Several women who work at Colorado Capitol dispute allegations of misconduct by Sen. Jack Tate
Author: Ernest Luning - November 18, 2017 - Updated: November 28, 2017
In the days since additional claims of sexual misconduct by Colorado legislators emerged in a news report, numerous women who have worked with state Sen. Jack Tate, one of the lawmakers accused of improper behavior, have come forward to challenge anonymous allegations about Tate. They say they’re alarmed the Centennial Republican could be unfairly caught up in a scandal they agree is bringing long overdue scrutiny to harassment at the state Capitol.
“I was surprised by the story,” lobbyist Adeline Hodge told Colorado Politics. “I was definitely surprised to hear Jack Tate’s name thrown into the ring. I think we can all acknowledge there are things at the Capitol that need improvement, but I think we need to focus on the true problem areas.”
Said lobbyist Cindy Sovine-Miller: “I’ve worked very closely with Sen. Tate, and I’ve never experienced anything like that. He’s very respectful of his wife and his daughter and the women around him. I’m not trying to say sexual harassment isn’t happening at the Capitol, but you guys are pointing the finger at the wrong guy.”
In all, five lobbyists — one of them a former state lawmaker — and a former legislative aide brought their concerns about Tate’s inclusion in the unfolding story to Colorado Politics. The women maintain that the nature of the accusation against Tate differs substantially from allegations leveled in the past week against three other lawmakers.
“There’s these stories coming out that are very much corroborated, and then the one about Jack Tate comes out and it’s, wait, what?” said lobbyist Meg Dubray.
In every case but Tate’s, multiple accusers — at least one identified by name — have told their stories to reporters and an accuser has either filed a formal complaint against the lawmaker or said a complaint is under consideration.
The reported allegations against Tate, on the other hand, have been made by a single anonymous accuser who declined to initiate a complaint — and that’s concerning to Tate’s defenders, including lobbyist Joan Green Turner, who also served two terms in the Colorado House in the 1980s.
“If somebody doesn’t speak up about it, if somebody doesn’t say, ‘Whoa, we are handling this the wrong way,’” she said. “We need to handle real, legitimate problems seriously, but let’s not destroy someone in the press when they don’t even have a chance to face their accuser.”
The allegations against Tate — and a headline saying Tate was “named in allegations of sexual harassment” along with another Republican senator — first appeared in a story by reporter Bente Berkeland of public radio station KUNC that posted online Thursday night.
In the story a then-25-year-old intern said state Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican, made her feel uneasy and described a series of “uncomfortable encounters” with the lawmaker during last year’s legislative session. Six other women who weren’t named, including lobbyists and legislative staff, said they avoid Baumgardner and won’t work alone with him.
An unnamed woman who was 18 and working as an intern at the Capitol earlier this year also told KUNC that Tate made her uncomfortable with comments on her clothing and by leering at her and nudging her. Another intern, who is identified by name in the story, said Tate was acting “creepy” around the unidentified intern, “hinting at stuff” and remarking on her outfit.
The legislator the second intern worked for, state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said she learned about the first intern’s discomfort and urged her to file a complaint against Tate, but the younger woman decided against it.
“Her concern was that she hopes to work in politics one day, and, were she to come forward with a complaint against a legislator, her belief, whether accurate or not — and that was not mine to assess — was that there would be retaliation against her,” Michaelson Jenet told Colorado Politics. “When a victim says, ‘I’m not going to file,’ it’s not mine to force her to do so, and it’s not mine to approach, in this case, the senator without being able to divulge who it was making the allegation.”
Reacting to the accusations in the KUNC story, Tate and Baumgardner both strongly denied they’d done anything improper.
Dubray told Colorado Politics she was aware of the behavior ascribed to Tate and thought it had been considered an example of friendly banter that could be misinterpreted — not as outright sexual harassment, as it wound up being depicted in the story.
“I was shocked to hear he was being accused,” Dubray said. “I didn’t think the story showed anything to the level we had seen in previous stories about other legislators.” What’s more, she said, “It can be dismissive of the real, what I would consider egregious actions of some. I feel like you have to be careful — definitions matters. You can’t call everything ‘sexual harassment,’ and we should ensure we have a proper process in place to assess the scale of accusations.”
Turner, the lobbyist and former legislator, said she has no doubt that sexual harassment and other misconduct takes place at the Capitol but rejects suggestions that any of it involves Tate.
“Those are very serious allegations,” she said. “I have known personally what it’s like to be harassed, to be followed, to have to get the State Patrol involved. Those are very serious things. People have to be cautious about when somebody says something and they take it the wrong way, but to say it’s in that same category? They’re not the same. If there’s a serious allegation, there’s a process. Use it. But Jack Tate treats everybody with respect, from the janitors all the way up to he president of the Senate. He treats everybody kindly.”
Christin Wells is a political consultant who worked as a legislative aide for state Sen. Larry Crowder, an Alamosa Republican, and sat outside Tate’s office, which was next to Crowder’s, through the 2016 legislative session. She told Colorado Politics the story’s description of Tate wasn’t even close to the respectful legislator she interacted with on a daily basis.
“It’s just not true,” she said. “It’s malarkey. It upsets me because — are they friendly guys? Yeah, of course. Everybody’s friendly. They’re politicians, it’s their job to be friendly.”
Dubray echoed the point about politicians’ roles and Tate’s naturally friendly nature.
“What we saw in the paper didn’t show some sort of deviant pattern of behavior. The whole thing — a politician’s job is kissing babies and shaking hands. He’s a friendly guy, he’s from the South and has that sort of congenial nature to him. But it’s never been toward me or anyone I’ve seen in a less than completely respectful way,” she said.
Tate told Colorado Politics on Saturday that he was standing by a written statement he issued late Thursday, after the story broke.
In that statement, Tate said: “I’m not aware of any instance in which I made an individual feel uncomfortable. In my three years at the Capitol, no person has ever complained or brought to my attention that I caused discomfort of any kind. Had anyone related to me that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable, I would have addressed the matter at that time. I value my relationships at the workplace and have the utmost respect for the many men and women with whom I work on a daily basis.”
The story about Baumgardner and Tate published nearly a week after a bombshell report, also by Birkeland, detailing allegations that state Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Thornton Democrat and candidate for state treasurer, made unwanted and aggressive sexual advances toward state Rep. Faith Winter, a fellow Democrat from Westminster, at a 2016 party to celebrate the end of the legislative session. The next day, a lobbyist and former legislative aide came forward to level similar allegations against Lebsock, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
The initial KUNC story rocked the Capitol, and within hours more than a dozen top Democrats — including House Speaker Crisanta Duran, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll and numerous legislators — were calling on Lebsock to step down from his seat and end his campaign for state treasurer.
A few days later, after the additional accusers had emerged and two of the women filed formal complaints against Lebosck, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued his own call for the Democrat to resign. But Lebsock said he was staying put, for the time being at least, and insisted at a press conference that he was being harassed and facing threats on his life.
Earlier this week, The Denver Post reported that state Rep. Paul Rosenthal, a Denver Democrat, was facing allegations included in a formal complaint filed by a political organizer who charged Rosenthal touched him inappropriately at a 2012 fundraiser before Rosenthal was elected to the House. Rosenthal emphatically denied the claims. Late Friday night, The Post reported on another incident involving Rosenthal’s pursuit of the brother of a former legislative aide, who filed an informal complaint earlier this year about Rosenthal’s behavior. Rosenthal “sidestepped a question” about the latest complaint and his lawyer declined to comment, The Post reported.
Hodge, the lobbyist, who said she first met Tate when she worked as an intern at the Capitol two years ago, said she was worried that lumping Tate in with the other legislators facing allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct could make it difficult to fix the problem.
“We know this is truly a problem, and I’m certain plenty of women have been made to feel uncomfortable at the Capitol, but this one just seems different to me,” she said. “This accusation seems different from some of the others we’ve seen. You never want to question when a woman has the courage to come forward, but we need to be careful what the media is highlighting so that we can be really effective in making this culture shift by targeting the people who are behaving badly. I worry how that impacts the progress that we’re able to make.”
Michaelson Jenet rejected that interpretation. In an interview Saturday, she told Colorado Politics she believes the behavior the intern described to her crossed a line.
“Ultimately, from my perspective as a supervisor of an intern who was 18 years old, there is absolutely no space for an elected official many years her senior to interact in that fashion as was reported, and for it to not be considered harassment,” she said.
“Certainly, there’s a continuum on which the reported incidents of the past week fall, from what I would consider more of an aggressive nature to one of subtle sexual harassment. Any of the above make an unsafe work environment. When you have a young woman who feels unsafe in the building because she does not feel empowered to stop the behavior, even if it’s subtle, it’s harassment, and it’s not OK.”
At the suggestion of one of the lobbyists, Colorado Politics spoke with another Democratic lawmaker who has known Tate since 2015, when both were newly sworn-in House members.
“I’m friends with Jack, and I haven’t seen that,” state Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Fort Collins Democrat, said Saturday in a phone interview. “I don’t think he would ever intentionally do that, even if he said someone looks nice.”
Arndt added that there were two points she wanted to make about ways genuine politeness can come across at the Capitol.
“There’s your voice as a legislator, and there’s a generational thing going on, too,” she said, noting that Tate was likely more than two decades older than the unnamed intern who objected to his behavior. “If he said to someone they look nice, there’s both his age and, maybe, him not understanding the perceived power relationship between him and the intern. But if that’s what happened, I don’t think it was intentional.”
Michaelson Jenet said she was glad the spotlight was shining on the problem of sexual harassment at the Capitol.
“I felt I had an understanding of the process,” she said, although she added that she was glad to learn an outside agency could become involved with a complaint at some point.
“My belief and/or wish is this would be something that would be able to be handled in a nonpartisan or neutral fashion, and for that to happen, that can’t be done by leadership in either chamber,” she said. “I respect the Senate president and the speaker of the House and believe they care about the well-being of both chambers, yet, in this situation, our aides and our interns are the most vulnerable people in the ecosystem. Whatever we can do to make sure they feel safe, heard and validated — that’s what our job is.
“My hope is at the end of this, as the dust settles, we have a space where we all know and respect the decorum and what’s expected of us in the state House and in the Senate, and that we deliver to the citizens of Colorado the respectful leadership they voted into office.”
Editor’s note: Two women have filed formal complaints with the Colorado House of Representatives alleging misconduct by state Rep. Steve Lebsock, not three, as this story originally said.