State of Texas: Sexual harassment stories bring calls to change the culture at the Capitol

Inside the Texas State Capitol (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)
Inside the Texas State Capitol (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More women are telling stories about being harassed and even assaulted while working at the Texas State Capitol. Now, their stories are leading to new calls to improve policies to report – and prevent – sexual harassment.

Former staffers and lawmakers have stepped forward in recent days to shed light on accusations of sexual harassment. “This goes back years and decades even,” said Jolie McCullough, a Texas Tribune reporter who is part of a team investigating the issue at the Capitol. McCullogh says the reports found issues “ranging from suggested glances to comments, off-hand comments, to sexual assault.”

Former State Senator Wendy Davis was one of the victims. She recounted a time where a newly appointed male lawmaker groped her breast at a social event. “I don’t believe he knew that I was a senator at the time,” Davis said. She told KXAN that while the lawmaker was not officially punished, she found a way to hold him accountable. “For the next two legislative sessions, he didn’t get a bill through because I had friends in the House who made sure that happened.”

But Davis acknowledged that most women at the Capitol don’t have options like that. Morgan Smith, a politics and education reporter for the Texas Tribune, recounts one woman telling her “you can make a complaint, you can talk publicly about this or you can have a career.” Only now do they feel comfortable coming forward after allegations swept Hollywood and Capitol Hill where the U.S. Senate is busying reviewing their own policies.

“I think it has been a conversation earlier,” said Smith “It’s just one that have been happening a lot more quietly and out of  the public eye because I think that women are only just now feeling like people might listen to them if they come forward.”

R.G. Ratcliffe, politics editor at the Texas Tribune, wrote an article highlighting how during the 1980s it seemed like the Texas legislature was moving forward in terms of acknowledging and addressing sexual harassment after State Rep. Debra Danburg presented a bill outlawing spousal rape.

“It may have been highlighted during that year by the fact that Ann Richards had won the Governor’s office and so more people were willing to talk about it,” pondered Ratcliffe. “And then we went into like a 20-year lull of secret whispers.”

The Texas Tribune interviewed over two dozen staffers and lawmakers, both former and current, who shared that the environment at the Capitol and the ‘quid pro quo’ nature their work fostered in an environment where women were hesitant to come forward without affecting their careers.

“The Capitol is a world where everything is built on relationships, loyalty, the trade of information and the trade of favors,” said Smith. “It’s not an environment where women, in particular, have felt that speaking up about this kind of thing is something that is not going to come with[out] retaliation.”

Current procedures are outdated and do not include stipulations that legislators are required to complete anti-sexual harassment training nor enforce discipline.

Ratcliffe points to the lack of policies to require anti-sexual harassment training, streamline complaints, or effectively hold officials accountable for misbehavior.

“There’s an equal rights commission at the state that handles complaints involved state employees but that’s an executive branch office. It cannot enforce anything against a member of the legislature,” said Ratfcliffe. “The problem with the systems at the legislature is that — for the elected officials — there’s no way to enforce it except amongst themselves.”

Most women working at the Capitol didn’t even know they could file complaints to the House Administration.

“I didn’t even know that was a process that existed,” Genevieve Cato, a former House employee, told the Texas Tribune. Davis said that’s also the case in the Senate. “Purportedly, there’s a system already in the Texas Senate for training and awareness,” Davis said. “I have to tell you I have no idea what they are talking about. I was a senator there for six years and I never heard of such a thing.”

As of now, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has tasked Senate Administration Committee Chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst with heading a committee that will review current chamber’s procedures to make sure they are up-to-date and include provisions that protect every employee with further potential legislative action pending.

Ratcliffe thinks finding a solution will be a lot tougher as officials will need to create a system that has an impact at all levels of office, from staffers and aides up to elected officials.

“One of the fundamental problems is how do you discipline an elected member of the legislature? And they set the tone for their staffs and everyone else,” questioned Ratcliffe. “The [Secretary of the Senate] handles all of the support staff of the Senate but each and every one of the members of the Senate are the employers of their staff. So, you have to have some sort of system where it crosses all that level. And then on top of everything else, you have to have the actual legislators committed to enforcing it.”

Ratcliffe further contends that voters need to start holding their representatives accountable for their misbehavior, citing Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) 2008 incident where he forcibly kissed a woman in public, and a separate incident where he brandished a gun, leading to an indictment on two counts of deadly conduct.

“There wasn’t anything that the voters of Houston didn’t know and they still elected him,” said Ratcliffe. “There’s gonna have to be a certain element of this becoming really unacceptable to the voters to really make a difference here.”

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