HUDSON: At last, a turning point on sexual harassment at the Capitol

Author: Miller Hudson - March 6, 2018 - Updated: March 6, 2018

Miller Hudson

Weathering a seven-hour public hearing is a chore that usually falls to reporters and lobbyists who are compensated for their misery. Last week’s expulsion drama in the Colorado House of Representatives, however, packed the public gallery with young women wearing black (mostly interns and legislative aides), together with a smattering of the curious. A century has elapsed since the Legislature last considered ejecting one of its members. That 1915 debate involved a Representative charged with bribery, a subsequent perjury and concluded with his arrest on the floor of the House Chamber. A Democratic legislator and four other women, by contrast, alleged eleven instances of sexual harassment on the part of Steve Lebsock — charges judged credible by an independent investigator. House Democrats introduced their resolution to expel Lebsock from his seat, commandeering Republicans into a brawl with implications for three Senate colleagues facing similar charges.

Both parties have demonstrated their readiness to toss peers under the bus in recent years. Democrats forced out Lakewood Senator Deanna Hanna when, in a fit of pique, she informed the Jefferson County Board of Realtors that she would only meet with them once they helped pay off her campaign debt. Despite running as an incumbent, the Board supported her Republican opponent. Putting her frustration in writing proved fatal, even though privately understood on both sides of the aisle. Laura Bradford, a Republican Representative from Collbran in Mesa County received a standing ovation from her caucus for defeating incumbent Democrat Bernie Buescher, delivering a single vote House majority to her party. Yet, once she became the victim of a bungled, late night traffic stop by Denver police that resulted in a disciplinary action against one of the officers, there remained the stench of a possible DUI swept under the rug.  Although there was no evidence Bradford requested special treatment, nor proof of anything other than careless driving, she too was abandoned by her party.

For those who presume all politicians are hopeless narcissists, the Lebsock debate offered a welcome tonic. Although too long by half, the quality of debate was excellent, frequently even eloquent. Many legislators prefaced their remarks with a variant of, “…I didn’t plan to speak today.” These muted apologies were undermined when speakers arrived at the microphone with multiple pages of double spaced remarks. You can assume they probably intended to speak. The occasional handful of sticky notes evidenced a more convincing reticence.

Unfortunately, the two documents informing many of the remarks were not generally available to the public audience. The first is an apparently snarling 28-page response from Lebsock that he distributed to colleagues in December and which was uniformly conceded to retaliate against his accusers including snide observations on their sex lives and dubious motives. The second was the redacted report from the incident investigator selected by the Colorado Employers Council. Whatever else it contains, Republicans expressed seemingly genuine horror at what was characterized as a “sleazy culture” of alcohol fueled and appalling, vulgar banter. When Democrat Alec Garnett acknowledged he was wearing a Kevlar vest, it was not immediately clear whether this precaution was from fear of Lebsock or the twitter trolls who were reportedly attacking both plaintiffs and their supporters.

This single censure probably won’t deliver everything its supporters hope for. But a transition to a more respectful, more decent workplace at the Capitol is underway.

Whenever testimony became a matter of recounting personal experience most legislators, as well as the audience in the gallery, stood in silent solidarity with a speaker. Lebsock was repeatedly urged to resign by colleagues from both parties, but contrition was not integral to his adamant insistence he had done nothing wrong. When Representative Faith Winter of Adams County explained that she avoided Capitol elevators for 18 months because of her fear that Lebsock might ride with her, I was reminded that 40 years ago, while I served, we still had elevator operators. Ethel, a wise, observant and thirty-year witness of bad behavior and wandering hands was invisible to many of her passengers. Late one evening, following an end-of-session conference committee she asked me, “Mr. Hudson, what’s the matter with these politicians? I seen more him’n and him’n, and him’n and her’n, and her’n and her’n here than any place else in my whole life.” I didn’t have a ready answer for her and professed my bafflement. She winked and replied, “I think they’re all oversexed, even the women.” Perhaps so.

Harassment and hostile workplaces are not new. What is new is the long overdue demand that they cease. What seemed commonplace is now unacceptable. Democrats required seven Republicans to join them in order to achieve a two-thirds majority supporting expulsion. At the start of debate, lobbyists were betting the resolution would fail. And, there were certainly concerns expressed about due process and fairness, but there was little real doubt that Lebsock was guilty on all charges. Facing elections in November, fifteen House Republicans ultimately voted for expulsion. A no vote would have simply invited eight months of public opprobrium for defending a man none of them particularly liked. I suspect his scaffold conversion to their ranks left more than a few Republicans cringing. To their credit, votes for expulsion were more than a cynical political calculation. Republican men spoke movingly as fathers, sons, husbands and grandfathers of the women and girls in their lives — women they love and feel duty bound to protect.

This single censure probably won’t deliver everything its supporters hope for. But a transition to a more respectful, more decent workplace at the Capitol is underway.  Never again will an abuse of position and power be tolerated. Senate President Kevin Grantham probably won’t get away with his effort to recruit Denver’s District Attorney or the Attorney General to adjudicate the missteps of his trio of ‘bad boys’. In the final analysis, “Enough is enough” is about behavior, not criminality. You just won’t get away with being a creep any more and that’s a good thing.

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.