Soapbox

An assemblyman tried to force himself on her. Here’s what she’d tell him if she could

The late Assemblyman Lou Papan, D-Millbrae, watched a friendly dice game at Frank Fat's restaurant in this undated photo.
The late Assemblyman Lou Papan, D-Millbrae, watched a friendly dice game at Frank Fat's restaurant in this undated photo. The Sacramento Bee

I’ve spent 43 years in politics, which may make me the dean of women lobbyists in Sacramento. I’ve had my share of #MeToo moments, but one stands out because it changed my life.

I had become interested in politics in the late 1960s and got my start in Washington in 1975 working for Rep. Harold ‘Bizz’ Johnson, a gentleman and a powerhouse who delivered for his Northern California district.

Then I became a lobbyist and learned to deal with often being the only woman in the room. Once, I walked into the office of the chief of staff of a powerful congressional committee, who told me: “I do my work on the golf course or the mattress. What’s it going to be?”

“I’m working on my golf game,” I replied. Humor, I found, could defuse a situation. I also learned to cuss. Swearing, like smoking, made me like one of the tough guys, and kept me safe, most of the time.

I came to Sacramento in 1980 to be close to my father who was dying of cancer, and I got hired at one of the premier lobby firms, Advocation, run by Don BrOwn (yes, he capitalized the O).

Don was a powerhouse, too, and encouraged me to take legislators to lunch and dinner. He thought it would be good for business and my career.

I closed more than one bar, though I mostly drank Cokes while legislators preferred whiskey and dirty jokes to policy discussion. That was part of the job and my ears were hardly tender.

I loved the bipartisanship of the after-hours events, and became good friends with many legislators and their staff. Occasionally, one would suggest we go beyond friendship. I would joke about how stupid that would be.

One legislator, the chairman of a committee that was important to my clients, once unhooked my bra in an elevator. I wasn’t amused, and told him to knock it off, which he did and so we remained friends.

One night in 1983, my boss told me to go to dinner with the Assembly Rules Committee chairman, Lou Papan, a Democrat from Millbrae. Papan had a reputation for being a bully and womanizer. But I had a job to do. Over dinner at the Firehouse, he talked mostly about his family, and walked me to my car at what I thought would be the end of the evening.

Then, he forced himself on me. I fought him off.

“You will sleep with me or all your bills will die,” Papan said.

I didn’t.

Sure enough, for the next year, the bills I was handling failed. Papan and I would see each other in the Capitol, and he’d bully me more. During one committee, he came in, saw me and said loudly: “You don't belong in here.”

I know how to stand up for myself. But I was a young lobbyist in a business dominated by men, and Papan could ruin my career.

As Rules Committee chair, he decided who was hired and fired and which committees would hear my bills. He also oversaw what passed for the Assembly’s human resources department. When the Rules Committee chair harasses you, there is no place to appeal.

Finally, it became so awkward that I moved to Nevada, where I set up a lobby business. The few friends I confided in were not surprised by my reason. Papan had harassed many women. Unlike me, many were single moms who couldn’t pick up and move.

I moved back to Sacramento when Papan left the Assembly in 1987, and established the first woman-owned contract lobbying firm with offices in Carson City and Sacramento.

In 1996, Papan returned to the Assembly, running as “The New Lou.” Reporters asked me to go public with how Papan tried to destroy my life and career. Even though I was established in my career and my own boss, I remained too afraid to go public, and he got elected.

The new Lou was a lot like the old Lou. So I avoided him. The Assembly paid out at least one settlement in 2002 for a complaint that involved Papan.

Lou Papan is dead. But if I could confront him, I would ask: How would you feel if some bully threatened the career of someone you loved? How could you try to destroy a person’s safety and self-worth and look yourself in the mirror?

I share this now because I believe there must be a reckoning. More women are in the lobby corps and are bravely telling their stories in ways I could not 20 or 30 years ago. We need to know and understand what happened and is happening so it will stop.

Everyone who works in or with government should know there is a safe place to report bullying and sexual harassment. That place should not rest with the Assembly or Senate rules committees. The process has rarely worked for victims because they don’t trust it.

Some men say the #WeSaidEnough movement makes them unsure what is and isn’t appropriate. Come on, guys, it’s simple. Treat women with the same respect you do your buddies. If a woman like me commonly gives a hello hug, hug back. If a woman prefers to shake your hand, then do that. If you are the woman’s boss, don’t hit on her.

If you don’t want to socialize with women after work because you’re afraid of being accused of a transgression, that’s your problem, not ours. If you can’t keep your hands to yourself and handle your drinking, then you are in the wrong business.

We women are at the table, and we’re not leaving.

Sacramento lobbyist Paula Treat can be reached at mslobby@earthlink.net.

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