Editorials

#MeToo is being hijacked to trivialize real sexual harassment. Here’s how to end that

California’s Legislature is at last systematically addressing sexual harassment in its own workplace. The effort comes not a moment too soon.

Here as nationally, partisans and cynics are realizing the potential for the #MeToo wave to be hijacked for political ends. There’s a risk that dubious claims and farfetched smears will be lumped in with demonstrably illegal abuses of power. That turn of events threatens to trivialize a real problem and real violations.

There is a difference between being “hugged too long,” as was alleged in a partisan blog about one lawmaker for whom hugs are a trademark, and a lobbyist’s assertion about another that “I spun around and realized that … he had very quickly exposed himself and begun masturbating.”

This shift is hardly limited to the Capitol in Sacramento. This month, a right-wing activist who pushed the Pizzagate conspiracy theory got MSNBC to fire progressive commentator Sam Seder over a remark about Roman Polanski and rape he once tweeted and deleted; after an outcry, MSNBC apologized and rehired him.

Last week, a retired human resources executive and employment attorney running for Congress in Kansas pulled out after a 2005 lawsuit surfaced in which a male subordinate accused her of firing him after he rebuffed her advances. A first-time candidate, she said the claim was “a lie,” but that the episode left her “disillusioned by the political process.”

Such mischief can reign when there’s a rush to judgment. There is a difference, for example, between being “hugged too long” – a charge, published first by a partisan Republican blog, leveled last week at Democratic Sen. Bob Hertzberg – and a lobbyist’s complaint to the Assembly Rules Committee that “I spun around and realized that I was face to face with (Assemblyman) Matt Dababneh, and he had very quickly exposed himself and begun masturbating.”

Hertzberg is as known for his decency, his serious policy ideas and his lack of scandal as for his habit of hugging rather than offering handshakes. Hertzberg’s hugs were part of his brand. But overly friendly hugs and quirky invasion of personal space don’t rise to the level of harassment unless he persisted after being told to knock it off.

He apologized to his accuser, former Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, a one-term Fresno Republican, and “to anyone who might have ever felt uncomfortable.” He pledged to change how he greets people, probably for the best.

That’s very different from Dababneh, a Woodland Hills Democrat, who has been publicly accused by four women of exposing himself or subjecting them to discussions of his sex life; he announced he will resign at year-end, though he denied wrongdoing.

Such accusations are starting to run together in the eyes of the public. In some cases, even insiders have had difficulty gauging the seriousness of the alleged trespass or the credibility of the accusers. The sooner we have a reliable system in place to assess these allegations, the better for all concerned.

To that end, the hiring of two California law firms to investigate harassment claims, announced Thursday by Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León, is an important step in the right direction. So is the Senate’s decision to work with the nonprofit WEAVE to provide counseling and a hotline for confidential reports.

De León described the changes as “the most far reaching overhaul” of sexual harassment policies for any legislative body in the country. Too bad he couldn’t have reached a bit farther, to coordinate with complaint policies in the Assembly.

The lower house also plans to tap WEAVE’s expertise for counseling and reporting, and has law firms that investigate members and staffers. California has a bicameral system, and leaders need to control their houses, but workers in two departments of the same workplace shouldn’t have to learn and navigate completely different complaint procedures.

It is probably too much to hope that competitive political leaders would cede power in the Senate and Assembly over an issue as potentially explosive as alleged sexual misconduct. But it would be a start if there were at least a single entry point for aggrieved workers in either house to report violations and a common set of steps for each house to follow.

It also would help if the Democrats who dominate both houses included more Republicans in the process, and make it clear that cronies of errant lawmakers won’t be handling internal investigations.

The law firms hired by the Senate include L.A.-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, whose lawyers have traditionally contributed to Democrats, including Hertzberg, who has promised to cooperate with any investigation. De León’s chief of staff has said lawyers who contributed to senators will not participate in investigations, but the stronger the conflict-of-interest rules, the better the optics.

California’s Capitol is just one workplace among many, but sexual harassment is a liability to taxpayers, a form of discrimination, and it diminishes faith in institutions.

It’s a tall order when Congress dodges and ducks, and a man who publicly boasted about sexual assault occupies the White House, but California lawmakers should set an example, encourage perspective and work to prevent this historic push for equality from devolving into a vehicle for partisan warfare. Transparency and bipartisanship do build trust.

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