After the #MeToo wave crashed upon the Capitol’s granite steps last fall, the issue of sexual harassment seeped into nearly every corner of California’s legislative landscape.
It loomed over day-to-day business as lawmakers grappled with salacious accusations about their colleagues and soul-searching about their own behavior. It forced an examination of how the Legislature handled internal complaints. And it inspired bills that tackled harassment in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the workplace at large.
With the Legislature winding down last week, those most involved with the movement took stock of the wins and losses, transformations and setbacks of this decidedly abnormal year.
“It has been a moment to seize, and seize it we have,” said Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a women’s rights group.
It all began with a letter cobbled together in mid-October by a group of female lobbyists who were inspired by the focus on sexual harassment in Hollywood after the accusations leveled at producer Harvey Weinstein.
They longed for a similar conversation about California politics. Within a few days, more than 140 women, including elected officials and legislative staff, had signed on to a missive to condem a “pervasive” culture of harassment and misconduct.
The effort came together with “24 hours, about 500 phone calls, a couple bottles of wine and a lot of coffee,” said Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist who helped spearhead the effort. “This was not a targeted, long-planned campaign. We were woefully unprepared for the magnitude, the windfall of responses that we got.”
In the 10 months since, three legislators resigned after facing public accusations of sexual misconduct and a fourth stepped down, citing health reasons, while a harassment investigation against him was underway. One state senator was reprimanded for giving unwanted hugs; another was admonished for giving an unsolicited “noogie.” An assemblywoman at the center of the movement was stripped of her committee chairmanship for inappropriate behavior, while an investigation into a groping allegation continues.
The allegations reverberated far beyond Sacramento. Adama Iwu, a lobbyist who helped coordinate the original letter, was featured on the cover of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue, along with other women who spoke out against harassment.
“It was definitely distracting, there’s no question,” Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) said about #MeToo’s upheaval of state politics. “When you have a bit of a collective trauma with the whole building, the whole Capitol community, people do need to talk it through. If people weren’t talking, I’d be worried.”
In response, lawmakers did what they typically do when faced with a high-profile issue: They turned headlines into legislation. Legislators proposed more than two dozen bills addressing sexual harassment in this legislative year; more than half of those made it to the governor’s desk.
“Legislators were practically falling over themselves to be aligned with #MeToo legislation this year,” Farrell said.
Some proposals targeted specific industries, including a measure now awaiting the governor’s signature that would require harassment prevention training for in-home caregivers and a failed bill to install panic buttons in hotel rooms to protect employees.
Others would force businesses to overhaul how they handle reports of misconduct in the workplace. A pair of bills by Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes (D-Grand Terrace) would require large employers to retain records on sexual harassment complaints for five years after the accused or complainant leaves the company, and would extend the statute of limitations for filing harassment complaints with the state from one year to three. Both easily cleared the Legislature and now await Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval.
The extension of the filing deadline, Farrell said, “is a powerful example of a bill that would’ve never gotten traction but for this movement. It implicates potentially thousands more claims being filed that would’ve been dead in the water.”
Lobbying around the bills drew in several famous faces. Actress Jane Fonda and former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson stumped for a bill that would ban employers from forcing workers to settle harassment disputes in private arbitration instead of giving them the option to go to court. The bill now sits on Brown’s desk. Actress Mira Sorvino, who went public with a sexual misconduct allegation against Weinstein, touted a package of anti-harassment bills from the Oscars red carpet and later lobbied lawmakers by phone.
But the increased attention did not set the measures on a glide path. A bill by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) that would expand anti-harassment provisions in state law ran into stiff opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce.
The business group objected to the proposal’s limitation of non-disparagement agreements as a condition of employment or a raise, as well as language that made clear to judges that a single incident of harassment could be enough to satisfy the “severe and pervasive” legal standard of sexual harassment. The chamber argued the bill could lead to a significant increase in lawsuits against employers.
Jackson’s bill squeaked past the Legislature in a narrow vote. It now awaits Brown’s signature.
“The fact of the matter is that change is always difficult,” Jackson said. “It requires taking on the status quo — the status quo being the traditional business community.”
But the outcry from legislative employees and others who do business in the Capitol forced legislators to turn their focus inward, looking at how their own workplace handled complaints. Staffers complained of a byzantine system in which each house handled its own complaints. Fears of retaliation and politicization were rampant.
After a months-long overhaul, lawmakers rolled out a new policy that would create a designated unit in the Legislature’s legal office to receive and investigate complaints. A panel of independent experts would determine if an investigated claim was substantiated and recommend a response. Legislators approved $1.5 million to establish the new unit.
“This is the most comprehensive and rigorous policy in the country in terms of statehouses,” said Friedman, who led the effort. “It’s amazing our speaker and [Senate president] pro tem were willing to give up a lot of their power in this to an outside group of experts and let them be the ones to adjudicate. That’s pretty profound.”
The public got more insight than ever before into complaints lodged in the Capitol. Departing from a precedent in which information about internal operations was rarely released, legislative leaders started a new policy of disclosing complaints against members and high-level staffers that were found to be substantiated.
Publicly disclosing that information could be a significant check on bad behavior, Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) said.
“The stuff that happens in this bubble — our voters don’t know about,” Stone said. “If I harass somebody up here and I know it’s going to get buried, what’s actually the deterrent?”
Stone sought to enshrine the new process in state law with a bill to change the Legislative Open Records Act to guarantee substantiated complaints would be released, ensuring disclosure would continue under new legislative leadership.
The measure did not even receive a hearing — a sign, Stone said, that old habits die hard.
“This underlying … notion that we’re going to protect members and by that we’re going to protect the [Legislature] — we’re still not over that,” Stone said. “The pushback on this [bill] is an artifact of that.”
Introducing new bills and writing new internal policies are one thing. Transforming Capitol culture is another. Those involved in this debate said it will take time to determine how much the latter has really changed.
Creating an environment so that “people self-censor, that people are a little more aware — that’s going to take years,” Stone said. “There’s going to be some resentment. We’re going to go through some ups and downs. The rate of change will depend on the confidence staff has to make those complaints.”
Iwu, the lobbyist who became a face of the #MeToo movement, said serious discussion of the issue must continue even as it fades from headlines.
“This is an issue that we are all still evolving on. Things that were acceptable 12 years, 12 months, 12 weeks ago — we are realizing as we continue to have these conversations that they’re not acceptable,” Iwu said.
“Self-reflection has to be ongoing,” she added. “This isn’t something you get to take a class or a training, and then check the box and you’re good.”
Follow @melmason on Twitter for the latest on California politics.