Sexual harassment claims reflect Capitol 'culture,' some Michigan lawmakers say

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan female lawmakers say sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Pete Lucido reflect an overall "culture" in the Capitol where inappropriate comments made to women have often occurred without consequence.

The increased ranks of female lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists have forced sexist attitudes to the surface, said eight of 11 lawmakers interviewed by The Detroit News. But the changing dynamics of who's serving in Lansing have also ushered in new training and policies to address problems. Some lawmakers may soon push further changes.

Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, recently sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, about her willingness to participate in a work group to examine the policies and procedures of the Senate. Shirkey is "open to that suggestion," said Amber McCann, Shirkey's spokeswoman.

Allegations of sexual harassment against state Sen. Pete Lucido have spurred new conversations in Lansing about female lawmakers, lobbyists and staffers are treated. Pictured above eight of the female lawmakers interviewed for this story

“I think that’s how we change the culture is by showing that there is an accountability system in place," Chang said. "If you step forward, steps will be taken to address the situation."

The News called the offices of each of the 42 female legislators in the Michigan House of Representatives and several in the Senate for comment. Seven of the 25 women in the House Democratic caucus responded. One House Republican responded with a statement. 

Three of the 11 female senators were interviewed.

Women make up half of the Democratic senators and nearly half of the Democratic House members, while they hold a quarter of the seats within the majority Republican ranks across both chambers. With the increasing numbers comes a louder voice on issues such as sexual harassment or less offensive, but still inappropriate comments.

“What was acceptable language for my grandfather to use about me or toward me is very different from what I expect in 2020 in a professional setting,” said Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids. “These are the sometimes subtle lines we’re navigating.”

Former staffers who took to social media last week seemed less optimistic regarding changes for employees of the Legislature who have limited options for reporting and a lot to lose if a lawmaker were to retaliate. 

“Employees in #mileg are left without a clear path to address workplace concerns and know that they will be resolved,” former Senate staffer Elizabeth Battiste wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “How can you expect them to report more serious incidents?”

Lucido is alleged to have told a reporter Jan. 14 that a group of high school boys “could have a lot of fun” with her. A week later, a fellow senator accused the Shelby Township Republican of making a "degrading" implication during the 2018 orientation that she had won the election based on her looks.

A third allegation against Lucido emerged on Sunday. Melissa Osborn, who previously worked as a lobbyist for the Michigan Credit Union League, said during a conference in May, Lucido held his hand in an inappropriate place on her body while making extended comments about the dress she was wearing. The allegation was first reported by Crain’s Detroit Business.

Of the inappropriate position where Lucido allegedly held his hand near her lower back, Osborn told The Detroit News, "I don’t even know if I would call it quite my lower back."

Osborn, who decided to come forward after Lucido denied a similar allegation made by Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, described inappropriate comments and sexual harassment in Lansing as an "open secret."

Lucido didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Osborn's allegation. But he has couched his remarks to the reporter as a “misunderstanding” and categorically denies the complaint from McMorrow, and argues it is "politically motivated." The Senate Business Office is investigating the complaints. Osborn hasn't decided yet whether she will file a complaint.

The complaints that have been filed against Lucido mean at least 101 state legislators across America have been publicly accused of sexual harassment or misconduct since the start of 2017, according to an Associated Press review. 

Urging more change

Most of the 11 female lawmakers interviewed said the issues raised were a sign of the growing number of female elected officials and the resulting clash in a traditionally male-majority Capitol. 

“I think the change was already happening, but now it’s accelerating,” said House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills.

House Minority Leader Christine Greig speaks with reporters in November 2018 at the state Capitol in Lansing. With Republicans firmly opposed to a 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax hike, Democratic lawmakers want businesses to do more to help fix the roads.

Many female lawmakers and staffers have heard firsthand comments similar to what Lucido is accused of saying, said Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids.

The Capitol is a "unique work environment" where one party has power over another, where lawmakers can't be fired in the traditional sense and where staffers can have their careers altered by complaining about a situation, Brinks said.

During the 2017-18 term, the House rewrote some internal policies for handling sexual harassment complaints and increased the frequency of training. The training changes include flowcharts showing employees how complaints will be handled and highlight multiple options for filing complaints. The idea was to encourage victims of harassment to come forward.

First-term Rep. Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac, said the House has explicit guidelines for avoiding sexual harassment and outlets to report it when it happens. She described her relationship with male colleagues as “very, very collegial.”

“Personally, I have not experienced any of it,” she said of the negative atmosphere described by some staffers. “Being a minority, female and black, I feel like I’m in a wonderful place.” 

Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland, likewise said she had not experienced similar harassment, but said any sexual harassment or assault occurring “needs to be stopped."

But a majority of female lawmakers interviewed said work still needs to be done.

“When you’re a young female lawmaker coming into this job, you do a lot of calculating about how reporting something like this will be received,” said Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia. “I think a lot of that has to do with the culture we have in place.”

Staffers, lobbyists sound off

The allegations against Lucido quickly gained national attention and prompted online commiseration from former legislative staffers and lobbyists. 

Emily Schwarzkopf, director of legislative, appropriations and constituent services for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said in a Twitter thread that the situation reflects “how toxic the Lansing bubble is for women trying to make their way in a male-dominated environment.”

A former staffer with the Michigan House Democrats, she wrote that similar comments were made to her multiple times. 

“As a staffer, you face a choice,” Schwarzkopf wrote. “Do I tell someone about the comments made by legislators, lobbyists, & fellow staffers? At the risk of being alienated, being a snitch, or having your career stifled. No, you put your head down, do your work, & suck it up.”

Osborn, who made the most recent allegation against Lucido, said it's difficult for lobbyists to come forward with their experiences because lobbyists "need access to be effective."

Osborn — now working in regulatory affairs and no longer a lobbyist — recalled a time when she attended a fundraiser on behalf of the credit unions. Two lawmakers were standing next to each other. When she reached out to shake hands with one of the lawmakers, he pulled her up to him, she said.

"He told the senator that I was more his size than the other senator’s size," Osborn said. She declined to identify the lawmakers in an interview on Sunday.

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s spokeswoman, was CEO of her own public relations firm in 2012 when then-Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, described her as a “hooker” who would work for anyone in response to Rossman-McKinney calling him a loser who “legislated by press release not policy.”

Rossman-McKinney said she “pushed back, hard,” but acknowledged that she ran a well-known bipartisan firm and, as such, was in a more favorable position to do so. In the past, women might have tolerated comments because of their positions or because it involved “men of a certain generation," she said. But they should know better by now, she said. 

“There are always a handful of social Neanderthals that serve in the Legislature,” Rossman-McKinney said. “Perhaps in their own world before they came here they weren’t accustomed to women in the work place.”

House, Senate policies vary

From 2000 to 2007, the Michigan Senate paid $269,000 to investigate and settle sexual harassment complaints, according to the Senate Business Office. No other information was revealed, but a spokeswoman said in January 2018 past state spending on sexual harassment investigations and settlements did not involve any current senators or their staffers.

In the last seven years, the Michigan House has paid one settlement in relation to a sexual harassment complaint. The $8,450 settlement was paid to a former male employee of former Rep. Brian Banks, D-Harper Woods, who said the lawmaker had harassed him. 

Four lawmakers have been expelled in Michigan's history, but none for just sexual harassment or sexual misconduct. Sen. David Jaye, R-Washington Township, was ousted in 2001 because of his three convictions involving driving under influence of alcohol, two domestic violence instances, alleged abusive treatment of Senate staffers and suggestive photos on his official laptop. The others were expelled for bribery, extortion, and misconduct and misuse of taxpayer resources.

Because the Legislature is not subject to public records requests, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Shirkey refused to release the chambers’ current sexual harassment policies to The News. But The News obtained copies. 

The House has had a sexual harassment policy for at least 20 years, said Doug Simon, director for the House Business Office. During the two decades the policy has evolved, with the most recent updates in 2018 when the chamber required all lawmakers to receive training annually, not just at orientation, and improved some training materials. 

The policy covers anyone who does business with the House and requires complainants to report the incident to their supervisor, the House business director, the majority or minority chiefs of staff or the majority or minority legal counsels. 

An informal complaint would be placed on file in the House Business Office while a formal complaint would result in an investigation, consultation with leadership, reporting results to the accused and complainant, and placing documentation on file. 

Corrective action can include firing or another sort of discipline for an employee. If the accused is a legislator, corrective action can include removal from committees, removal of staff or removal form the caucus, Simon said.

The Senate's policy provides fewer details than the House's policy and focuses mainly on senators and Senate employees.

Individuals being harassed "are encouraged to communicate and resolve their concerns with the offending person, when possible and appropriate," according to the Senate policy manual. The Senate policy offers five ways to report a complaint when communication with the offending person is not possible or after communication with the offending person.

"The Senate is committed to taking appropriate disciplinary action for every substantiated complaint of harassment," the policy manual says.

Both the House and the Senate manuals prohibit "retaliation" against individuals reporting harassment. But former staffers and lawmakers have identified fear of retaliation and apprehension about their complaints not being taken seriously as hurdles.

Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, speaks to reporters on Tuesday afternoon after filing a harassment complaint against fellow Sen. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township.

“You’re in a place where power means a lot of different things and a lot of different people have it," Chang said. "It’s not always a very clear and cut-and-dry thing. There are obviously legislator and staff power dynamics. There also majority and minority party dynamics. There are also lobbyist dynamics. The list goes on."

McMorrow acknowledged to reporters Tuesday it was hard for her to come forward. She said she only did so after more than one year and after the reporter complaint against Lucido. As a senator, she said she has more flexibility than a staffer or a lobbyist would.

"The only people who can decide whether or not I’m here are my constituents," McMorrow said. "But my hope is that we encourage and support people who come forward."