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Can training really fix a culture of sexual harassment decades in the making?

The focus on sexual harassment at the Minnesota Capitol has been encouraging for women who work in politics, but more than a few wonder whether more training and a few new policies will fix anything.

The culture of sexism and harassment at the Capitol has a long history, even if the recent allegations have — for some — come as a revelation.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

In a meeting about family planning policy, the older male legislator began lamenting to the young female lobbyist about wet dreams, the challenges of the male sex drive and about how hard it was to be away from his wife.

There was also a legislative page who was known as a hard worker and once wore a red sweater without a bra to work. For the next two years, she couldn’t live it down: Male legislators frequently and openly referenced “the red sweater” incident around the Capitol.

And then there was the legislative staffer who once asked a lawmaker for a ride home after a post-work event. While she was in the car, the legislator tried to have sex with her. She had to fight him off, and she swore to never go to any work events outside of the Capitol again.

The stories are not new allegations surfacing amid the ongoing sexual harassment scandal at the Minnesota Capitol. They actually date to the 1970s, when they were reported by the Minneapolis Tribune. They show that a culture of sexism and harassment at the Capitol has a long history, even if the recent allegations have — for some — come as a revelation. 

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Those recent accusations led to a swift response, including the resignations of a Democratic senator and Republican House member after women said the lawmakers made repeated, unwanted advances on them. Now, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and top legislative leaders are reviewing state government harassment policies and legislators are undergoing mandatory new sexual harassment training, with leaders threatening to revoke committee assignments for anyone who doesn’t attend.

“We’ve had a shock to the system,” DFL House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman said.

The new focus on addressing sexual harassment in Minnesota’s Capitol has been encouraging for women who work in state politics. Even so, more than a few are wondering if it will be enough; whether it will simply offer a temporary reprieve from a longstanding problem — whether more training and a few new policies will actually do much to change attitudes and behaviors that have been a feature of life at the Capitol for decades. 

A pervasive problem

It would be easy to chalk up the cases of sexual harassment at the Capitol in the 1970s as a product of Mad Men-era behavior, pervasive as it was in politics as it was in other industries and workplaces. But the stories from women who have worked at the building aren’t isolated to any time period. They span decades in St. Paul.

In the 1990s, Pat Helmberger worked as a legislative aide for a DFL senator, and she came to find that the imbalance of power gave men the license to harass her regularly, according to an account written by her son, Marshall Helmberger, in the newspaper he edits, The Timberjay. “She would call after a particularly rough day, of propositions or of being grabbed or groped in the lawmaker’s office,” he wrote. “Once, she called after the lawmaker had ripped her blouse open, right in front of another staffer and several of the legislator’s own constituents.”

She was eventually fired by the senator she worked for, as was another female staffer whom she confided in about the harassment. “Everyone involved understood what was on the line,” Marshall Helmberger wrote. “She was told that the elected members were the only ones who mattered. She was expendable and if she couldn’t take it, the alternative was finding another job.”

Sen. Roger Moe

Pat Helmberger’s experience was hardly an isolated one. Fear of retaliation and whispers around the Capitol kept many women from reporting or speaking publicly about what was happening over the years. Records kept by the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library show that, until recently, there was not a single instance of a legislator being publicly accused of sexual harassment or investigated for inappropriate behavior. Roger Moe, the DFL majority leader of the Minnesota Senate for 22 years, remembers handling cases of harassment behind the  scenes but “not of the magnitude of what’s being talked about today.”

But women who work in the Capitol at all levels say the situation hasn’t changed all that much over the decades, even if the advent of social media and text messaging has made it easier for harassers to contact women (if also easier to record and catalog inappropriate comments). Female pages, staffers and lobbyists have long had an informal list of the worst offenders in the Capitol: the men to avoid meeting one-on-one or riding an elevator with alone. 

Lobbyists, in particular, feel targeted because their work is based on their relationships with legislators. There’s also more pressure to attend major conferences and fundraising getaways organized by legislators in order to build those relationships. But those out-of-the-Capitol events can be fraught territory for lobbyists. One, who asked not to be named for fear of the impact on her employer, said she had some of her “worst experiences with legislators” at those events. “It’s very much like a high school and college,” she said. 

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Rep. Melissa Hortman

‘We have to stop being uncomfortable calling out our colleagues’

That culture started to come under renewed scrutiny in early November, when multiple women told MinnPost that first-term DFL Sen. Dan Schoen sexually harassed them while he was serving in the Minnesota House. Among the allegations: that he sent photos of male genitalia to women, grabbed a woman from behind at a campaign event and made persistent advances on another woman. Within 24 hours, allegations were levied against a second legislator, Republican Rep. Tony Cornish, who sent text messages to a lobbyist about her appearance and solicited another lobbyist for sex more than 40 times.

In reviewing their policies, top leaders are hoping to find a better way for staffers and lobbyists to report their experiences with legislators, who cannot be fired. Hortman said, in particular, there needs to be a process for lobbyists to report behavior. Currently, lobbyists are particularly without recourse because they are not employees of the Legislature and thus cannot go to human resources. 

“A lot of us legislators consider this a day job, and we don’t necessarily know all the chitchat that happens at the informal gatherings after work. That has really been an eye-opener for us, that there is this whole gantlet that lobbyists must walk that we didn’t necessarily know about,” Hortman said. “Lobbyists don’t have any mechanism at all. They could go to the speaker or legislative leaders [to report harassment], but considering their job is to get the speaker to pass their bills, they are probably reluctant to do that.” 

Another problem is that so many cases aren’t even reported in the Capitol, in an environment where relationships are so crucial and gossip spreads quickly. “It’s like a small town,” one legislative staffer told MinnPost. “You say something to someone privately and suddenly everyone is looking at you strange, as if you were the one who did something wrong.”

Sen. Michelle Benson
Sen. Michelle Benson

Republican Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michelle Benson said she hopes newfound awareness about the issue will make everyone more sensitive to how they are treating others, and empower more people to speak up when they see something happening. “I think the lasting impact for a lot of us who are going to be here for four years or more is we can change this culture,” Benson said. “We can say, ‘No, this is not OK.’ We have to stop being uncomfortable calling out our colleagues, if it’s in private or in public.”

The Legislature is also shielded from scrutiny under Minnesota law. Minnesota Senate and House members and staffers are not subject to the state’s data practice and disclosure laws, meaning any complaints, emails or reports about sexual harassment don’t have to be disclosed to the public or reporters. In some states, top leaders have released the total number of harassment complaints to provide more transparency while not naming any victims of harassment. But some leaders say that won’t necessarily do much to change the culture at the Capitol. 

“A complaint being made doesn’t tell us if this is a respectful work environment,” Hortman said. “I’m not sure necessarily a number of conversations that a leader or HR professional has will help that.”

Some say the only way to make the Capitol culture more friendly to women is to simply have more women there. There are 64 women in the 201-seat Minnesota Legislature, making up roughly one-third of the legislative ranks in St. Paul. That percentage has remained relatively stagnant over the last decade, though the total women in the Legislature actually dropped from 68 to 64 after the 2016 election.

Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said electing more women will change the culture in the Capitol, not only because women are far less likely to sexually harass people in a work environment, but because studies show women lawmakers are more transparent in their process. “An all-male legislative body is not going to look at harassment in the same way,” she said.

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Will the focus on sexual harassment last?

But Sinzdak, like many women, worries that while the wave of allegations could lead to some changes, it won’t address more fundamental issues, and that the power dynamics in Capitols across the country will simply revert to the way they once were as soon as the news cycle moves on to the next big story.

“The culture is one of the hardest things to change. One thing I think is very different now is the rise of social media, and the role it plays in amplifying voices. It will be harder for it to quietly drift away,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of us continually pressing on the issue.” 

DFL Rep. Erin Maye Quade and DFL activist Lindsey Port, the first women to accuse Schoen of harassment, have called on the governor and top leaders to assemble a sexual harassment task force that will include outside experts. The idea is to look at the challenges of the Capitol environment holistically, and bring in best practices from employers outside of politics. The task force would make recommendations to the state. 

“The resignation of two such harassers in the Minnesota State Legislature is not enough to dismantle a pervasive culture of misogyny or to end the sexual harassment of women inside and outside the Capitol,” Maye Quade said. “Unless systematic and widespread changes are enacted, these behaviors and subsequent attempts to cover up instances of harassment will continue.”

Others see the current scandal as an example of a broader cultural shift, one in which a new generation of men and women in politics expect a different level of professionalism in the workplace. And while that shift won’t happen overnight, longtime players at the Capitol also don’t expect the institution to revert back to the way things once were. 

“Cultures change with generations, and there’s a different generation and it’s going to change,” Moe said. “I think what you’re seeing is a new generation that plays by different rules.”