Lansing – Gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer, one of only two women to have been a legislative leader in Michigan, said the male-dominated Capitol has a “locker room” atmosphere in which it is not uncommon for female lawmakers and employees to confront sexual harassment.
Whitmer, who was a lawmaker for 14 years, recounted once having to combat “very lewd” and “totally inappropriate” comments directed at her by a male senator in the Senate chamber. She was Democratic leader at the time.
“I could only imagine if you didn’t have such a position that I did how extremely uncomfortable, humiliating and intimidating that would be,” Whitmer told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “The hard part is that it’s always on the woman to make the determination. Do you confront it? Do you educate? Do you ignore? What is the safest thing for you? What is the best thing for your career? Women have to make these determinations on the fly all the time.”
Whitmer spoke of her experiences at a time that sexual misconduct allegations have rocked the worlds of entertainment, media and politics. She said sexual misbehavior at the Capitol is “sadly worse than the average workplace” because elected officials get “full of themselves and feel like the rules don’t apply to them.”
She declined to identify the senator who made the remarks to her. Whitmer said she told the man, “What the heck is wrong with you?’ Only I didn’t say ‘heck.’ He was so stunned he kind of backed off and didn’t bother me again.”
A major contributing factor toward the “locker room” dynamic in which bad behavior occurs, she said, is that there are not enough female legislators.
When Whitmer won a special election to the Senate in 2006, she was one of a record-high dozen women in the 38-member chamber. Nearly five years later, there were only four — the same number as today.
“The atmosphere changed dramatically,” she said, recounting how a male senator likened a public relations executive who had criticized him to a “hooker.” At the time, when Whitmer criticized the comment and spoke out against sexism at the Capitol, a GOP strategist called her a “government hooker.”
“There’s a tipping point where the numbers of women in any organization change the culture and behavior of it,” said Whitmer, who has said “me too” on social media to support the movement of women stepping up to allege sexual misconduct. During a debate on health insurance coverage for abortions in 2013, she publicly disclosed that she had been raped years before.
She said as a survivor, the national reckoning with sexual wrongdoing throws salt in old wounds and is emotionally exhausting, but she is energized that so many women and men feel comfortable coming forward. The groundswell, she said, gives her hope that her two teenage daughters will not have to say “me too.”
The 46-year-old Whitmer, who left the Legislature at the end of 2014 due to term limits, has also worked as a legislative staffer, an attorney and as the interim prosecutor of Ingham County. She is the only woman running for governor and said she has been harassed in other workplaces, too, including as a waitress years ago.
Whitmer and other top Michigan Democrats have come under criticism from the state Republican Party for not demanding the resignation of Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers over multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. Democrats in turn have accused Republicans of not sufficiently condemning GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, though Attorney General Bill Schuette — a gubernatorial candidate — recently said he should step aside unless solid evidence is presented to refute allegations that Moore preyed on teenage girls.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said Conyers should step down, and three Michigan Democrats in Congress and another gubernatorial candidate, Abdul El-Sayed, followed suit.
Whitmer, in a statement, said the reports about Conyers are “ugly and deeply concerning,” but she stopped short of calling for his resignation. “Beyond a thorough investigation, we’ve got to overhaul these broken processes to protect and support people who bravely come forward instead of silencing them,” she said.
If formal sexual harassment complaints are made within the Legislature, it is difficult to learn of them because lawmakers are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act — though financial documents related to legal settlements would be subject to disclosure under the state constitution and legislative rules.
Doug Simon, director of the House Business Office, said all House members and staff are required to participate in a human resources presentation about preventing harassment in the workplace.
Senators and staff must review and sign a manual that includes a sexual harassment policy, and the Senate has had sexual harassment training each two-year term, said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof. The Senate Business Office is reviewing options for an annual training, she said.
In 2015, the state paid nearly $12,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against then-Rep. Brian Banks by a former male assistant. The House spent about $85,000 on outside lawyers in the case.
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