ANNAPOLIS — A letter from women lawmakers to reporters has touched off a firestorm of debate over how the General Assembly is dealing with the issue of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Authors of the letter, referred to by some lobbyists and staffers as the “not-here letter,” said it was meant only as a rebuke of the press and its portrayal of Annapolis as “a frat house and a den of iniquity” when it comes to inappropriate sexual behavior during the 90-day session.
Instead, some have come to interpret the missive as an attempt to polish the legislature’s image and brush off concerns about sexual harassment in an election year and amid an unprecedented national movement to address the treatment of women in business and government.
Inside and outside Annapolis, the letter, written by a bipartisan group of four powerful women lawmakers in the House of Delegates was met with a strong backlash, especially among women.
Legislative staffers and lawmakers say the issue has exposed a divide among legislators over how best to address issues of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. And some staffers and lawmakers say it also points to a distinction between influential women lawmakers and legislators and staffers who have little or no power at all.
For one long-time staffer who told the Women’s Caucus of her experience as an intern in which a lawmaker — who she says still serves in the legislature and is in a position of leadership — pushed his hand up her skirt, the letter represents a betrayal.
“I have a lot of feelings about that letter — like furious and betrayed,” said the staffer who asked not be identified for fear of retaliation.
The staffer said she took “a big leap of faith” in telling her story to the Women’s Caucus.
“A legislator came into my office and sat down very close to me,” said the staff member in an account published last month in a 38-page report from the Women’s Caucus. “We were alone in my boss’ office and he closed the door. He started telling me how I had a lot of potential, reached over and started rubbing my knees. I froze and he put his hands all the way up my skirt. I stood up and asked him to leave.”
“I feel like to take the stories from all these staffers and publish them and then two days later say ‘We don’t really mean it, it’s not that bad here, I promise,’ it’s a betrayal. Staffers get the worst of this. These women legislators who I thought of being my voice here just, it seems like they just abandoned us.”
The staff member said that in the past she has reported incidents and nothing has come of it. She said she has no faith that the processes in place, including changes made recently, will make a difference.
“I thought things were going to change and I haven’t seen it,” she said.
News accounts of the statements made in the Women’s Caucus report drew a strong rebuke because they highlighted comments referring to the General Assembly as “a fraternity house.”
“The letter was not aimed at the Women’s Caucus or the work of the Women’s Caucus,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City and chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
McIntosh described herself as a supporter of the national “#MeToo” movement and a co-sponsor of a bill that incorporates a number of recommendations found in the Women’s Caucus report. That bill has a hearing on Monday, and McIntosh said she believes some form of the bill will reach the floor for a vote.
Still, she said, news reports based on the caucus report inaccurately and unfairly portrayed an institution she loves.
“I have a reaction to being called a frat house here, OK?” said McIntosh. “It makes it seem like all of us women are running around, throwing shots down and doing this and that and the other.”
McIntosh said the General Assembly, as with other public and private organizations, has struggled with “power issues” relating to sexual harassment.
“We want to root these things out but that doesn’t mean just because they exist or have existed that we should diminish all of ourselves and each other and the institution,” said McIntosh.
McIntosh was one of at least four lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — who had input into the letter that was initially signed by 59 women legislators in the House and Senate, including Del. Ariana B. Kelly, D-Montgomery and president of the caucus.
Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties and House minority whip and another author of the letter, said she and others were very concerned about the visuals brought on by reports on the caucus report.
“It leaves the public with the impression that things are out of control down here and we as women wanted to push back at that and say, ‘It isn’t,'” said Szeliga. “Sure there are issues in every workplace. We believe in making sure those things stop happening, but we don’t want the public to think this is some big out-of-control party scene and a frat house and women are getting sexually harassed every day and we’re not busy doing the important business of the people.”
Szeliga said the letter doesn’t undermine stories told by those who have told stories of sexual misconduct.
“I think it brings balance to the reporting,” she said.
Szeliga said she believes that there is an effort to deal with concerns and that the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics is already involved in investigating a number of lawmakers over allegations related to sexual misconduct. The work of the committee is confidential by law, and Szeliga said she had no specifics to offer.
Three other women, all members of the House, declined to sign the letter for various reasons. Kelly on Thursday announced she was removing her name from the letter amid public criticism of it on social media.
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee and another author of the letter, said news reports failed to balance the anonymous complaints of harassment with the recommendations and the roles played by women in the legislature today.
“We are working on this,” said Dumais. “The behavior described is despicable, but we’re working to make a real difference.”
But the letter was seen by some inside and outside the state capitol as an attempt to soften the image of the legislature or protect those in power, including the two longest-serving presiding officers in state history, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
“The letter seemed to me to be apologetic,” said Del. Mary Washington, D-Baltimore City. “It did not reflect my position. I think that the staff here shed light on a lot of unacceptable and I would say deplorable conditions that they are living with every day and there was a tone to the letter that I thought could be interpreted as undoing that and I didn’t want to participate.”
Dumais said she disagreed with anyone who interpreted the letter as diminishing the stories of women who came forward.
“I absolutely don’t disrespect or intend to ever minimize the complaints that were made, anonymous or otherwise,” said Dumais. “I’ve built my career on being a victim’s advocate, so this is certainly never anything that I would minimize in any way, shape or form. But I am a problem-solver at the same time and wanted to be clear that’s what we’re doing is going to address, in the proper way, what the issues might be.”
Dumais, who voted against the Montgomery County Delegation issuing a letter of support for Kelly’s bill that contains recommendations from the caucus report, said legislation is premature since a commission appointed by Busch and Miller has just started reviewing the issue.
Instead, Dumais said, changes might be best handled in the Legislative Policy Committee.
It’s a sentiment that Miller himself seemed to support. During an interview with reporters, Miller said legislative changes were unlikely this year and perhaps not until the commission issues a final report. Instead, he said he believed the policy committee he chairs with Busch could make needed changes.
For Kelly, president of the Women’s Caucus and a lawmaker who has taken on a leading role in reforming sexual harassment policy in the legislature, signing the letter was a “damned-if-I-do and damned-if-I-don’t moment.”
“I deeply regret signing on to this letter. I saw it for the first time when the group email blast went out — after six women in senior leadership had already signed on,” said Kelly, who announced she was withdrawing her name from the letter. “As president of the Women’s Caucus I felt blindsided because I had not seen it in advance.”
An email chain obtained by The Daily Record appears to show Dumais circulated a draft of the letter when she solicited signatures of women lawmakers. Kelly responded three minutes later saying “Great letter. I am happy to sign on.”
But Wednesday, Kelly was the focus of critical comments on social media because of her support.
“I am truly broken-hearted over this,” Kelly said, calling her decision to sign “an error in judgment. Once I realized the mistake — and that my actions had hurt people — I took my name off the letter.”