What makes state legislatures uniquely prone to alleged harassment

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First published by The 19th

Miranda Viscoli was used a seeing legislation changed at midnight. Viscoli, the co president of New Mexicans for the Prevention of Gun Violence was in New Mexico advocating for a bill to “get guns out of the hand of domestic violence offenders” and requiring domestic violence victims to surrender their guns. While a protective order is in place, this would prevent them from buying new guns.

Viscoli was scheduled to testify before the state legislature. She said that state Senator Daniel Ivey Soto had just added language in the bill to counter Viscoli’s goal. He pulled her to an area on the main floor between two glass doors. There were no security cameras present and berated her.

Viscoli recalls, “He got in my face, stuck his finger in my face, and said, “Get your fucking sh*t together Miranda.” After the encounter, she was visibly shaken and lawmakers cancelled her testimony.

“I was emotionally affected. Viscoli stated that gun violence prevention work requires a lot of toughness. Viscoli called the FBI every time there was a threat to my life. Viscoli admitted that she was unable to stop choking on her tongue. “It took me two minutes to become an expert witness, and then Ivey-Soto walked back into the chamber, smiling and winking at the NRA lobbyist.

Two NRA board members reside in Ivey-Soto’s district. Ivey-Soto did not respond to my request for comment.

She was still shaking the next week so she visited some legislators at the statehouse she trusted to tell them her story. She told people that they were “horrified” and recommended that she not be alone in any room with Ivey Soto. She was warned by them that speaking out against him could put the bill she was trying to pass at risk.

“I thought, ‘Wow. Viscoli stated, “This must be more than me.”

Viscoli’s experience is not uncommon. The Statehouses, a place in which the powerful and those less empowered interact as part of policy-making processes, are a place for abuse and harassment. If they do happen, the consequences can be slow or not come at all.

The state legislature of New Mexico began an investigation into Ivey Soto in March. It was initiated by Marianna Anaya (lobbyist), who claimed that he had groped her and screamed at him. He then retaliated against her with tying up legislation she was currently working on after she refused his advances. Anaya filed her complaint and Viscoli published a March op-ed describing her alleged experiences with Ivey Soto.

Anaya’s complaint has been filed by nine women advocates and lobbyists. They have made allegations of sexual harassment, verbal abuse and harassing others. A coalition of 30 organizations have requested that Ivey-Soto have his interim committee assignments suspended until the investigation is complete. An outside counsel conducted the investigation and handed over its findings to a legislative committee, which will decide if there is sufficient evidence to enforce disciplinary actions. The subcommittee has not yet set a date for their decision. Ivey Soto has denied all allegations by Anaya and Viscoli.

The bureaucratic maze that is required to deal with harassment allegations in statehouses continues to be a problem. This, despite the efforts of improving processes, has left people in awkward power dynamics or complete inaction following alleged bullying or sexual harassment.

In 2018, in the wake of the growing awareness for the #MeToo movement, 32 states have introduced more than 125 pieces legislation to address sexual harassment in state legislatures. 37 of these were adopted or enacted. Twenty nine states added 100 pieces of legislation to their legislative mix in 2019. Of these, 29 were adopted or enacted. Yet, harassment is rampant in state legislatures.

The Associated Press tracked all complaints of harassment filed in state legislatures over a year. This included 76 reports from 2017 to 2018. By 2019, 90 of those reports had been added. A Georgetown University Law Center professor published a 2019 study that found that most government officials accused in sexual harassment and violence were state senators and representatives. The allegations were more or less equally directed at Republican and Democratic legislators. These reports included overwhelmingly women coming forward against men.

Heather Ferguson, the state director for Common Cause in New Mexico — a progressive voter rights and election reform organization — spoke to investigators in the Ayana case. Ivey-Soto once referred to Ferguson, her co-director, as “hips & lips,” and has openly admitted to doing so. Ferguson stated that she is most concerned by the fact that similar experiences are occurring all over the country.

Ferguson stated that “in varying degrees” this happens in different statehouses depending on transparency and tolerance for harassment.

Ferguson called harassment and bullying of women lawmakers the “worst kept secret.” She said that if you filed a complaint of harassment, you could have every bill in New Mexico destroyed.

Ferguson stated that Ferguson was frustrated because he has a personal interest in creating a safe working environment. “The statehouse is supposed be the house of the people. There should be safety for the public. My staff shouldn’t be afraid to go to a senator’s offices or to be left alone, so I don’t have to tell them.

Andrea Johnson is the director for state policy, workplace justice, and cross-cutting initiatives at National Women’s Law Center. She has been involved in reforming state legislatures to address harassment reporting and accountability. These environments can be especially dangerous because of the inherent power differences between legislators and staffers, as well as lobbyists and legislators.

“You have a significant power imbalance… which makes it easy for harassment to occur in state legislatures.”

Johnson stated that harassment by state legislators is a common problem for legislative staff and lobbyists.

State legislatures are accountable for voters. This means that they don’t always have the same employment relationships as other workers. The fact that many legislatures don’t have a neutral, trusted body to handle complaints against them makes the situation even more complicated. Johnson stated that a committee of state legislators who are obligated to their colleagues is often left to review allegations. This situation is compounded by the historic composition of these chambers which Johnson said is predominantly White men. These state-level legislators are the most likely to perpetrate harassment due to the “deep culture sexism, racism” in many state legislatures.

It can lead to uncomfortable dynamics. Ruth Ferguson, a relative of Heather Ferguson, claimed that she was sexually harassed in 2019 by the district director for her state assemblyman in California. She claimed she was harassed by her superior and reported it to the chief of staff.

Ruth Ferguson found out that the chief of staff had failed to report her complaint a year later. Ruth only discovered this after contacting the Workplace Conduct Unit (WCU), the independent panel established by the state to handle harassment complaints. She attempted to anonymizely seek help on the harassment which was ongoing. WCU representatives asked Ruth Ferguson if she would file an official complaint and if she would share the office where she worked. Ruth Ferguson stated to the WCU that she didn’t feel ready at that moment, but would call back when she felt ready.

The WCU reached out to her three months later. They asked her questions about the details she had shared anonymously, and informed her that other people had reported misconduct in her office. Ruth Ferguson believed there were other complainants and decided to share her story with WCU. She didn’t know that there weren’t any other complainants at the time. Two months later, she received an email from the WCU investigator informing her that a formal investigation had been opened in her name. The WCU investigator also mentioned that the chief of her staff was informed that she was the complainant. This was contrary to previous assurances.

Ruth Ferguson stated that her allegations were ultimately dismissed by the WCU after a year-long inquiry, but she agreed that inappropriate behavior occurred based upon the evidence she provided. The WCU informed her that her conduct was under investigation as a result her complaint. This was based on the testimony of employees she had been accused of inappropriate conduct.

She has been a co-founder of Stop Sexual Harassment in Politics since she began graduate school to earn her master’s in public policy. This organization advocates for accountability and reporting changes in California’s state legislatures.

Ruth Ferguson stated, “The most amazing thing about being a former staffer in a legislative body who suffered harassment [and] discrimination was that there is a robust network of people across the country who have experienced similar things and are willingly to share their experiences.” I was able to understand the larger picture by having these people to reach out and getting their responses.

The SHIP-related work of the Democratic leadership in California led to a proposal by the general assembly for changes to the WCU. These proposed changes include a 60-day deadline to complete all investigations, increased communication with complainants about the status of resulting investigation, and the collection and release of data on all complaints filed and their outcomes since the WCU was created in 2019. Ruth Ferguson stated that these changes are a “big win” for victims of sexual harassment in statehouses.

There is currently no information available on harassment complaints against California assembly members, except for the “one very general” number of cases that were reported to WCU and the number closed. Ruth Ferguson stated that the public cannot hold those accused of harassment accountable if they don’t have more information. The absence of concrete data can not only make it difficult for voters to enforce accountability, but also reduce faith in electoral systems. This is because voters feel they don’t have enough information to make informed decisions about candidates. Information that they might not even be able to ask for.

“Information such as that gives the public greater confidence, it’s an accountability measure, it’s another way to prevent harassment from happening. Ruth Ferguson stated that we do not have the data right now and there are no ways for survivors, reporters, or the general public to access more information.

Johnson highlighted the importance of implementing changes to reporting procedures in order to achieve meaningful change. Johnson stated that it is crucial to have an independent entity for handling complaints, conducting investigations and making recommendations on next steps. This will help create a trust-worthy system. Another tool to correct the many power imbalances inherent in these systems would be for complainants to receive outside counsel during the reporting process.

Kelly Dittmar is the director of research at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. Knowing that a third party system exists to investigate and receive complaints can make a big difference in larger cultural changes in legislative bodies. Dittmar is currently researching the factors that influence the success and retention of women elected to state government positions. She has heard directly from people she interviewed about how concerns over toxic workplace cultures are driving women’s decisions to become staff members in state legislatures. This situation is likely to be exacerbated by a lack access to quantitative data about how harassment is dealt with.

We talk about the pipeline of women in politics. But that pipeline doesn’t just apply to office holders, it also applies to staff. Gender representation within staff can have real implications on the setting of policy agendas as well as the culture of a legislative climate. Dittmar stated that staff play an important role in this, but we often don’t pay enough attention to them.

Dittmar said that it does not matter who holds the power to determine whether an issue is on the agenda. This is because accountability is a key factor in the process of cultural change at the legislative level. It’s a ripple effect from their perception of the world. Those who think it’s “locker room talk” versus those who see the long-lasting and detrimental effects on women’s rights and gender equality. People who believe that the former will dismiss those who work to make workplaces safer and give them a say in defining sexual harassment in the legislatures. This is the history of sexual harassment. It’s amazing that it took so long to get to this point. Because the people in power deny that this behavior is wrong.”

Experts said that another area for reform is the collection and release of data about who has complained to whom so that voters can enforce accountability through voting.

“In a legislative assembly, the accountability mechanism for a legislative body is primarily the electoral ballot. “So if someone behaves badly, regardless of whether they fail to deliver on legislation they promised or make crude remarks, the assumption is that the voters will learn and decide if it is disqualifying in next election,” Dittmar stated.

It depends on voters being aware of this — and the larger cultural shift that could impact people’s vote if they are. “Have cultural changes occurred to the point that [sexual harassment] is no longer acceptable? Dittmar stated that Dittmar doesn’t believe so.

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