As the dust settles on the 2018 Colorado Legislature, and congratulations go round for making a solid attempt to fund roads and fend off the usual crop of fringe civil rights abuses, one sordid episode can’t be so easily brushed aside.
State lawmakers not only seriously mishandled a spate of sexual misconduct cases involving legislators, they punted the problem to the next class of House and Senate members.
That’s probably a good thing.
Given how some political leaders in both houses bungled the controversies, it’s best that legislative leaders with untarnished records create a new policy dealing with elected officials accused of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Much of the unconscionable behavior by lawmakers was brought to the public’s attention this year because of KUNC-FM reporter Bente Birkeland’s investigative stories. Her work featured courageous Capitol staffers, interns and lawmakers who were victims of perpetrators, politics and a broken system. Despite real risks that materialized for some of these victims, they came forward, and they persisted in their complaints.
Colorado was hardly alone in how this wave of the national #MeToo tsunami washed over the country. Congress and state legislatures across the nation were jolted by seemingly endless allegations of sexual misconduct.
By the time the 2018 Colorado General Assembly quit for the year, five lawmakers were accused of a wide range of sexual misconduct, ranging from juvenile and banal comments to borderline criminal assault. All of the cases were clear abuses of power.
In the state House, members evicted Democratic state Rep. Steve Lebsock from his post after investigators found credible claims that he was abusive to five women. Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran charged into an effort to expel Lebsock and champion the cause of victims of sexual misconduct.
But Duran was part of the problem the next class of legislators needs to solve.
Investigations and news reports revealed that Duran knew about Lebsock’s behavior before the stories became public. She had heard victim state Rep. Faith Winter’s recollection of Lebock’s intolerable encounters first-hand. But when it came time for Lebsock to assume the role of chairmanship of an important committee, before he was outed, she permitted it. This year, when confronted with her behavior, Duran said she did it because one of her victims was OK with it, so she was, too.
Duran’s claim was ridiculous. Employment and political leaders do not and should never just look the other way because victims ask them to. This is Rule No. 1 of any intervention in any abusive situation, and one that a new Legislature policy needs to rectify. Lebsock wasn’t just accused of making inappropriate or suggestive comments. Drunken lawmakers physically haranguing people into having sex should not be given leadership positions, no matter how awkward the politics might be. Given Duran’s role in making it possible for Lebsock to continue abusing victims, she should have no role in mapping out the future for handling complaints.
The problem was far more egregious in the state Senate. There, Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham became complicit in protecting fellow Republicans from rebuke for even worse abuses.
Feigning judicious concern for due process and the accused, Grantham actively impeded lawmakers from taking action against fellow GOP state Sen. Randy Baumgardner. A bevy of shocking accusations against Baumgardner were substantiated by more than one investigation. Grantham deployed delaying tactics and worked to cast doubt on investigations. It was a clear and shamelessly partisan attempt to protect his fellow Republican.
Grantham lied to the press in early May after finally removing Baumgardner from committees after even more allegations were founded. He said he and bi-partisan leaders had reached consensus in what was essentially a hand-slap for Baumgardner.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Leroy Garcia said he and other Democrats were “told, not consulted” by Grantham about Baumgardner’s obliging punishment, according to an Associated Press story.
“To suggest that Sen. Garcia thinks (Baumgardner’s) punishment is adequate is false,” Senate spokesman Mansur Gidfar said.
Grantham shamelessly pulled similar stunts in trying to shield Republican state senators Jack Tate and Larry Crowder from their allegations of misconduct. Tate is accused of repeated inappropriate comments to a young Capitol intern, allegations that were found credible during an investigation.
Grantham and Duran are both term limited and won’t be back next year. Now, voters need to carefully weigh how 2018 candidates react to the abhorrent escapades this year.
An independent investigation recommended a far-more transparent process, and we agree. And since the temptation by House and Senate leaders to let politics overshadow good sense and judgment is irresistible, they must be removed from hearing complaints and deciding resolutions. Bi-partisan standing committees composed of more than just legislators are key to justice.
Voters, however, are critical to cleaning up the Capitol from this pervasive abuse of power. Ask candidates how they think their political leaders handled the problem this year. Ask candidates they would handle it.
As tolerance for sexual harassment diminishes, so will the problem.