Politics & Government

Sexual harassment, Olympia style

She’s young, terribly dedicated and anxious to do well in the fishbowl of in- fluence and innuendo that is the Washington state political scene.

She dresses off the pages of a Spiegel catalog. She’s sedate. Professional yet pleasant.

Now, she’s out of a job.

“I’ve been told (by supervisors) it was because I was so young and so pretty that the (legislators) were afraid they’d say something to incriminate themselves,” she says now. “But I don’t really know for sure. They can fire me for anything.”

The politics of sex - and sexual harassment - are still as apparent and as difficult as ever in the Legislature of the 1990s.

State Sen. Stan Johnson was forced to resign from the Legislature in January after he admitted having made sexual advances to his former legislative aide. It’s one of the capital’s more provocative tales. And it’s helped crack open the door on the world of power, politics and human relationships.

Now, everybody’s talking - off the record. Dozens of legislative aides, staff members, lawmakers and lobbyists agreed to be interviewed for this story, but only if their names weren’t used. But their stories, sometimes amusing and sometimes painful, give an intriguing insight into a very closed part of an otherwise very public institution.

Harassment isn’t rampant, they say.

But it’s there. And it’s much more subtle now, making it a lot harder to deal with, they say.

A top administrator delivers a briefing to a group of legislative aides, mainly women. “Well, I guess that will hold those bimbos,” he is overheard to say as he leaves the office.

A security guard invites a staffer to sit on his lap while she waits for the elevator.

“Sexual harassment in this area will not be reported . . . it will be graded,” reads a sign near the desk of a newspaper reporter whose office is visited regularly by staffers delivering press releases.

“They’re looking straight at your chest or your ass, instead of your eyes,” says one woman staffer. “They’re not listening to a word you’re saying and you feel demeaned. But what are you going to do, say `I didn’t like the way you looked at me’?”

A new kind of sexual gamesmanship has settled over today’s Legislature like a sticky web, trapping men and women in roles made particularly sensitive by the power wielded in Olympia. And not just by lawmakers themselves but by trusted, senior staff members and veteran lobbyists.

More worrisome to victims is the realization that the influence of the politically powerful reaches beyond the capital, into private business and communities, making it difficult for people who complain of wrongdoing to find other work.

“When you’re elected, the voters hand you this power that many people misuse,” says Sen. Patty Murray, a Seattle Democrat who has made battling sexual harassment one of her priorities. “I hear senators say, `Make sure your staff knows its place.’ I think that kind of attitude leads to harassment of any kind.”

The Senate, spurred in part by charges against one of its own, put in place a new process for senators and staff to fight sexual harassment in 1991. The three-page written policy is clear on the kinds of things that constitute harassment and discrimination and sets out a detailed complaint and investigation procedure.

Senators can be reprimanded, censured or expelled. Employees can be suspended or fired, among other things.

Senators and staff already have gone through formal training classes that likely will be conducted annually.

But the applause is for the informal side of the policy - the use of “facilitators” who are trusted to hold concerns and questions confidential or to help pursue a complaint if that becomes necessary. Secretary of the Senate Gordon Golob said the eight facilitators have had 15 employees come to them in the two months the program has been in place, mostly with questions.

But on the House side, sexual harassment has gotten fleeting attention. Many staff, aides and members complain House leaders are largely unresponsive to the issue.

The House passed a brief sexual harassment policy in 1990 but has yet to define sexual harassment or hold the training classes employees believe are needed to raise the consciousness of members and staff.

House Speaker Joe King wasn’t sure last week what the four-paragraph policy said. He said he couldn’t comment on it without first getting a briefing from Chief Clerk Alan Thompson.

Thompson said last week he plans to hold training for staff sometime after the legislative session. He’s not sure when. He doesn’t know yet what form the training will take or who will give it.

Representatives probably also will be asked to go through training at some later date, he said.

Thompson said he hadn’t read the new Senate policy. He was surprised to hear that the Senate used informal facilitators. But he thought that might be a good idea in the House, too.

“It’s a matter that’s taken very seriously here now and wasn’t formerly,” Thompson said. “We’re well along . . . in sensitivity, to all this.”

Twenty years ago, each side of the aisle had its own well-stocked bar. Boozy receptions and wild parties were nightly affairs.

One veteran aide recalled how shocked she was her first year in Olympia to realize some of the lawmakers from her home town - married men with families - had “session wives” who shared their apartments or hotel rooms while the Legislature was in session.

Politicos still talk about the night the old Tyee Hotel burned down in the early `70s.

“The stories people tell about who came out of what room with whom - it was the talk of the town for years,” said Rep. Shirley Winsley, a Fircrest Republican.

Many lawmakers took pride during those days in decorating their offices with what Winsley calls “show horses” - young women whose prime job asset was their sex appeal.

Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard recalls marveling to another legislator in 1978 over the legislator’s bevy of beautiful aides. The lawmaker replied his seat was so secure that he could afford to “hire ‘em and teach ‘em to type later,” said Pritchard with a chuckle.

House Republicans thought it was just good fun when they handed out the “Leg of the Day Award” to the woman in the gallery the men decided had the nicest pair. A page ceremoniously carried the award on a tray up to the gallery and presented it, amid applause and whoops.

That was “something dumb I did 20 years ago,” said Sid Morrison, a former House member from Zillah and now a U.S. congressman and candidate for governor.

“It was a totally different era,” he said last week. “Now, looking back, to me it seems so totally out of place, I’m embarrassed by it.”

Other events weren’t seen as such good fun, by anyone. Then-Sen. C.W. “Red” Beck, a Democrat from Port Orchard, lost a 1978 re-election bid after a 15-year-old page claimed he sexually molested her while driving her home to Gig Harbor from Olympia. The senator settled that lawsuit for $2,000 and the page program was substantially tightened and better chaperoned.

Lawmakers face a stricter legal climate today. More women hold public office and senior staff jobs. Legislators say they’re so busy with a tougher workload they don’t have time for parties and playing around.

And the grilling of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas last fall was a sobering experience for many who had seen sex with their subordinates as no big deal.

“The Anita Hill hearing was a real catalyst in a way,” one former top administrator said. “People started talking about sexual harassment more seriously.”

And it isn’t just men they’re talking about. Women lobbyists and lawmakers also are paying unwanted attention on less powerful men, according to several men interviewed.

“Anybody can be damaged by any kind of rumor,” said one young male lobbyist who has sidestepped unpleasant oral innuendoes from women legislators. Now he’s trying to figure out what to do about the sexual pressure being placed on him by a senior woman in his firm. He’s terrified of upsetting the apple cart.

“Success here is so dependent on what people say about you behind your back: your integrity, how you conduct yourself, your ability to keep secrets,” he said.

But with the majority of power still in the hands of men, women are the ones doing most of the complaining - if they complain at all.

“You open your mouth and you’re going nowhere fast,” a former legislative staff member said. “I don’t care what you say - you file a complaint and your career comes to a screeching halt.”

Rep. Jean-Marie Brough (R-Federal Way) says some women legislators are putting up with pressures they never admit to publicly because of the political consequences.

Colleagues have poured out horror stories in the women’s room about oral abuse in their own caucuses. Male leaders call them “bitch” and level other sexually charged insults, Brough said.

“When they bully women, they put in a little extra twist,” she said.

One woman House member says there are legislators with whom even she wouldn’t be caught in an empty room. She recalls passing a high-level staff member and hearing him snicker to another staffer about the size of her breasts.

“I just walked on,” she said. “I didn’t even look at him, and I never said anything.”

More often, the harassment isn’t so blatant.

“They comment on what you wear or how you look,” one aide said. “They put their arm around your shoulder and leave it there too long, or the hand moves down your back.”

A woman lobbyist arrived at a meeting of legislators to brief them on an issue. One lawmaker remarked he was glad she showed up “because you look a lot better” than her male partner.

“It just absolutely reduced her,” says another woman to whom the lobbyist complained. “She was no longer the professional. He took it away from her.”

One woman continued to receive boxes of candy and flowers from a number of men. One senator was most persistent.

“He said, `If you’re going to work for me, you’re going to have to get into my mind,’ and then he’d ask me to have drinks or dinner.”

But a couple more serious recent incidents underscore what many see as the Legislature’s failure to come to grips with harassment’s pernicious impact on people’s lives.

In 1989 a staffer broke off a brief relationship with a House member, but his attentions didn’t end. He continued to call her - as many as 10 times a day - send her flowers and show up at her workplace.

The woman, who’s still in her job, complained repeatedly to House officials and her supervisor. She changed her phone number, but the calls and letters continued. When he climbed over her fence and knocked on her windows one morning, she went to House leaders again.

“I felt physically threatened but I also felt my job was threatened and my future was threatened,” she said. “Whether it was my own creation or theirs, I felt I was not welcome to stay in my job.”

The calls eventually tailed off on their own, months later; the member is still in office.

In another case, a temporary aide to a House member applied for a job in the Senate, and found herself caught in a professional trap set by an amorous senior staffer.

The official told her he wanted to do a follow-up interview - over one dinner, and then another, then he asked her to take a trip to California.

“He kept stringing me along, saying `I just don’t know,’ “ said the woman, now a Seattle consultant. “He said what I really needed was a man in my life.”

“I was afraid if I ever called him on it right then, I’d never get a job. Olympia is a small town, and I didn’t want to get blackballed.”

Only after she finally took another job did she learn she wasn’t even on the list of finalists for the Senate job. And when she complained to the female House member for whom she was working, “She said, `That’s what you get for being so young and cute.’ “

Senate Majority Leader Jeannette Hayner has little patience with these tales of woe.

“I’ve worked in a lot of jobs and if I were caught in something like this I’d quit and get another job,” she said. “At some point they’ve got to take control of their own lives.

“There are two sexes in this world and I don’t think you’re going to sanitize them. And who the heck wants to?”

Hayner’s advice is bitter wisdom to most staffers and aides, who say they can’t afford to walk away from the prestige and pay they’ve found in Olympia.

So they learn to survive. If they have business with troublesome members, they do it in the wings or the hallways, never alone in their offices.

“It takes more effort for your job than it should, but you learn to do it,” one says.

The increased awareness of sexual harassment and new tougher, sexual harassment policies should help, those interviewed said. But they’d like training in how to deal with more subtle harassment and say those who most need it are newcomers who haven’t learned to protect themselves.

“The sad thing about sexual harassment is that it’s just the next time away,” said a woman who left the Legislature for private business because she felt she was treated badly. “You can think everything has changed and it’s all better - and then there’s the next time.”