A 23-year-old woman filed a police report against a Minnesota state lawmaker that claimed he’d stroked her face, arms, and ears without her consent.
In Pennsylvania, a legislator secretly settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for almost a quarter-million dollars using taxpayer money.
And a California state lawmaker was formally asked to stop hugging people after three current and former female legislators said his behavior made them uncomfortable. One said the legislator thrust his crotch at her during a hug.
Just a year after the #MeToo movement first swept across social media, at least 30 state lawmakers publicly involved in sexual misconduct scandals since 2017 are now up for re-election, a VICE News review found. Despite those allegations, 16 of those candidates won their primaries — which are now over in all but one state — and advanced to the November general election.
Two of those 16 lawmakers, who collectively represent 10 states, are almost guaranteed to be re-elected, since they won’t face a challenger next month.
Allegations of unwanted sexual advances have rattled Washington over the past year, forcing at least four members of Congress to leave office and threatening to capsize now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court.
But state legislatures, which typically receive far less media attention even as they have an arguably more direct impact on their constituents, have not been immune to declarations of “me too.” In the past three weeks alone, as the Kavanaugh allegations roiled the nation, at least two state legislators were publicly implicated in alleged sexual misconduct. Now, the fact that so many state legislators lost their primaries indicates that voters could be taking sexual misconduct allegations seriously.
“It’s very rare for incumbents to be unseated in a primary,” said Bradley Spahn, a Ph.D. candidate in Stanford University's department of political science who’s studied state legislators. Even single-term incumbents who barely win their first elections win their second more than 70 percent of the time. Those who've been in office longer typically win at even higher rates.
“Name recognition is really, really important in those races,” added Melissa Deckman, a Washington College professor of political science who’s written about the impact sexual harassment may have on the midterms. Many may not even know who their state legislators are. “Voters unfortunately know depressingly little about what’s happening in American politics.”
In August, the Associated Press tallied at least 30 of those legislators who have resigned or been pushed out of office after sexual misconduct scandals. To find legislators who remained in office after such scandals, VICE News reviewed local news coverage and used state officials’ election records for primary results. Of the 30 legislators up for re-election that VICE News discovered, 10 lost their primaries or their attempted runs for higher office, or dropped out of the race. Four didn’t file for re-election at all.
VICE News reached out to all 16 accused lawmakers; only three responded. The claims against them are varied and complex, including accusations of secret sexual harassment settlements, sweeping aides’ alleged sexual harassment under the rug, and making inappropriate comments, among other things. At least three of the complaints did not move forward, or investigations closed without finding that sexual misconduct had occurred. One investigation into Democratic California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, accused of groping a legislative aide after a softball game, was later reopened. Garcia, who did not reply to a VICE News request for comment, has said the claims against her are not true.
One of the dropped cases was against Ohio Republican Rep. Bill Seitz, who made comments a female employee felt had trivialized another statehouse sex harassment scandal. An investigation found that Seitz’s comments were inappropriate but didn’t violate the Ohio House of Representatives’ harassment policy.
“We immediately stood up and said, ‘We believe her’”
In an interview with VICE News, Seitz called the complaint against him “utterly baseless” and “politically motivated.” “I was ridiculing the state senator, 63-year-old state senator, who resigned because he was making inappropriate advances to a young worker,” Seitz said. “I was ridiculing him and how that could be sexual harassment of a victim, I have no idea.”
Seitz had no primary challenger.
But in other races, an accusation of sexual misconduct did seem to leave lasting damage. In early May, Democratic state Rep. Carl Trujillo was accused by an animal rights lobbyist of having touched her inappropriately and propositioning her. Trujillo, a three-term incumbent up for re-election in the state’s June primaries, immediately took to Facebook and dubbed the allegations “lies of the worst sort.”
“They are not true,” Trujillo told VICE News. “I believe that the #MeToo movement is a powerful movement and deserving for those that have been wronged, but I do believe that in some cases it’s being abused and it’s hurting the movement.”
Trujillo’s opponent, Andrea Romero, said it was Trujillo’s “retaliation” against his accuser that struck voters most. “You felt her story. And immediately, as an individual and both [as] our campaign, we immediately stood up and said, ‘We believe her,’” Romero said.
Romero ultimately defeated Trujillo. He’s now scheduled to face an ethics hearing in the legislature in December, the Albuquerque Journal reported, after an internal investigation into the lobbyist’s claims found evidence that Trujillo had violated the body’s recently revised anti-harassment policy.
Polls, at least, have found conflicting data about voters’ feelings about the importance of sexual assault. A 2018 survey from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that 51 percent of likely voters say they’d never vote for someone who didn’t make addressing sexual harassment a priority. But a CNN poll this year also found that neither men nor women consider sexual harassment a top priority in the voting booth, compared to issues like the economy and health care.
Democrats say they’re more worried than Republicans about men getting away with sexual harassment and assault, according to the Pew Research Center. But they’re clearly still willing to vote for candidates embroiled in sexual misconduct scandals. Although Democratic voters voted Trujillo out of office, at least six other such Democrats went on to win their primaries, VICE News found.
Of course, these 16 lawmaker make up only a small snapshot of the thousands of state legislature seats up for grabs this year. But there is some evidence that that state legislatures are taking the #MeToo movement seriously. Rebecca Johnson, a Washington state lobbyist, helped organize an open letter, signed by more than 170 women who’ve worked at the Washington state capitol, condemning “a culture that has, until now, too often functioned to serve and support harassers’ power and privilege over protection of those who work with them.”
“When the #MeToo movement kind of rose up at the end of last year, we started to have those conversations, that we’d only ever had with each other, more publicly,” Johnson said. She told VICE News that, early in her career, she dealt with a lawmaker who would hug and touch her inappropriately, and sometimes even drunkenly call her. She told no one — until that legislator suddenly resigned, in 2011. Last year, legislature leaders revealed that he’d left after being accused of acting “inappropriately” toward a female staffer.
Johnson has since spoken publicly about her experience, but she still worries about speaking out. “Every single time I have a conversation, I still feel the fear of like, ‘Am I doing something that’s gonna damage my career?’”
Thirty-two state legislatures have introduced more than 125 pieces of legislation related to sexual harassment between January and June 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fourteen of those states, including four that re-elected lawmakers associated with sexual misconduct scandals, ended up passing bills.
California Republican Assemblymember Melissa Melendez first proposed a bill to protect legislative staffers who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment in 2014. This year, it finally passed.
“If lawmakers, who are making these laws for everyone else,” Melendez said, “aren’t following these same laws, then I think it stands to reason that the rest of the country is gonna look at it and say, ‘Well, if they don’t have to follow these laws, then neither do we.’”
Cover: A woman wears a jacket that reads "November Is Coming" as protestors rally against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, September 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)