Maryland’s General Assembly could be the next legislature to have its “Me Too” moment.
A viral social media campaign that led to the resignation and repudiation of members of Congress and other state legislatures around the country is being openly talked about in Annapolis as lawmakers prepare to return for the last session before the 2018 elections.
Women lawmakers, lobbyists, former staffers and a former reporter interviewed for this story privately describe a pattern of pervasive harassment in Annapolis, including catcalls, inappropriate sexual comments and unwanted touching. The system previously in place in the legislature to report and investigate complaints is cloaked in secrecy and doesn’t even track the number of complaints, they observe.
Even so, women who walk the halls of the State House say the names are well known.
“Everybody knew (he) was a creep,” said one former Republican staffer in reference to a former GOP lawmaker.
‘The Missing Step’
Maryland lawmakers already receive some training in the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy.
One lobbyist who works in Annapolis and other states said the training is sometimes seen as a joke with lawmakers wise-cracking about “getting tips.”
“You don’t need a 17-page PowerPoint presentation to tell someone they shouldn’t ask a woman to walk by them again because their ass looks good in that skirt. They know that,” the lobbyist said. “Instead, it’s going take some really brave women talking about their experiences.”
Spokesmen for House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. say both presiding officers take the issue very seriously and address all complaints brought to them by their staff.
It is not known how many complaints have been made in past years. Some argue that any data, if available, would not reflect the actual amount of workplace harassment because many women simply choose not to complain out of fear of retaliation. A recent change in policy in December, now requires tracking of sexual misconduct complaints and any punishments.
The result is a culture the former Republican staffer called “the missing step analogy.”
“You have a house and out front you’re missing one of the steps leading to your front door. Instead of going to Home Depot and fixing the problem, you just tell people about the missing step,” said the former staffer.
Instead, many women informally trade experiences and warnings with friends and trusted colleagues.
“There is this vague sense that you could go to legislative ethics or to the presiding officers or to (House Administrator) Barbara Oakes,” the former staffer said. “But if you are in the minority party, you aren’t getting in the speaker’s office.”
“Instead, everybody just warns everybody else,” she said. “Female staffers who are hired by more experienced female staffers get told ‘don’t go to that office alone.’ Everyone just warns everyone instead of dealing with the individual.”
Lawmakers and lobbyists in Maryland say they expect the issue of sexual harassment and misconduct borne of the #MeToo social media movement to be part of the 90-day legislative session that begins Jan. 10.
Six days after a Maryland legislative policy committee voted to make some changes to its sexual harassment policies, Vox.com published a story featuring Kate Havard, a former Washington Post reporter.
In that story, Havard detailed her experiences as an intern covering the 2013 session, During that time, she said she was subject to harassment by three lawmakers — a Republican and two Democrats.
One subjected her to unwanted comments including “Damn, you look hot today.”
Another, holding a set of antlers, chased her around an office, she told the website.
A third was more persistent and sent her a number of text messages about “non-work related matters” and treated one meeting as a date.
Havard, who was traveling out of the country last week, confirmed the accounts in a series of text messages and said it was one of the reasons she decided to pass up a career in journalism.
Havard’s experience isn’t limited to journalists.
Some lobbyists say they have been subject to inappropriate discussions about outfits or their bodies. Most learn to laugh if off because there are few other options.
“It makes life very difficult when you can’t get a bill passed or killed because one legislator wants to go on a date with you,” said one lobbyist who works in Maryland and other states. “That has nothing to do with my skill or professionalism or how I do my job, and it’s not fair.”
The problem is exacerbated if the harassment comes from a fellow lobbyist.
“There’s no one to talk to if it’s another lobbyist,” one female lobbyist said. “Where are you going to go to?”
Another lobbyist, who asked to speak on the issue anonymously because she feared reprisals, said she and other women in the lobbying corps talk among themselves about lawmakers who push the limits and those who should be avoided.
Julia Pitcher Worcester, a lobbyist in the offices of J. William Pitcher and president of the Maryland Government Relations Association, said she is aware of concerns of women lobbyists.
“It’s one of the things we want to do something about,” Worcester said. “We’re actively working on it and looking to be a resource to lobbyists.”
Del. Ariana B. Kelly, D-Montgomery and president of the legislature’s women’s caucus, said legislative staff and interns — many of whom are college age — are also targets of unwanted advances by men who are in positions of power in Annapolis.
“Most people who are harassed do not file a report because they are afraid of hurting their career,” Kelly said. ” I don’t think there is a place in this business where there is not a concern. We need to find a way to help them.”
But Kelly said reporting of issues is just one component of the problem
“We’re not going to solve the problem if we wait for people to file a report,” Kelly said.
Spokesmen for the presiding officers say Maryland’s policies are considered a national model but Kelly and others say more can be done.
The Legislative Policy Committee, in a Dec. 12 meeting, voted to toughen the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policies.
“My understanding is we probably have the best guidelines and the best training of any state in the union as far as the legislature is concerned,” Busch said during the meeting. “I think we’re nationally ranked there in the top as they’re going around the country right now trying to implement this in legislatures around the country.”
A spokesman said those rankings are based on National Conference of State Legislatures briefing on the issue in which Maryland’s policy is presented along with a handful of other states.
Any backlash against sexual harassment wouldn’t be the first time Annapolis has had to publicly deal with the issue.
In 2006, Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer created a firestorm when he appeared to stare at the figure of a 24-year-old woman staffing a Board of Public Works Meeting. Then, as she passed, Schaefer publicly, to the surprise of many in the room, asked her to come back and “walk again.”
Schaefer angrily reacted to questions about the incident. The woman involved said she was embarrassed.
Women’s rights groups made the incident part of the 2006 campaign and called for Schaefer to be ousted. He eventually lost the 2006 primary.
More than a decade earlier, then-Del. John S. Arnick, a Dundalk Democrat, was denied a judicial appointment after women testified before the Senate Executive Nominations Committee about comments directed at women. During that testimony, which came two years after the Anita Hill testimony before the U.S. Senate, advocates alleged Arnick called women “bitches” or “bimbos.”
Arnick was not confirmed to the bench. Later, he was reappointed to his former seat in the legislature in what Kelly said could be seen as a slap in the face to those who complained about his comments.
“This is what you uppity girls get,” she said.
Kelly said the decades that have passed since the Arnick debate have exacerbated the problem.
“A lot of what we’re dealing with now is the result of how we dealt with the issue in the past,” Kelly said.
‘A watershed moment’
Busch and Miller say they have attempted to be proactive in addressing the problem.
In the Dec. 12 Legislative Policy Committee meeting, state human resources officials proposed four changes to the legislature’s policy.
“We’re going to expand it,” Miller said the legislature’s harassment policies prior to a discussion on the proposed changes. “This is a watershed moment in time, and we want to make sure everyone is treated fairly and there’s a place they can go and there’s a remedy.”
The changes included:
- A requirement for the human resources department to be notified of complaints as well as to track the incidents and outcomes.
- New reporting requirements detailing incidents reported and any disciplinary actions, though names would be withheld.
- The ability to refer complaints to the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics and allow for sanctions, including suspension and expulsion.
The committee listened to and, on a voice vote, approved the recommended changes in less than six minutes. There was no discussion about the changes or any debate about other concerns or needed changes from women on the committee.
But the key change — the new tracking requirement — will protect the identities of lawmakers. The ethics committee work occurs behind closed doors by law.
Kelly, the women’s caucus president, said Maryland should move toward the model adopted by New York.
New York now requires an independent investigator; the ability of the legislature to ensure there is no retaliation against those who file complaints; severe punishments for those who violate that rule; and a provision requiring any lawmaker or staffer with knowledge of sexual harassment to report the incident to the ethics committee.
Kelly is not alone. In 2016, a group of 27 Democrats and one Republican in the legislature wrote the women’s caucus in support of moving Maryland toward a New York model.