grill. It was there that she says Lebsock described to her sexual acts they could perform on each other and grabbed her elbow to get her to leave with him. Another legislator intervened and asked Lebsock to leave. Winter informally complained to House Democratic leadership days later and sought mediation. And she drew a red line with Lebsock: Harass another woman, and she would be the first to out him publicly.

“Representative [Dickey Lee] Hullinghorst spoke to him about it. Agreements were made that I was comfortable with at the time — that he would stop drinking, seek counseling, and it wouldn’t happen again. But even doing that was scary, because I was scared of retaliation and retribution by Representative Lebsock, and it was very hard for me to work with him from that day forward,” Winter says.

Then last year, Winter says, she heard that Lebsock had harassed other women since their encounter, and with the momentum of the #MeToo movement behind her, she kept her promise. She was the first woman to go public with allegations of harassment against him, and that quickly led to two other formal complaints and anonymously reported allegations.

Lebsock wasn’t the first Colorado legislator to become a political pariah over sexual-harassment complaints. (In 2008, for example, House Assistant Majority Leader Michael Garcia of Aurora was caught exposing his penis to a lobbyist at the Lancer Lounge and asking, “Wouldn’t this be real nice inside of you?” Garcia soon resigned in shame, though he insisted the conduct was consensual.) And unless real change takes place at the Capitol, he may not be the last.

click to enlarge Representative Faith Winter of Westminster, left, accused a fellow House Democrat, Representative Steve Lebsock, of sexually harassing her in 2016. - JEFFREY BEALL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Representative Faith Winter of Westminster, left, accused a fellow House Democrat, Representative Steve Lebsock, of sexually harassing her in 2016.
Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons
A Harvey Weinstein-esque character in the corporate world could be fired if the public backlash became untenable for a company. But translating #MeToo to statehouses, including here in Colorado, is trickier. Legislators don’t have traditional bosses. They don’t have shareholders or an executive board to keep them in check.

No individual can fire a legislator. It takes a rare show of force by a supermajority of the legislative body to expel — the equivalent of firing — another member of its team. Expulsion is the most severe form of punishment available to discipline legislators, and it is intended to be difficult to carry out. Lebsock was expelled in a landslide vote on March 2. (He refused to resign up to the bitter end, even after he was given a final chance before the expulsion vote.)

A GOP appointee filled Lebsock’s seat after the latter switched party affiliation just before votes were cast to expel him.

Representative Paul Rosenthal, a Democrat from Denver, was the second House member to be accused of sexual harassment this session, after he allegedly touched another man’s inner thigh and attempted to kiss him at a 2012 campaign event. House Speaker Crisanta Duran dismissed the complaint because the incident occurred before Rosenthal served in the House, but the three-term incumbent still lost his re-election bid in April.

Democrats tried to employ the same tactic in the GOP-controlled Senate against Randy Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican, over substantiated allegations that he slapped a legislative aide’s buttocks four times during the 2016 session. Lawmakers voted 17-17 not to expel Baumgardner earlier this month. Two other sexual-harassment investigations involving him are pending in the Senate.

Republican senators Jack Tate and Larry Crowder have also been accused of sexual harassment, and the charges against them have been found credible by a third-party investigator. Tate allegedly leered at an intern and made an inappropriate comment about her skirt in an elevator, and House Democrat Susan Lontine accused Crowder of pinching her buttocks and making inappropriate comments to her.

Democratic Senator Daniel Kagan is the latest lawmaker to come under fire for sexual harassment after being formally accused by a Republican senator of frequenting an unmarked restroom that was designated for women. So far, no expulsion measures have been proposed against Tate, Crowder or Kagan, and legislators have been inconsistent in their handling of the allegations.

Lebsock distributed what has been called a “28-page dossier” to every member of the House, sharing what he says was his side of the story. He even published a thirteen-minute YouTube video personally attacking Winter and accusing her of holding a vendetta against him because he didn’t support her bid for House majority leader.
He tweeted out against his accusers and paid for a lie-detector test, which he used as proof of his innocence.

The scandal created a toxic environment, one in which a House Democrat accused Lebsock of verbally threatening him and two legislators claimed they’d worn bulletproof vests to the Capitol for weeks out of fear of physical retaliation.

Baumgardner has no dossier; he’s been media-shy and tight-lipped. The Senate is still looking into several allegations against him, including whether he pressured a legislative aide to drink with him and created an offensive work environment by giving a female staffer unwanted attention.

Lawmakers are torn on how to proceed if the allegations are found to be credible.

“The highest ultimate punishment to me should be used for malicious criminal behaviors,” said Cheri Jahn, an unaffiliated senator who voted against Baumgardner’s expulsion, on the Senate floor in early April. “This stuff is a really, really big deal, and I take it very seriously. I take this process, as you all know, very seriously. I take the process serious for today and serious for the future.” Jahn added that she is concerned that legislators will frequently threaten one another with expulsion if the bar isn’t set high enough.

click to enlarge Senator Randy Baumgardner was formally accused in November of slapping a legislative aide’s buttocks on four occasions in 2016. - JEFFREY BEALL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Senator Randy Baumgardner was formally accused in November of slapping a legislative aide’s buttocks on four occasions in 2016.
Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons
Currently, there is no formal system for handling harassment complaints at the Capitol, particularly by legislators. There are no timelines for when complaints should be resolved, and there are no set standards for determining if a complaint is credible (the person fielding the complaint can decide whether a third-party investigation is necessary). Before this legislative session and the publicized sexual-harassment complaints, there wasn’t even a single human-resources professional in the building.

All that is available is a general twelve-page harassment policy, last updated in 2013, that defines workplace harassment, indicates to whom complaints should be directed, and mandates training for legislators on the issue. The Capitol has sixteen so-called designees to field complaints, including party leaders. The policy only generally states that discipline should be proportionate to the violation, but because disciplinary actions aren’t spelled out anywhere, it’s hard to know how to proceed.

As it is now, the system does little to convince victims that complaints will be swiftly handled or thoroughly investigated, making the decision to come forward with allegations that much more difficult.

“It was awful coming forward,” Winter says. “Your credibility is questioned, and in politics, you survive on your credibility — your credibility with voters, constituents, lobbyists. And to come forward...your credibility is questioned. You are blamed, and people ask you if you’re telling the truth. And in politics, we need to always show we’re telling the truth. So it’s high-stakes. It’s scary. You don’t know if you’re going to be believed, and so it’s easier to tell your friends and protect each other in numbers than to file a formal complaint.”

The current policy dictates that party leaders should investigate complaints against legislators, and either the House speaker or the Senate president — depending on which chamber the legislator in question belongs to — should dispense justice as they see fit. As lawmakers this session proved, even when third-party investigators are brought in, the credibility of their work can be challenged, causing even more confusion over the process.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, Senate Majority Leader Christopher Holbert and others have expressed reservations about the “more likely than not” disposition that third-party investigators use to substantiate claims of workplace harassment. Some senators have questioned the credibility of the allegations themselves, particularly against Baumgardner and Tate, arguing that the investigators they commissioned did a lousy job, failing to interview every potential witness and relying instead on subjective measurements of the personal credibility of the victims and the accused. For instance, no eyewitness testimony could corroborate that Baumgardner did (or didn’t) slap an aide’s buttocks; instead, the investigator determined that Baumgardner more than likely did so because of how he responded to the investigator and because the anonymous victim had no reason to fabricate the complaint. Since the complaints against Baumgardner broke in November, he has stepped down from his chairmanship on the Senate Transportation Committee and has taken additional sexual-harassment training — but he continues to deny the allegations.

Earlier this month, the Colorado General Assembly received a 235-page report that concluded a legislative workplace-harassment study conducted by Investigations Law Group, a private company that specializes in HR policies. The Executive Committee of the Legislative Council, comprising six of the highest-ranking political party leaders at the Capitol, commissioned the $120,000 report in January after multiple allegations had been lodged against legislators.

The outside investigator interviewed eighty people and surveyed 528, including legislators, lobbyists, legislative staff and aides, interns, volunteers and members of the media.

More than a quarter of survey respondents said that they had observed or experienced harassing behavior, sexual harassment in particular. That number rose to nearly half when respondents were asked if they had observed or experienced sexist behavior. Survey results indicated that legislators were the biggest group of harassers “by a large margin,” followed by lobbyists.

click to enlarge Representative Steve Lebsock was expelled from the House in March after five formal complaints of sexual harassment were lodged against him. - JEFFREY BEALL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Representative Steve Lebsock was expelled from the House in March after five formal complaints of sexual harassment were lodged against him.
Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons
A significant number of people said they had witnessed or were the targets of harassing behavior, but of those, only 13 percent actually lodged a complaint. Thirty-nine percent of respondents were afraid they would face retaliation if they registered a complaint.

“When you look at those findings, what that suggests is that you have a significant proportion of your workplace who has seen or is experiencing inappropriate behavior, [and] of those, a very small percentage feels comfortable bringing that forward,” notes Elizabeth Rita, CEO and senior investigator at Investigations Law Group. “It’s safe to say that no workplace in America would consider these numbers as an indicator that its culture around harassment is healthy or that its systems are working to detect, to deter and to deal with harassment.”

Sexual harassment wasn’t the only kind of behavior the firm investigated. Harassing behavior based on race, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability and more were studied. Second to sex-based harassment as the most prevalent form of abuse at the Capitol was sexual-orientation-based harassment, with 45.9 percent of respondents claiming to have witnessed or experienced it.

“These are not new issues,” Rita says. “I think people are [now] feeling empowered to speak up. It’s a necessary catharsis for the system when, generally, people were not raising concerns for a wide variety of reasons.”

Anonymous quotes from respondents included in the report capture the sentiments in the Capitol on a variety of issues. When it came to initiating a complaint, one person said, “I just didn’t feel like there would be any type of consequence. I don’t know if it would be properly handled. I don’t know if I could trust, if that makes sense, anyone to report it and that it would be confidential.” Others said they have “zero faith” that there would be follow-through or that confidentiality would not be breached.

The Executive Committee of the Legislative Council is reviewing the report and its recommendations, which, if enacted, would create the most robust system in the country for handling harassment complaints.

Creating a human-resources department is the most critical recommendation in the report. That department, which would be dubbed the Office of Legislative Culture, would be staffed by a human-resources director, an Equal Employment Opportunity specialist, a workplace-culture specialist and a confidential workplace ombudsman.

Once the Office of Legislative Culture is in place, a central repository for all harassment complaints would be housed there. So while those who are currently authorized to field complaints, such as political leaders, can continue to do so, all complaints must also be sent to the newly created office.

Here’s where things get more complex. As part of the recommendations, a complaint can be filed anonymously via a telephone hotline, online or by text. Once a complaint is logged, it will go through either of two channels: a formal or an informal process. An informal process would be resolved by the human-resources office within thirty days and would be used for lesser infractions, such as disrespectful or mildly inappropriate behavior that wouldn’t be considered unlawful or discriminatory. A formal process would take up to ninety days and would be used for more serious accusations, such as inappropriate touching or discriminatory behavior. In complaints against a legislator, the EEO officer would send its investigation findings to a nonpartisan volunteer advisory panel for disciplinary recommendations. Those recommendations would then go to a committee of legislators, who would vote on them. The committee could opt to disregard the recommendations and take action on its own.

Politics can’t be completely taken out of the equation, but having nonpartisan figures driving most of the process instead of party leaders could help legitimize the process.

“The fact that they want to depoliticize the process is one of the most important things we can do in changing the policies and moving forward,” Winter says.

Another major shift would be in transparency. Under current state statute, all sexual-harassment complaints and investigations in any governmental agency are shielded from public disclosure. The only reason that the public found out about sexual-harassment incidents at the Capitol is because the press caught wind of them. The report recommends that lawmakers lift the veil of secrecy and hold lawmakers accountable for their actions. Substantiated claims of serious harassment against legislators, lobbyists and any Capitol employees would be disclosed to the public annually. The yearly report would include the type of harassment and any resolutions but would only name the guilty party if he or she was a legislator.

General statistics on informal complaints and their resulting remedial actions would also be publicized, but details of the investigation, including names, and any internal reports would not be.

While House Democratic leadership had hoped to institute new policies before the legislative session ends in early May, the final decision is being punted to next year.

“It doesn’t make sense to me or some of the others to rush to meet a May 9 deadline and possibly get this done, not be inclusive and fall short of being a good, solid example for other states who might need to look at these other issues,” Senate Majority Leader Holbert says.

In order to facilitate the process, the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council will appoint legislators to a committee to thoroughly comb through the recommendations over the summer and fall. That committee will determine what recommendations should stay and which may need adjusting to fit the unique work environment that is the State Capitol. Some policy decisions may require amendments to state law, like those around public disclosure, before they can take effect. And the committee could decide whether legislators have to go through a workplace-harassment investigation if an incident occurs outside of the Capitol or the legislative session.
Depending on outcomes, legislators in both chambers may have to vote to implement new policies or appropriate money to the new human-resources office.

Policies alone won’t change the Capitol, of course. A commitment to improving the culture there will be the linchpin in eradicating inappropriate workplace behavior in the future.

As Rita observes: “If your only focus is to have the formal parameters around what we will not tolerate, what we will do if there’s a complaint, and you don’t have a change in the way things are really done in the workplace, you’ll have a lot of nice window dressing, and behind that storefront will be the same operation.”

Update: This story originally misstated Representative Rosenthal's standing in the legislature. He will leave the General Assembly when his term has expired in January 2019.
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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi