On the surface, life is back to normal in the Oregon Capitol.
Senate President Peter Courtney returned this past week from his medical leave. Meanwhile, some bills are sailing through the 2019 legislative session, and others are flailing. The supermajority Democrats and minority Republicans are publicly battling on several fronts while calmly collaborating on the Legislature’s routine work.
But “normal” will never be the same in the Capitol. Nor should it be. The sexual harassment incidents that shook the statehouse in recent years should never recur, and it is up to the legislative leaders to make that happen.
Do they now get it? That remains uncertain, but the signs are positive.
Courtney and especially House Speaker Tina Kotek had criticized a state agency’s finding of a “hostile workplace” at the Capitol. But this month the legislative leaders did an about-face, agreeing to a $1.3 million settlement. Most of the money will go to eight women who suffered sexual harassment.
The settlement through the Bureau of Labor and Industries also removes the Legislature’s top lawyer and its human resources director from handling complaints of harassment. The bipartisan Joint Committee on Capitol Culture is working toward creating an independent equity office to handle those issues, which is among the top-to-bottom recommendations from the Oregon Law Commission and which Courtney and Kotek agreed to adopt.
Courtney took a big step by interrupting his medical leave and temporarily returning to the Senate on March 14 to vote for a resolution declaring support for survivors of sexual violence. HCR 25, which passed unanimously, is now in the House.
“I publicly apologize to any and all survivors that have experienced any form of harassment — sexual harassment, workplace harassment — in the state Capitol,” Courtney said. “We must do better. I must do better.”
His comments came after Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis — whose formal complaint eventually led to last year’s resignation of Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg — had said moments earlier that the survivors of the sexual harassment never got an apology from the Legislature.
The settlement underscores the severity of what has been happening in the Capitol for years, long before Courtney and Kotek came to power. Yet Courtney and Kotek have contended they did everything within their power to prevent sexual harassment, promptly investigate allegations and discipline perpetrators.
From a purely legal standpoint, that might have been true. But laws and regulations only cover so much. On human resources matters, there always is more that can be done as far as treating people with respect, with empathy and with compassion when they feel wronged — regardless of the circumstances.
A complete transformation in legislative culture is needed, one that upends the traditional power dynamics in the Capitol. Anyone — elected officials, legislative staff, interns, lobbyists, contractors and members of the public — must feel free to raise concerns without fear of political or personal retaliation.
The Capitol Culture Committee continues to refine its legislation that aims to improve anti-harassment training and handling of harassment complaints.
It will be much harder, but crucial, to achieve what must become the new norm in and around the Oregon Capitol: zero tolerance of harassment, bullying or mistreatment of any kind.