The fallout over jokes in reference to the woman accusing U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault while in high school posted by several Colorado Republican officials on Facebook has taken a bizarre turn.
Democrats in the Colorado General Assembly have authored a letter asking that the individuals in question submit to mandatory sexual-harassment and diversity training to address their alleged biases — something, presumably, that they'd have to do under any circumstances. Meanwhile, Republicans point to the fact that one of the missive's signatories, Senator Daniel Kagan, was the subject of a workplace-harassment investigation that found he'd used the women's restroom in the Colorado State Capitol on numerous occasions.
The letter is on view below; also accessible is the Kagan inquiry's final report, obtained by CBS4. The station aired a package based on that report on September 20, in an ideal bit of timing from the GOP perspective, since it provides an opportunity to distract voters from an embarrassing episode involving powerful Republicans mere weeks before election day.
The Facebook comments pertain to "Exclusive Report: Kavanaugh May Have Cheated While Playing 'The Floor Is Lava' as a Child," a story from the Babylon Bee, which describes itself as "your trusted source in Christian news satire." The piece plays off an assertion by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party more than thirty years ago.
In sharing the item on Saturday, September 15, Colorado House Representative and minority leader Patrick Neville wrote, "At publishing time, new allegations had surfaced that Kavanaugh had utilized the Konami Code to beat Contra on the NES while in college."
Liking this comment was Colorado Representative Kevin Van Winkle.
Colorado Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert subsequently chimed in with this attempted witticism: "An anonymous source who may or may not have ever been associated with the Little League has allegedly stated that, at the age of nine, Kavanaugh’s right foot did not touch the base when rounding second."
Also weighing in was Colorado Representative Shane Sandridge, whose participation we missed in our initial report. His gag: "I heard he was a habitual and chronic cheater at Duck, Duck, Goose when in kindergarten. Therefore, I question if he has any moral fiber left."
Neville and Van Winkle have not yet responded to Westword's queries sent earlier this week. But Holbert spoke out in the context of a release from the Colorado Senate Republicans that focuses on a piece by Colorado Public Radio, the first news agency to report about the posts. "I read the Babylon Bee parody Saturday morning," Holbert is quoted as saying. "It was satire, similar to The Onion, about seven-year-old Kavanaugh’s foot touching the floor while playing a kid’s game called ‘The Floor is Lava.’ I knew nothing about Dr. Ford or what she was alleging until Sunday. To claim that I was making light of those allegations before I knew about them is false."
Holbert added: "Dr. Ford deserves to be heard and respected. The Babylon Bee satire was not about her or the allegations that she has brought forward. To conflate the two is wrong and misleading."
That these gags have surfaced now is particularly ill-timed, and not just because of the ongoing furor over Kavanaugh. Recall that the last session of the Colorado General Assembly was rocked by multiple assertions of sexual harassment by members. Arguably the most explosive of these matters involved now-former representative Steve Lebsock, a Thornton Democrat accused of sexually harassing at least eleven women, including lobbyist Holly Tarry and fellow rep Faith Winter.
In the original comment thread on Neville's post, which remains online at this writing, Winter shared her thoughts: "The time for believing women is now. When our House Minority Leader and Senate Majority Leader joke about sexual harassment and assault, it is no wonder why women do not feel safe working in the Colorado Capitol. A report from April of this year documented that 30 percent of folks at the Capitol saw or experienced harassment, yet very few reported it. I wonder why women don't feel safe coming forward when this is the response from our elected officials in leadership roles. Disparaging victims is why I think their confidentiality should be protected in our process."
Other Facebook commenters were more blunt. Examples include "Wow, you're really DISGUSTING," "You are despicable. Very representative of white males in this country, though. Need more women in charge here" and "Wowwww, you know, the Internet never forgets, right? Have fun trying to get reelected."
The tone of the letter from Colorado Democrats, sent out September 20 under the name of Senator Rhonda Fields, arguably the delegation's most widely respected member, eschews snark in favor of disappointment. It argues that the Facebook posts "trivialized" Dr. Ford's allegations and maintains that "the behavior displayed by these elected officials shows blatant disregard for the emotional pain and psychological trauma that victims experience and further highlights the unnecessary harassment and potential retaliation they often endure."
After noting that "the General Assembly has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, held mandatory trainings, and put together an interim committee to recommend new policies and processes for dealing with sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Capitol" in the wake of incidents involving the likes of expelled legislator Lebsock, the letter concludes: "We request that Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville participate in mandatory sexual harassment and workplace diversity training to address attitudes, biases and behaviors that cause offense to others, especially those who file complaints regarding these issues, prior to developing or implementing new sexual harassment and sexual assault policies for the General Assembly."
Dozens of Colorado state representatives and senators added their hames to the letter — Kagan among them. But mere hours after his name appeared on the document, he was cast in a much less positive light by the CBS4 story.
As reported by correspondent Shaun Boyd, Republican Senator Beth Martinez Humenik was sitting in a stall in the women's restroom, which happens to be located next to a men's restroom, when she noticed that the person using the stall next to her was wearing "a man's shoes and a man's suit pants."
Moments later, she said, Kagan walked out. When she asked him what he was doing in the women's restroom, he responded that he wasn't feeling well and then went on his way as she told him, "Senator Kagan, this is not okay. I don't want to see you in here again."
According to Martinez Humenik, Kagan didn't heed this warning, and she eventually filed a workplace-harassment complaint — and the report that resulted cites evidence aplenty that his usage of the women's restroom wasn't a one-time thing. Its summary:
Senator Martinez Humenik’s allegation in this report demonstrates that she perceives Senator Kagan has used the private, women-only restroom located adjacent to the Senate President’s Office on more than one occasion since his election to the Colorado Senate in November 2016. There is sufficient corroboration and support by neutral witnesses that Senator Kagan engaged in such conduct on three occasions during the 2017 Legislative Session. Also, at times, Senator Kagan’s own statements substantiate Senator Martinez Humenik’s claim. However, there is no information suggesting that Senator Kagan continued to engage in such conduct in 2018.
The formal apology Martinez Humenik wants Kagan to offer would constitute the kind of shiny object that the administration of President Donald Trump frequently dangles before the media when it's trying to direct the focus of its base away from a negative episode — like, for instance, the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh.
In politics, everything comes full circle, doesn't it? Continue to read the Rhonda Fields letter, followed by the link to the Daniel Kagan report.
Dear Members of the Executive Committee:
In a Facebook post dated September 15, 2018, House Minority Leader Patrick Neville shared a link which trivialized the allegations of sexual assault made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. In response, other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, Representative Kevin Van Winkle and Representative Shane Sandridge, responded with similarly disparaging comments and signs of support for these "jokes."
Sexual assault and sexual harassment must be taken seriously. The accusations made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford or any victim should be treated with respect, expedience and diligence. It is extremely difficult for survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment to come forward and publicly tell their story. The behavior displayed by these elected officials shows blatant disregard for the emotional pain and psychological trauma that victims experience and further highlights the unnecessary harassment and potential retaliation they often endure.
We cannot and will not remain silent. The General Assembly has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, held mandatory trainings, and put together an interim committee to recommend new policies and processes for dealing with sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Capitol. All of this will have been done in vain if these elected officials in positions of power, no matter what trainings they do, no matter how much money we invest, or how many committee hearings we hold, are dismissive of victims. It is extremely concerning that two members who apparently believe that sexual assault and sexual harassment are laughing matters should be tasked with shaping the policies around these issues in the Capitol.
To dismiss such claims and trivialize them as we have seen shows tremendous disrespect and is a disservice to all who work in or enter the Capitol — whether they be a Representative, a Senator, a staff or member of the public. All Coloradans deserve respect and should be able to work in a safe environment, where their concerns are taken seriously. The word of any and all Capitol employees are worth the same regardless of their gender; however, the actions of these men, in positions of power in their respective chambers, say otherwise. As a result, we question their ability to lead on the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Until everyone working within the People's House understands that sexual harassment is not a joke, the Capitol will not be a work environment free of sexual violence, assault or harassment.
We request that Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert and House Minority leader Patrick Neville participate in mandatory sexual harassment and workplace diversity training to address attitudes, biases and behaviors that cause offense to others, especially those who file complaints regarding these issues, prior to developing or implementing new sexual harassment and sexual assault policies for the General Assembly.
Colorado State Senate
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Other signatures in Senator Fields's request include:
Senate Democratic Leader Leroy Garcia, Senator Irene Aguilar, Senator Lois Court, Senator Kerry Donovan, Senator Steve Fenberg, Senator Matt Jones, Senator Daniel Kagan, Senator John Kefalas, Senator Andy Kerr, Senator Michael Merrifield, Senator Dominick Moreno, Senator Nancy Todd, Senator Angela Williams, Senator Rachel Zenziger
Majority Leader KC Becker, Representative Adrienne Benavidez, Representative Jeff Bridges, Representative Janet Bucker, Representative Jessie Danielson, Speaker Crisanta Duran, Representative Daneya Esgar, Representative Tony Exum Sr., Representative Alec Garnett, Representative Chris Hansen, Representative Leslie Herod, Representative Edie Hooton, Representative Dominique Jackson, Representative Chris Kennedy, Representative Susan Lontine, Representative Barbra McLachlan, Representative Jovan Melton, Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Representative Brittany Petersen, Representative Dylan Roberts, Representative Paul Rosenthal, Representative Joe Salazar, Representative Jonathan Singer, Representative Donald Valdez, Representative Mike Weissman, Representative Faith Winter, Representative Dave Young
Click to read the report about Senator Daniel Kagan.