ANNAPOLIS — Women lawmakers and supporters of workplace sexual harassment laws called on a General Assembly committee to pass legislation this year that will strengthen the investigation and reporting of incidents in the state legislature.
The legislation, which incorporates a number of recommendations contained in a recently released report, comes during a time of heightened scrutiny of inappropriate sexual behavior in the halls and chambers of the State House. The hearing in the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee Monday follows on the heels of two public accusations of inappropriate behavior involving a current lawmaker and a former lawmaker who is now a lobbyist.
Still, legislators, including Del. Ariana B. Kelly, D-Montgomery and sponsor of the bill, told the committee that the process is not about public shaming.
“This has been a pretty tough last week for many of us on the topic of sexual harassment,” said Kelly, who is also president of the women’s caucus. “There’s been a lot of negativity between people we know want to get to the same place, so I am very hopeful that this legislation will help us get there.”
Last week Kelly publicly withdrew her name from a letter signed by the vast majority of women lawmakers who criticized the media for what they said was a lack of balanced reporting — focusing on anonymous testimony from women including staffers, lawmakers and lobbyists who told stories of harassment to which they’ve been subjected to. But public criticism of that letter, including from a staffer whose testimony appeared in the 38-page caucus report, suggested that some victims felt betrayed by it.
Kelly’s bill calls for more training and accountability as well as an independent investigator to handle complaints from lawmakers and staff. The bill also gives power to the Maryland State Ethics Commission to investigate complaints against lobbyists.
The stories told to the women’s caucus, Kelly said, ranged from “everyday” innuendo, jokes and comments to inappropriate touching and more aggressive behaviors.
“I know we can do something about it here in Maryland, and I know the time is now,” said Kelly.
During the lengthy bill hearing a number of lawmakers — men and women — talked in general about sexual harassment to which they were subjected or witnessed. Advocates told the committee that Annapolis is consumed by a “rape culture” that prevents women from doing their jobs.
Kelly said she privately shared with the committee a list of incidents she suffered as a young lawmaker that made it more difficult for her to do her job “and made me feel objectified and minimized, and disrespected.” Kelly said she feared retaliation.
Del. Angela M. Angel, D-Prince George’s, said she was subjected to inappropriate comments meant to demean her, including being called “the baby mama legislator” in front of other colleagues who did nothing and some who told her she needed to lighten up.
Angel told the committee that “in that moment, I knew I was my only protector in this House.”
Angel said the culture of mistreatment of women lawmakers is “in the DNA of Maryland” dating back to the state motto.
No opponents publicly testified against the bill, which has over 90 sponsors in the House of Delegates. All 47 senators are supporting a Senate version.
Last week, Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, publicly accused Gil Genn, a lobbyist and former lawmaker also from Montgomery County, of inappropriately touching her during an evening of karaoke at an Annapolis pub.
Genn issued a statement on the same day as the hearing, publicly denouncing Kagan’s claims and his support for both the national “#MeToo” movement as well as for Kelly’s bill. But the lobbyist said that a better process needs to be in place to protect those who are falsely accused.
“But due process is also important,” said Genn in his statement. “There needs to be to be a venue where all parties have a full, fair, and impartial hearing. Most accusations have merit, and it takes courage for the victims to come forward. But some are false, and real victims are hurt by the false allegations of others. Senator Kagan’s allegation is completely false. I thus welcome a fair and impartial inquiry by the State Ethics Commission into her false allegation.”
Still, some privately raise concerns about potential separation of powers issues regarding complaints sent to the ethics commission. Kelly said Monday that amendments she is proposing will address those concerns.
Additionally, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and other lawmakers have questioned the need for legislation this session while a commission appointed by Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch reviews the issue. The commission is expected to make recommendations by the end of the year.
Miller, in an interview, said he believed many changes could be imposed through the Legislative Policy Committee which he chairs along with Busch.