The Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal that has roiled Southern California’s smugly cloistered entertainment industry reverberated last week in the equally smug and cloistered state Capitol.
Some 147 women – legislators, Capitol staffers, lobbyists and political consultants – signed an open letter denouncing “pervasive” sexual harassment and other misconduct in state politics.
“Each of us has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces,” reads the letter, first reported in the Los Angeles Times.
“Why didn’t we speak up? Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes out of shame. Often these men hold our professional fates in their hands. They are bosses, gatekeepers, and contacts. Our relationships with them are crucial to our personal success.”
The male-dominated Capitol has a long and sordid history of objectifying and exploiting women. While specific cases of misconduct by male legislators and/or high-ranking staffers have occasionally surfaced, the official attitude has been that they are aberrations, not reflections of a “pervasive” culture. Perpetrators are admonished, payments sometimes made to victims and life goes on.
Perhaps the most sensational case occurred nearly four decades ago when Democratic state Sen. Alan Robbins was charged with having sex with two 16-year-old high school girls he met when they were touring the Capitol.
After a 36-day trial, Robbins was acquitted when jurors concluded the sex was consensual; he never faced censure by colleagues, though they often advised women constituents visiting the Capitol to avoid him. After his acquittal, Robbins won re-election – only to be forced to resign a decade later after pleading guilty to bribery charges.
Generally, the Capitol’s dominant Democrats have cracked down much harder on Republican miscreants than those in their own party.
The vast majority of incidents go unreported and unpunished. The Capitol is, after all, a hierarchical and self-protective institution and any woman who complains risks being ostracized. Even when misbehavior is reported, the leadership’s first response has been to cover it up.
Capitol old-timers know, for instance, that one Republican legislator assaulted a female staffer in his office during the 1980s, and the Democratic leadership paid her off to prevent formal charges. A prominent Democrat had a couple of staffers fired for revealing he was having sex with his secretary. Then there was a very powerful legislative leader who promoted a low-paid Capitol messenger into a high-paying staff job with almost no duties after she became one of his many girlfriends.
That was way back then, right? The women who signed the open letter say no, and they’re tired of putting up with inappropriate touching, jokes and belittlement.
“Each of us who signed this op-ed will no longer tolerate the perpetrators or enablers who do,” the letter reads. Nor should we.
Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.