Capitol Alert

After women said #MeToo, here’s how California lawmakers confronted sexual harassment

The bombshells began dropping during the legislative recess last fall.

In October, as an unfolding sexual abuse scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein dominated the news, nearly 150 women signed a letter decrying widespread “dehumanizing behavior by men” in California politics. Among them were lobbyists, consultants, legislative staff and six sitting lawmakers.

The campaign launched a discussion about a culture of fear and retaliation at the Capitol, which women said had discouraged them from reporting pervasive harassment and allowed it to go unpunished. By the time the Legislature reconvened in January for the new session, two of its members had already resigned amid accusations of sexual misconduct and complaints had been lodged against at least three more.

In this moment of reckoning, inside the building and society at large, lawmakers passed more than a dozen bills addressing workplace sexual harassment by the close of the two-year session Friday night. Experts said these measures could make California a national leader on the issue. The Legislature also spent months developing a new process for handling its own investigations of inappropriate behavior.

“I’m proud to say we walked through that door — both as employers and as policymakers,” said Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who helped lead the committee that rewrote the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy.

Whether that has led to sustained changes in behavior around the Capitol, however, remains to be seen. A widely acknowledged shortcoming is that the Legislature does not yet have a way to deal with harassment coming from individuals who do not work in the building, such as lobbyists and constituents.

Women who signed the letter said the serious revision of internal rules had provided a boost of confidence in the institution. But it will take legislative leaders doling out real discipline for misconduct, they said, for harassers to understand that their actions will no longer be tolerated.

“Like with any relationship, when the trust is violated, the person can’t just do whatever to earn it back, whether it’s buying you chocolate or flowers or dinner, or whether it’s holding a committee hearing,” said Elise Flynn Gyore, a Senate chief of staff who spoke publicly last fall about being groped by former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra. “Trust is a journey, and I think we’re on that journey.”

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The legislative proposals that emerged in response to the #MeToo movement were expansive and ambitious, reaching all the way to the top of the corporate ladder with a requirement for public companies to have women on their boards of directors.

A handful of the measures, such as a mandate for hotels to provide panic buttons for employees who work alone in guest rooms, faltered. But most that failed were regulations of the Legislature itself, including bills to make elected officials pay for their own settlements instead of the government and to allow staff members to unionize.

Among more than a dozen proposals now awaiting a signature or veto from Gov. Jerry Brown are:

Senate Bill 820, which prohibits secret settlements and non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases.

Senate Bill 1300, which forbids companies from requiring their workers to sign releases of liability as condition of continued employment or in exchange for a bonus.

Senate Bill 1343, which expands a biannual sexual harassment training mandate to nearly all California employees.

Assembly Bill 1870, which gives workers three years, rather than just one, to file an employment discrimination claim with the state.

Assembly Bill 3080, which bans forced arbitration agreements, where workers must give up their right to take disputes with their employer to court as a condition of the job.

Attorney Jean Hyams, the past president of the California Employment Lawyers Association, said organizations that work on women’s rights came together with legislators to identify the “traps and pitfalls” in the law for working women.

The package is meant to cover each stage of the process, she said, compelling employers to prevent harassment “as soon as it rears its ugly head,” holding them responsible if they don’t, and providing victims more time to process what has happened to them.

“We think that to change the culture, you have to stop silencing women,” said Hyams, who also represented lobbyist Pamela Lopez in a sexual misconduct complaint against former Assemblyman Matt Dababneh.

Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School who has written about gender equity, said California took major steps forward this year to protect victims of sexual harassment and prevent future abuses. If Brown signs these bills, she said, it would make the state a national leader.

“We’re seeing a real change in cultural consciousness around this issue and one that’s not going away,” she said.

The next step is to ramp up state enforcement of labor protections, Rhode added, and to help connect low-income women and other vulnerable communities with legal defense resources, especially because these new laws would likely discourage employers from settling.

“It’s still a very costly process to complain. Most women face backlash and retaliation,” she said.

As the bills wound through the legislative process, the Senate and Assembly were undertaking a review of their own sexual harassment policies. A joint committee conducted five hearings with outside experts over the course of the winter. Complaints against lawmakers and high-ranking staff that were found to be valid were released to the public, an unprecedented disclosure after decades of secrecy surrounding misconduct in the Capitol.

“We were all affected by this. My heart broke for some of those victims who shared their stories,” said Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, D-Grand Terrace, a committee member who also carried the measure to provide more time for filing workplace discrimination claims. “We hope that we did something to alleviate it.”

In June, Mitchell and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, unveiled a plan to create a new unit within the Legislative Counsel’s office, comprised of investigators with specialized training in workplace sexual harassment, to independently accept and assess misconduct complaints in both houses. The Legislature will also appoint a separate panel of experts to make factual determinations on the cases and recommend appropriate responses, though it will still ultimately be up to lawmakers how to handle discipline.

The Legislature in its final week approved $1.5 million to start building the investigation unit, which Mitchell said she hopes will be ready to go when the next session begins in December.

Mitchell said the Legislature had to acknowledge that some of its practices were antiquated — a frequent complaint was that the annual sexual harassment training was not engaging. The committee now plans to incorporate those discussions more regularly into caucus and staff meetings, including training on bystander intervention.

“I’m a Weight Watchers girl,” Mitchell said. “So I know my rules, but that’s also reinforced when I go to my weekly class.”

Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist and one of the founders of We Said Enough, which organized the original letter, said the conversation now needs to extend beyond sexual misconduct to address the harassment and mistreatment that minorities and gay members of the Capitol community experience.

A recent altercation in which Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, was kicked out of a restaurant for allegedly threatening to “bitch slap” a black lobbyist caused consternation for many. The associations for black lawmakers and black staff members called for a full investigation of the incident. Days later, the termed-out lawmaker was feted by his colleagues on the Senate floor.

And while many more people feel comfortable coming forward, Corbin said, the biggest remaining challenge is ensuring confidentiality in reporting. A frequent criticism last fall was that information about complaints and investigations easily and immediately leaked out of the legislative rules committees.

“No one wants to go to the principal’s office in elementary school for a reason,” Corbin said. “You’re either in trouble or a snitch.”

Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, said she has heard from four staff members who were looking for a new job rather than reporting harassment or other inappropriate behavior, because they didn’t want to deal with the hassle of the complaint process or people talking about them. She wondered whether the Capitol would slip without its recent spotlight, which she said had forced people onto their best behavior

“Close the blinds and then see what happens,” said Melendez, who after four years of trying, successfully carried a bill this session to provide whistleblower protections for legislative staff.

Women in the building, meanwhile, are creating their own new culture, including setting up a mentoring program between veteran and rookie staff. Some said they still felt a misogyny and dismissiveness toward women, even if overt harassment had diminished.

Gyore, who was the first in the Capitol community to name her harasser last fall, said her office became the “crying room” after she went public, as other female employees came by to share their own stories with her.

“It took a real toll on me. A few times I had to go to Capitol Park and cry because I felt like, what kind of place am I working in?” she said.

But she believes the past ten months have put the Legislature on the right path: “I absolutely think it was worth it. It was a conversation that needed to happen.”

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