The Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal that has roiled Southern California’s smugly cloistered entertainment industry reverberated last week in the equally smug and cloistered state Capitol.
More than 140 women – legislators, Capitol staffers, lobbyists and political consultants – signed an open letter denouncing “pervasive” sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct in state politics.
“As women leaders in politics, in a state that postures itself as a leader in justice and equality, you might assume our experience has been different. It has not,” read the letter, first reported in the Los Angeles Times before its release. “Each of us has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces.”
It continued, “Why didn’t we speak up? Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes out of shame. Often these men hold our professional fates in their hands. They are bosses, gatekeepers, and contacts. Our relationships with them are crucial to our personal success.”
Good for them.
The male-dominated Capitol has a long and sordid history of objectifying and exploiting women.
While specific cases of sexual misconduct by male legislators and/or high-ranking staffers have occasionally surfaced, the official attitude has been that they are isolated aberrations, rather than reflections of a “pervasive” culture.
The perpetrators are admonished, payments sometimes made to their victims and life goes on.
Perhaps the most sensational case occurred nearly four decades ago when Democratic state Sen. Alan Robbins was charged with having sex with two 16-year-old high school girls he met when they were touring the Capitol.
After a 36-day trial, Robbins was acquitted by jurors who concluded that the sex was consensual, but he never faced censure by his colleagues, even though they often advised young women constituents who visited the Capitol to avoid him.
After his acquittal, Robbins won re-election easily – only to be forced to resign a decade later after pleading guilty to federal bribery charges.
Generally, the Capitol’s dominant Democrats have cracked down much harder on Republican miscreants than those their own party – protecting the latter, one assumes, from being penalized by their voters.
However, as the letter says, the vast majority of incidents go unreported and unpunished. The Capitol is, after all, a hierarchical and self-protective institution and any woman who complains risks being ostracized for airing its dirty linen.
Even when misbehavior is reported, the first response of the legislative leadership has been to cover it up.
Capitol old-timers know, for instance, that one Republican legislator assaulted a female staffer in his office during the 1980s, and the Democratic leadership paid her off to prevent formal charges from being filed.
They also know that another prominent Democrat had a couple of staffers fired for revealing that he was having sex with his secretary in his office one evening. And they know that a very powerful legislative leader promoted a low-paid Capitol messenger into a high-paying staff job with almost no duties after she agreed to become one of his many girlfriends.
But that was then and this is now, right?
The Capitol is supposedly a more enlightened place these days, with many more women serving in the Legislature and achieving high-status jobs on the Capitol staff and in the lobbying corps, and with everyone professing support for gender equality.
Apparently, however, the women who signed the open letter don’t buy it, and they’re tired of putting up with inappropriate touching, sexual jokes and other forms of belittlement.
“Each of us who signed this op-ed will no longer tolerate the perpetrators or enablers who do,” the letter reads.
Nor should we.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/articles/author/dan-walters. Dan Walters: firstname.lastname@example.org