The national reckoning over workplace sexual harassment came to the Capitol this week, with allegations surfacing about two former legislators and more women talking about a culture they say needs more safeguards against abuses.
OLYMPIA — The national reckoning over workplace sexual harassment came to the Capitol with blunt force this week, with allegations surfacing about two former legislators and more women opening up about a culture they say needs more safeguards against abuses.
The issue emerged this week with a story in the (Tacoma) News Tribune and the NW News Network examining the culture inside the Legislature.
The Associated Press followed Wednesday with a report that featured three women accusing former Democratic Rep. Brendan Williams of sexual harassment and assault during his time in the Legislature.
The next morning, new reports said the abrupt resignation of Democratic Rep. Jim Jacks in March 2011 occurred after accusations of inappropriate behavior, including toward a female staffer.
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The allegations come amid the national conversation known as the “Me Too” movement, as women share stories of sexual harassment following the numerous accusations against film executive Harvey Weinstein.
As the conversation gains steam, state lawmakers, staffers and others are pondering what needs to change inside Olympia’s workplace culture.
“It’s taken a lid off all the stuff that’s been going on for years and years,” Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, said about the impact of the “Me Too” movement in Olympia and beyond.
“How do we bring women in on equal footing in a workplace?” she said.
Two allegations against Williams, who left the Legislature in 2011, came in Facebook posts in response to the News Tribune story earlier in the week, while a third woman accused Williams of making an unwelcome sexual advance when she was a House intern.
A fourth woman said Williams kissed her against her wishes in a 2015 incident.
Williams, who represented the Olympia area, told the AP in an email that he has never engaged in workplace harassment, “though, clearly, it appears I upset people outside work. Heartbroken over that.”
In the case involving Jacks, House Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the Vancouver legislator stepped down in 2011 after complaints stemming from a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Sullivan sent a statement to legislators Wednesday about Jacks’ years-ago resignation after receiving inquiries from the AP.
The statement said Jacks initially denied the allegations, and later “admitted to a problem with alcohol but continued to minimize the extent” of any inappropriate behavior. Jacks couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
House leaders didn’t release the information earlier because of “the staffer’s reluctance to come forward and her request for confidentiality,” Sullivan wrote.
“We have chosen to provide more information now so that everyone in the legislative arena — members, staff, and lobbyists — know that sexual harassment will not be tolerated,” the statement said.
The House of Representatives in January initiated a review of its harassment policies, but not because of any incident or allegation, Sullivan said Thursday.
A report is expected in the coming weeks, he said, and a work group that includes both lawmakers and staff will discuss the findings.
House administration sometimes handles informal complaints about harassment, said House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean. He said he doesn’t know how many informal complaints have been made.
In those cases, a House caucus leader could talk to a member about the allegations. Dean said the most concerning report handled through that process were the allegations involving Jacks, who resigned at the request of House leadership.
Dean said that to his knowledge, the chamber’s formal complaint process has only been used once in recent memory.
In that instance, Dean said, then-Rep. Jim Dunn, R-Vancouver, was sanctioned in 2007 for inappropriate remarks after a legislative meeting. Dunn said it was a small incident that was being blown out of proportion.
He was removed from his committee assignments and blocked from collecting expenses or travel money after what one witness called his “highly inappropriate” comments to a female staffer, according to a report by The Seattle Times.
To change the workplace culture, lawmakers will have to look beyond the official complaint policies, said Jessyn Farrell, a former Democratic state representative.
Farrell, who resigned earlier this year to run for mayor of Seattle, has previously described a 2015 incident in which a male lobbyist walking down a hallway patted her behind.
“My basic take is that there is a lot that needs to change in the Legislature as a work environment for women,” Farrell said.
She suggested several ideas, such as making all lawmakers sign public pledges saying they won’t sexually harass anyone. Or, legislators could limit access to their office unless those visiting signed a pledge not to sexually harass.
“I would literally have every single person who comes in my office sign the pledge,” Farrell said, adding later: “It seems extreme, but the problem is extreme.”
King County Councilwoman Jeanne Kohl-Welles said more frequent sexual-harassment training is needed in Olympia, where powerful politicians mix during the legislative sessions with young staffers and interns.
“I think that the atmosphere there has been rife with a lot of opportunities for people to engage in sexual harassment,” said Kohl-Welles, who served in the Legislature for more than two decades.
Some have recommended establishing an independent ombuds man or human-resources professional to examine allegations, Sullivan said, adding that he wanted to reserve judgment on that idea until the House report on harassment policies is released.
“Clearly, we have to change the culture to make sure people feel comfortable coming forward,” he said.
There’s no magic bullet to improving Olympia’s workplace culture, said Stone, of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. But things like better training, education and discipline will take a sustained effort.
“It can’t happen overnight,” she said, adding, “we need to have it start now.”
Even before this week’s allegations, Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who acts as president of the Senate, said he had been thinking about how to improve the Legislature’s workplace culture regarding harassment.
Habib, who served stints in the House and Senate before winning statewide office this past November, said last week that he had “never been made aware of any kind of assault” during his time in the Legislature.
“I have heard of lewd and inappropriate statements, I have heard of unwanted flirtation,” Habib said. The “Me Too” movement prompted him to reflect on those situations.
“I go back and think to myself, did I do everything I could?” he said.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, meanwhile, has been discussing how to make sure state agencies give better harassment training and have strong complaint procedures, spokeswoman Jaime Smith said.
Those conversations have bubbled up as a 2015 report was made public this summer detailing an inappropriate sexual culture at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Smith said that in conversations with female colleagues, they acknowledge the difficulty of making a complaint when it could hurt a woman’s career.
As to whether more allegations emerge from the Capitol, Sullivan said, “Part of me hopes that there aren’t any more. But part of me hopes that people who are victims of harassment come forward.”