Annapolis' #metoo moment

I was standing in the Governor’s Reception Room on the second floor of the State House on Feb. 15, 2006, when then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer asked for a cup of tea. A young woman who worked for then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. set it down in front of him and wordlessly headed back to the side of the room as Schaefer followed with his eyes. He asked her to come back. She did. “Walk again,” he said, before giving an exaggerated leer at her backside as she fled from the room.

Some people gasped. A lot of them laughed. I was a little stunned, and I exchanged nervous glances with the reporter there from the Capital, another young man, until a third reporter, a young woman, wagged her finger at us. “You better write about this,” she said. I never asked, but the look on her face gave me no doubt that she identified with what the staffer had just experienced in a way I never would.

I thought about that this week when a three-year-old column titled “Mad Men of Annapolis” by veteran Maryland political journalist Josh Kurtz somehow recirculated into my inbox. Written long before the #metoo movement went global, it describes a pervasive culture of sexual harassment during legislative sessions in which female interns, lobbyists and even legislators describe unwelcome and inappropriate comments, looks, touches and worse from the men of the capital. The women said they were careful about how they dressed and whose offices they walked past in the halls to avoid more-than-friendly hugs, sloppy kisses hello or casual groping. They recounted stories of humiliations in meetings and fear of complaining about the powerful perpetrators.

The sources are all anonymous, for reasons you can easily imagine, but I believe it because of what I’ve seen. Old male lawmakers giving creepy hugs to interns? You bet, on the House and Senate floor. Talk that was somehow both patronizingly paternalistic and laced with innuendo? All the time. A legislator clutching a much younger female staffer in a wildly inappropriate slow dance at a post-session party? Yep, I saw that too. I remember one night sitting on a barstool next to a candidate for state-wide office. We were chatting with a top staffer for another politician and a young, female lobbyist. A cabinet secretary walked up, said hardly a word and stared blatantly at the woman’s chest. “What are you doing?” the staffer asked. “Just admiring the view,” he said.

In front of a reporter.

The 90-day legislative session sets up a particularly unwholesome environment. Hundreds of legislators, lobbyists, staffers, journalists and advocates descend on Annapolis for an intense period. Many — legislators especially — take rooms there and spend the weeks away from home and family, and some of them treat it like Vegas on the Severn. Not all, by any means, but it doesn’t take too many nights at the bar to figure out who the few are. Power dynamics compound the problem. Relationships and access are the name of the game for staffers, lobbyists and journalists — even for legislators faced with more senior colleagues — and there’s a powerful incentive to keep quiet. Some of the men are doubtless motivated by the power trip more than lechery. Nobody thought Schaefer was actually propositioning the young woman; he was just exerting power over her, just like he did earlier in the same meeting when he demanded that the woman who was then head of the Maryland Zoo sing “Happy Anniversary” to herself. She clearly didn’t want to do it, but she did.

It’s been a decade since I regularly covered Annapolis, and women I know who are still there say things have gotten at least somewhat better, thanks in no small part to generational turnover in the legislature. The General Assembly has long required that lawmakers receive training in sexual harassment issues once during every four-year term. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller took steps to bolster the legislature’s policies well before Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken, and they have continued to do so since. The National Conference of State Legislatures lists Maryland’s as one of five model policies.

It is still far from perfect. For example, the legislature plans to keep a database of complaints and to issue annual reports on their number, nature and outcome, but it will be anonymous. Names of perpetrators may eventually become public if the complaints are referred to the legislative ethics committee and are sustained, but there is no guarantee that will happen uniformly. Unfortunately, many who complain want an unofficial resolution that stops the conduct, not a full inquiry, and that means the voting public may never know the failings of those it elects.

What’s needed, and what will be difficult to accomplish, is a culture change, both in terms of what behavior is considered acceptable and in terms of victims’ confidence that they will not suffer professionally for speaking up. The “powerful” commission Messrs. Miller and Busch have promised to delve into the issue could help, but not if, as Mr. Miller suggested, it is all women. With vanishingly few exceptions, women are not the problem. Men not only need to understand what is unacceptable but they also need to learn to speak up about and shun those who don’t. They need to be at the table if things are ever going to change.

— Andrew A. Green

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