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Editor's Weekly: Jefferson City's problem with women

Brittany Burke
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

Arrogance, booze, geographic isolation and a gender power imbalance – those ingredients brew a culture in Jefferson City that is at times hazardous for women. This week, St. Louis Public Radio’s political team analyzed why the culture persists, who it hurts and whether it can be changed.

Not likely, many Jeff City veterans say. And yet, the furor that broke last spring – and led to resignation of two legislators – put the problem on public view in a way that’s hard to ignore. Legislative leaders are considering ethics reforms, but little has happened so far.

The furor erupted around two controversies. The first began with an incident involving Brittany Burke, a political consultant and one-time aide to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. Burke told police that she had blacked out and thought she had been drugged and sexually assaulted. The night ended with Burke seeking help from then-House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, with whom she had a previous relationship.

Jefferson City police have been criticized for releasing Burke's police report without her knowledge and without redacting her name since she was an alleged sexual assault victim. Also, a "rape kit" with possible evidence of a crime has yet to be processed months later.

In an article based largely on the police report, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch disclosed Burke's allegations, named Burke and recounted details of a night of heavy drinking. That spawned a subsidiary debate when critics attacked the paper for identifying Burke against her wishes. The article said the incident was an example of the capital’s party atmosphere, where legislators and political operatives, fun and business mix.

Diehl briefly speaks with reporters after issuing a statement in which he apologized for "poor judgment" regarding texts he had with a female intern.
Credit Eli Rosenberg | KMBC-TV, Kansas City
John Diehl speaks with reporters during the controversy over his texts with an intern.

Diehl was at the center of the second controversy – over treatment of interns. He resigned after reports that he had exchanged sexually charged text messages with an intern in his office. Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, also resigned after two interns accused him of making unwanted sexual advances.

This week, Burke talked at length with reporters Jo Mannies and Jason Rosenbaum about her ordeal and about the hostile atmosphere women face in the capital. She’s outraged at being publicly identified, at “blame the victim” criticism she faced, and at the way police handled the investigation. But she’s encouraged that several women have contacted her to discuss how to confront sexual harassment and assault.

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
Stacey Newman is a state representative but still gets called "little lady."

According to Burke and others, the problems in Jeff City include both overtly illegal acts and more subtle, pervasive attitudes that put women at a disadvantage. For example, said Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, she's still sometimes called "little lady," even when conducting official business.

The reporting by Jo, Jason and Marshall Griffin brought to light many perspectives on Jeff City’s culture – from bar owners to office holders to the mayor. Several said some elected officials and political operatives take an anything-goes approach to life in the capital, where they are away from home and intoxicated with their own power. The misbehavior doesn’t involve everyone, but it sets a tone that surrounds those who make law and policy.

There’s nothing new about this tone, Sen. Claire McCaskill said -- and that's a problem. Decades ago, she faced harassment as an intern. What's different now is that misconduct is more likely to be documented and to surface through social media.

Reporting on the culture in the capital has been, frankly, a challenge. Since last spring, St. Louis Public Radio’s reporters and editors have engaged in a rolling discussion about several questions. When should a victim of assault or harassment be publicly identified? When should those accused of crimes or impropriety be named? How much should we delve into details of incidents that some might consider gratuitous and sensationalistic? How pervasive are the problems?

The radio and web reports you heard and saw this week grew from months of work and from decades of experience our reporters bring to the task. It takes time to get sources to talk openly, to put events in context and to explore options for change. We trust this work will give you a clearer picture of the problem and lawmakers greater incentive to solve it. Jefferson City's problem with women is a problem that affects all Missourians.

We'll continue to report on this issue as reform efforts and life in Jefferson City play out. The legislature returns next week to vote on overrides of the governor’s vetoes. At J. Pfenny’s sports bar, it will be business as usual, our reporters found. The popular gathering spot is already booked solid with fundraisers.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.