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Lawmakers grapple with improving environment for women in Missouri's Capitol

Susannah Lohr | St. Louis Public Radio

The push to make life better for women inside the Missouri Capitol strikes a chord for people like Kelly Schultz. One of the main lessons she learned about dealing with harassment is the importance of having a structure in place.

Before she embarked on a 16-year career in and around the Missouri Capitol, Schultz worked at a central Missouri police station. There, Schultz faced sexual harassment from one of her male officers.

One of her colleagues said something to a female superior officer, who urged Schultz to take action.

“I had never said anything to any of my peers or any of my supervisors about the situation at all,” Schultz said. “So I was pretty surprised when my female sergeant called me and said ‘Kelly, it’s been brought to my attention that this has been going on and this is an issue. And I would like for you to know that that’s not appropriate and it will not be tolerated. And I would like to ask you to file a report about it.’

“So there was a structure in place,” she added. “It was my superior officer calling me and asking me to file a report. She was signaling to me that I would be supported in filing the report.”

Schultz didn’t end up filing a complaint, because she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay in law enforcement. But she compared that episode to what happens when somebody in the Missouri Capitol experiences sexual harassment. As lawmakers look to enact new policies to stamp out harassment and unwanted advances, Schultz says peers know that other peers are behaving inappropriately in the Capitol.

But, she asks, is there a structure in place for somebody to file a complaint and get proper resolution?

Shultz said the answer is muddled – especially if you’re a lobbyist or an intern.

Democrats are in the super minority in both the Missouri House and the Missouri Senate.
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI

“So in the Capitol, what are the consequences of filing a complaint?” Schultz said. “For an intern, maybe the death of their career. For a staff member, maybe the death of their career. For somebody who’s in lobbying around the Capitol, probably the death in the budget or the language in the bill that they really care about.

“To really make change in the Capitol, you have to focus on that peer holding peer accountable,” she added. “And you have to formalize a structure. And I think the final step is when you’re talking about an elected official. So what do you do?”

“What do you do?” is at the heart of a debate brewing among legislators and within Missouri politics as a whole. Many who’ve worked in the Missouri Capitol know that the atmosphere is treacherous for women – and has been that way for decades. The question now is how can sexual harassment be curtailed – and how can perpetrators be effectively punished?

“Keep in mind, the vast, vast, overwhelming majority of people who serve in Jeff City are there for the right reasons – and they’re making good decisions both in their professional life and their personal life,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. “I’ve also heard from our members who say ‘Hey, we take on the responsibility of being in the public eye and we can and need to be better.’”

'We need to set an example'

The Missouri General Assembly was rocked earlier this year by the resignations of House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, and Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence. Both men stepped down after news articles showed them acting inappropriately toward college-aged interns.

State Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, is in charge of coming up with recommendations to change the House's internship program.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications
State Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, is in charge of coming up with recommendations to change the House's internship program.

After Diehl’s resignation, Richardson tasked a number of lawmakers to come up with new policies for the House’s intern program. He tapped state Rep. Kevin Engler, a Farmington Republican who spent eight years in the Missouri Senate, to lead the group.

“I think that we need to set an example,” Engler said in a telephone interview. “It should be a professional setting. And at all professional settings, there should be no worry about whether you’re going to be harassed or receive unwelcomed advances. Realistically, we can’t police everybody in every situation all the time. But we want it to be the rare, rare exception rather than any type of norm.”

Engler described his group as a “clearinghouse” for ideas. As of late August, the lawmakers on the task force haven’t actually met, but they did produce a few initial ideas – including an “ombudsman” to handle complaints, a GPA requirement for interns and restrictions on lawmakers’ ability to text message with interns. (Several lawmakers also suggested an intern dress code, an idea that was swiftly condemned and scuttled.)

As far as the ombudsman goes, Engler said this person or people would be somebody “non-threatening” that interns could turn to when trouble arises.

That person would be somone who “is not in the chain of command. They cannot be threatened by somebody that they may be talking about,” Engler said. “And there may be some situations where they’re uncertain. They’re saying ‘I don’t know if this is appropriate. Is this something that’s appropriate to do or not do?’ And they’d just be given some guidance.”

The initial recommendations from the task force, as reported last month by the Kansas City Star, got something of a mixed assessment. Some liked the idea of an independent ombudsman, but were less enamored with things like GPA or credit hour requirements.

State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, has also spoken out against Amendment 5. She said mounting an opposition campaign against the measure would have cost millions of dollars.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications
State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, says one key to changing the culture of Jefferson City is exposing bad behavior among lawmakers.

State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, said that one way to make life better for women in the Capitol is exposing “electeds who flaunt their sexual escapades … particularly those who espouse 'family values' during debate and campaigns.

“There is a strong difference between genders regarding work ethic and dedication to the position. More women need to be elected and the bad boy frat culture must be exposed,” Newman said. “The Capitol should not be a place to cheat on a wife, not a place to trade sex for supposed favors and not a place to show utter disregard for women. People must call out these behaviors and not wait for the media to expose.”

Ban on romantic relationships

One Democratic members of the task force – state Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia – said he’s worried that some are making this episode about the conduct of interns. Instead, he said the issue is the “power differential that exists between elected officials and staff and interns underneath those elected officials.” He cites Jefferson City’s relaxed culture, big egos and easy availability of alcohol as factors contributing toward the bad environment.

State Rep. Kip Kendrick
Credit Nathan Lawrence I KBIA
State Rep. Kip Kendrick proposed banning romantic relationships between lawmakers and interns or subordinate staff members.

But none of those things, Kendrick said, should be an excuse for bad behavior.

“It comes back to the ego and the power trip that a lot of individuals are on in the Capitol,” Kendrick said. “My two biggest concerns moving forward as we potentially implement policy changes are that … the onus for change is placed on the interns and the higher education institutions and that the final outcome may just be administrative shuffling that gives the illusion of change.”

One specific proposal Kendrick put forward is banning romantic or sexual relationships between lawmakers and interns or subordinate staff members. This would be placed a House’s code of conduct – and would require a legislator’s signature so that someone could not “claim ignorance of the policy.”

“That was one of the glaring gaps in policy that existed,” Kendrick said. “And some people say, ‘Well, it’s a no brainer that a representative should not be having a romantic relationship with an intern or staff.’ And of course, I agree with that. But it’s not in policy. And it has to be in policy.”

Kendrick said his proposal would also require disclosure of any relationship – which could set in motion tangible consequences.

“I understand that the disclosure probably will not happen. But if and when this relationship comes to light and is put out there in the media, then it’s not only about the sexual act. But it also becomes a cover-up,” Kendrick said. “Because they sign the document saying they’re going to disclose this relationship. They didn’t. So they obviously covered it up. And the immense and immediate pressure publicly will force the individual out of office pretty quickly.”

Engler said Kendrick’s suggestion is a good one. He noted that many corporations have put policies in place restricting relationships between supervisors and subordinates.

“In most professional settings, such as the company I work for, that is the policy,” said Engler, who works for Edward Jones. “This is a situation where we should have a professional workplace. And in a professional workplace, people who are subordinates are not allowed to see or date or be with somebody who has some type of power over them. And I don’t think that’s a bad policy.”

How to enforce?

Missouri State Capitol Building
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

The big question, though, is this: If a lawmaker violates either new or existing sexual harassment rules, what should the consequence be?

“With elected officials, you can’t unelect them,” Schultz said. “So do you kick them off of committees? Do you kick them off leadership? Do you read a resolution into the House and Senate floor and express your displeasure with the elected official? I think the solution will be with those first two action items of peer-to-peer ‘we’re not going to tolerate this behavior'. And then two, putting a formalized structure in place. And then three, you really have to look at what are the consequences.”

When the new intern policies come together within the next few weeks, Engler said they’ll be enforceable through the House Ethics Committee – an entity that could hypothetically recommend penalties against offending lawmakers.

“We believe that after proper vetting to make sure that an allegation needs to be further looked into, then the Ethics Committee would have some abilities to go after some of those situations,” Engler said.

Besides facing internal pressures to resign, Kendrick said caucuses could potentially deliver punishments to offending lawmakers – including stripping people of committee assignments or leadership posts. But enforcement can’t happen if people don’t report harassment, which is why Kendrick and other lawmakers say that the House should expand “mandated reporters.”

“It’s important and it’s vital that we clarify who’s mandated and who is not mandated,” Kendrick said. “Because an intern who has been through an experience of sexual harassment or some other type of harassment in the building, they need to know who they can go to and who can trust. And if that person is a mandated reporter, then in many situations that intern may not feel comfortable going to that mandated reporter to share their story initially.”

For their part, former interns Taylor Hirth and Alissa Hembree said that if anything is going to change about the atmosphere in Jefferson City, it would arise from challenging “the norms that enable this problematic culture.” The two former interns for LeVota said that ethics reforms “need to be enacted that stop perpetuating the fraternity mentality rampant in the halls of the Capitol.

“Reporting and subsequent investigations need to be handled by an independent party or organization having experience dealing with sexual harassment and/or sexual violence, and is able to provide adequate support for those victimized by inappropriate behaviors or worse,” Hirth and Hembree said in a statement earlier this summer. “It’s time for the leadership of the Missouri General Assembly to stop blaming the victims and insist that their caucuses behave in the manner befitting the trust placed in them by their constituents.

“We won’t be silenced anymore,” they added.

Help inform our coverage

This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. You may learn more about the network and how you can become a source here.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.