A strong presence hanging over the beginning of the Colorado General Assembly’s legislative session on Jan. 10 was the matter of sexual harassment at the statehouse, a problem described in detail by a Denver Post story that broke before the holidays last month. Sexual harassment reports have come in from numerous lawmakers, aides and interns, giving a wider view of the prevalence of sexual misconduct within the Colorado legislature, a topic that the Post placed as number two on its list of the top eight issues of the 2018 legislative season. What the coverage of this topic has revealed most clearly is a dysfunctional culture at the statehouse, one in which misconduct is widespread and handling is questionable. A thorough review of the General Assembly’s policy and an examination of the culture as a whole is desperately needed.
The current policy, created by the General Assembly for those exempt from personnel laws (such as lawmakers), places a strong emphasis on confidentiality and allows for a high level of discretion in investigations. Lawmakers take complaints to chamber leadership (and staff take complaints to legislative directors), and each complaint is judged to determine if it is substantive. Investigations are then confidential, if an investigation happens at all, and according to the Post, it is not clear how well the General Assembly even tracks these complaints. Punishment or decision can vary greatly based on the people involved.
There are obvious problems with this policy, many of which female lawmakers have already pointed out—oftentimes, it is male party leaders who ultimately end up being in charge of filed complaints, and the transparency of this process is minimal. Even more, many accusers fear destabilization of their careers if they were to enter the process, especially since the bar is fairly high for determining what complaints are “substantive.”
Before the break in December, lawmakers voted to bring in an outside consultant to evaluate the current harassment policies. This is clearly a needed step. The General Assembly has already attempted to write a policy and has clearly not yet found the right process for reporting or struck the correct balance between confidentiality and transparency. Determining how to protect the confidentiality of those involved while also not permitting secret or ignored reports should be a major focus of this evaluation.
But as many close to the issue have already argued, a cultural change will also have to be a part of this. A stronger policy can be a step, but is not an ultimate solution in itself. Greater recognition of the scope of these events and a much lower level of tolerance for such behavior is necessary at the statehouse. We also need more women in leadership positions, more support for women striving for these positions, and a greater willingness to confront problems as they arise. These changes in culture have already been set in motion at various levels around the country, and we must ensure that they continue in a direction that will empower women and accusers, not defame them.