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States tackling shortcomings in sexual misconduct policies

Rep. Josh Zepnick

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — After a tumultuous few months that saw numerous lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct, a majority of state legislatures across the country are considering strengthening sexual harassment policies that have gone unheeded or unchanged for years.

A 50-state review by The Associated Press found that almost all legislative chambers now have at least some type of written sexual harassment policy, though they vary widely, and many are placing a greater emphasis on preventing and punishing sexual misconduct as they convene for their 2018 sessions.

This week alone, lawmakers in Arizona, Idaho, Tennessee and Rhode Island underwent detailed training about sexual harassment, some for the first time. And a Florida Senate panel voted to mandate an hour-long course.

Yet about a third of all legislative chambers do not require lawmakers to receive training about what constitutes sexual harassment, how to report it and what consequences it carries, the AP’s review found.

The AP also found that only a minority of legislative bodies conduct external investigations into complaints, with most others entrusting lawmakers or staff to look into allegations against colleagues. That has contributed to a culture in some capitols in which the targets of sexual harassment have been reluctant to come forward with complaints — until recently.

Lawmakers around the country have said it’s now time to take concrete steps to change that culture.

“Let’s treat all women — regardless of their background, their age, their political affiliation, their role in the process — as ladies, as we would like anybody to treat our wives, our daughters, mothers, sisters,” said J.D. Mesnard, the Republican who heads the Arizona state House, where lawmakers took part in mandated sexual harassment training this week.

A wave of sexual misconduct claims against prominent figures in entertainment, media and politics gained momentum last fall after a multitude of women made allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

In the past year, at least 14 legislators in 10 states have resigned from office following accusations of sexual harassment or misconduct, according to the AP’s review. At least 16 others in more than a dozen states have faced other repercussions, such as the voluntary or forced removal from legislative leadership positions. Some others remain defiant in the face of ongoing investigations into sexual harassment complaints.

The AP found that more than three-fourths of the states have at least one legislative chamber that has updated its sexual harassment policy during the past several months, developed specific proposals to do so or undertaken a review of whether changes are needed.

The Arizona House had no written sexual harassment policy until November, when Mesnard issued one after a female lawmaker accused a male colleague of sexually harassing her. In the weeks that followed, several other women came forward with stories of crude behavior by state Rep. Don Shooter.

On Tuesday, at the start of mandatory sexual harassment training, Shooter stood before colleagues and apologized for conduct he called “jarring, insensitive and demeaning.” But he denied the most serious complaint — that he tried to pressure Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita into a sexual relationship.

Ugenti-Rita was sitting just three rows in front of Shooter and appeared shaken at times as he spoke.

Shooter, a Republican, has been removed as head of the appropriations committee as an investigation into his conduct continues.

In Kentucky, the acting House speaker has appointed a committee to devise a formal system to address workplace complaints. That comes after former Speaker Jeff Hoover resigned his leadership post following revelations that he had paid to keep a sexual harassment settlement secret. Three other lawmakers who signed the secret settlement were removed as chairmen of various committees.

“If people felt like they had to be accountable and responsible for their behavior and there were strict guidelines for what they had to follow, sometimes that’s all people need is a list of duties or a list of dos and don’ts,” said Kentucky Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, who has been pushing for a formal House policy.

Legislative chambers in Alaska, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada and Ohio are among the states considering improved policies on sexual harassment — in each case as sexual harassment claims were brought to light.

In Washington state, more than 40 lawmakers joined scores of other women in a letter last November calling for a change in the capitol culture. They wrote it has “too often functioned to serve and support harassers’ power and privilege over protection of those who work for them.”

A Senate panel subsequently approved annual training for senators and staff, and both chambers now are reviewing their policies.

Among states that require sexual harassment training for lawmakers, the frequency varies greatly. Some offer it annually or every other year, while others require it only once, when a lawmaker is first elected.

The New Mexico House and Senate last provided sexual harassment training to lawmakers in 2004, but will hold mandatory training next week.

Experts say more frequent training is best, but they emphasize that its effectiveness also depends on how it is conducted.

Providing only generic definitions of sexual harassment or relying solely on online and video training can be unproductive, said Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University who focuses on sexual harassment law. A better approach uses in-person training with real-life scenarios about what constitutes harassment and what to do about it, she said.

Debbie S. Dougherty, a communications professor at the University of Missouri who researches sexual harassment policies, recommends that such policies include more emotional language — referring to harassers as predators, for example — to emphasize the seriousness of the issue. They also should be tailored to the unique work culture of a legislature, where the people with the most influence are elected rather than hired.

Experts say external investigations also are important for people to feel comfortable in reporting sexual harassment allegations. Yet the AP’s review found that only about a dozen House chambers and slightly more Senate chambers conduct external investigations, with several additional chambers offering it as an option.

Among those is the Texas House, which until December had a written policy encouraging accusers who wanted to pursue an external complaint to call a phone number that didn’t work at a state commission that was defunct. The revised House policy explains the internal complaint process in greater detail, offers an external review on a situational basis and gives accusers options for filing complaints through an external agency.

The Missouri House updated its policies after former Speaker John Diehl Jr. resigned in 2015 while admitting to sending sexually suggestive text messages to a House intern. Among other things, the new policy requires a private attorney to be hired to investigate any sexual harassment allegations involving lawmakers.

House Speaker Todd Richardson said the chamber continues to review its procedures.

“As I said from the day we implemented that policy, it was going to be an ongoing effort to make sure that we got it right,” he said.

GOP struggles to woo candidates in states where Trump won

BISMARCK, North Dakota — Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota got a hard sell last week from President Donald Trump, who gave Cramer and his wife a personal tour of the West Wing and used the gilded luster of the newly renovated Oval Office to entreat Cramer to challenge popular Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

It didn’t work: Cramer turned down Trump, who had also called him about the race last fall.

It’s the latest in a string of complications for Senate Republicans, who are clinging to a paper-thin majority and entering a midterm election year saddled with Trump’s low approval ratings and a history of losses for the party in power.

“The president made a very patriotic case for me to run for the Senate seat and told me he would be behind me 100 percent and campaign for me and with me,” Cramer told The Associated Press.

But Cramer couldn’t resist the pull of his family and of his position in Congress. “I don’t want to be away every weekend, around the country and raising money when I have a 10-year-old at home and four grandchildren.”

His decision came as Republicans in Ohio scrambled to find a replacement on the ballot for Josh Mandel, the favorite in the GOP Senate race who left the race recently out of concern for his wife’s health.

Now the possibility looms of a primary race between four-term Rep. Jim Renacci and investor and author J. D. Vance, a contest that could leave the nominee hobbled.

Ohio and North Dakota are among the 10 states that Trump won in 2016 that have Democrats running for re-election. Republicans hold a 51-to-49 edge in the Senate, a margin narrowed by Alabama Democrat Doug Jones’ surprise win over Republican Roy Moore in a special election.

“I think everybody’s eyes are wide open about the midterm,” said Josh Holmes, a senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It is going to be extremely difficult to hold the House and the Senate, but we are doing everything we possibly can do to that.”

Cramer’s decision was the second time in recent weeks when Trump had been rebuffed in trying to woo a candidate to run for Senate.

The president urged Orrin Hatch of Utah to run for re-election, and the White House even scheduled a trip to Utah last year largely intended to woo the veteran senator, making sure that the 83-year-old had time alone with the president.

Yet Hatch recently announced plans to retire, paving the way for frequent Trump critic Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, to run for the seat.

In the meantime, Republicans, handed an opportunity to pick up a seat in Minnesota, were waiting for word from former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The former governor, the most recent Republican to be elected statewide in Minnesota, is considered a top candidate for the seat Democrat Al Franken gave up amid allegations of sexual harassment.

Former Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, appointed to fill the seat until a special election in November, was sworn in last week.

In North Dakota, Cramer had been viewed as the lone Republican capable of mounting a strong challenge to Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and gas company executive seeking a second term.

Yet Cramer, 56, had put off a decision while the House pursued the tax overhaul, even as Heitkamp had more than $4 million for her re-election campaign.

Though Cramer never committed to running, White House officials and some McConnell advisers had believed he was leaning toward a bid.

Despite the complications, McConnell allies say Republicans’ path to holding the majority is made less thorny by the fall of former Trump strategist Steve Bannon.

Bannon, whose political stock was damaged after backing Moore in Alabama, was sharply rebuked by Trump last week after being quoted in a tell-all book.

“It’s still too early to cast judgment on the general election map,” said Chris Pack, with the McConnell-affiliated super-PAC Senate Leadership Fund. “But the threat of Republican primaries from fringe candidates who can’t win in November took a big blow with Steve Bannon imploding over the past couple of weeks.”

Charles Rex Arbogast 


Rep. Josh Zepnick

Marc Wehrs /   


Manuel Balce Ceneta