Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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What are political parties doing about sexual harassment within their ranks?


Cliff Owen / AP

In this Nov. 14, 2016, photo, Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., speaks with reporters as Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, listens on Capitol Hill in Washington. The chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign committee called on Kihuen to step down after a report Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, that he allegedly sexually harassed his campaign’s finance director.

More than a half-dozen members of Congress resigned or announced retirement in 2017 after they were accused of various forms of harassment. The wave of accusations hit Republicans and Democrats alike. Some Republican groups are continuing to rely on existing sexual harassment policies, while certain governing bodies and Democratic groups have taken steps to expand their safeguards.

Shortly after Congressman Ruben Kihuen was accused of sexual harassment, the Democratic Party of Nevada committed to training all staff, campaign workers and candidates involved in the party’s coordinated campaign effort.

“Nevada State Democratic Party staff hosted a comprehensive sexual harassment training with an attorney at our office,” spokeswoman Helen Kalla said in a statement. “That training covered topics like identifying sexual harassment behavior, understanding victims’ rights, and options and guidelines on appropriate workplace conduct. The state party will continue to offer training for candidates and staff periodically throughout the 2018 cycle.”

The commitment aligns with moves by the state Legislature and Congress to make these trainings required across the board.

The Nevada Legislature expanded its sexual harassment policy in its standing rules this year, including a process for lobbyists to file complaints and allowing accusers to remain anonymous.

Trump rolls back workplace protections

President Donald Trump revoked the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The order sought to ensure companies contracted by the government provide paycheck transparency, obtain employee consent to arbitrate in sexual assault or harassment cases and comply with labor laws, among other provisions. The decision came with little explanation or fanfare.

Employee rights groups say the elimination of the executive order will hurt the oversight of the rights of workers who are employed by federal contractors. Opponents of the move say it’s common sense to require companies receiving taxpayer money to disclose labor law violations, and that the worst violators should lose out on government contracts.

Both the Republican National Committee—where donor Steve Wynn resigned as finance chairman in the wake of accusations against him—and the Nevada Republican Party have had harassment policies in place for years. Those policies have not been expanded.

The Nevada Republican Party has a harassment policy laid out in its employment documents, which every new hire sees.

Unlike a plan by state Democrats to disseminate training information to campaigns come spring when the coordinated campaign begins, a state Republican party official said the organization is not involved in campaign-level policies.

A supplemental training being added at the Democratic National Committee, in addition to its sexual harassment training course, is required annually of all staff and interns.

“What prompted these supplemental trainings is not a series of specific incidents but rather the fact that taking this issue seriously is so integral to what our party stands for,” said spokesman Vedant Patel in a statement. “Nothing is more important than ensuring that the Democratic Party’s staff, organizers and volunteers feel safe and supported in our workplaces, from our D.C. headquarters to our local state party offices.”

County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said during a February meeting that she is working to put together a policy to apply countywide and that she hopes for a vote on it this month. The county’s diversity office handles complaints, and a policy would lay out the process in one place for everyone.

“It’s better to be proactive rather than waiting until something potentially happens,” Giunchigliani said. “Transparency in this case not only makes good sense, it lets people know that we take these situations very seriously.”

Giunchigliani said her gubernatorial campaign is putting together its own policy so the handful of people working with her feel comfortable and know there is a process in place to make complaints.

At least one Nevada campaign has already implemented its anti-harassment training. Congressional candidate Susie Lee has added the training to her campaign policies, a change from her previous run for office, according to a spokesman. Part of the policy includes internal and external points of contact for those on the campaign to report complaints.

“It has become clearer than ever in recent months that there is a serious pattern of sexual misconduct by those in positions of power,” Lee said in a statement. “It is long past time that we act, bring accountability, and change the culture that allows this problem to continue. I want to lead by example on this issue, and my campaign has a strong policy in place to protect the idealistic, committed individuals on our campaign team.”

Late last year, Congress made sexual harassment training mandatory for the first time through bills co-sponsored by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Democratic Reps. Jacky Rosen and Dina Titus. Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Reps. Kihuen, a Democrat, and Mark Amodei, a Republican, did not sign on to co-sponsor the resolutions before the Senate passed it unanimously and the House approved it by voice vote. The House went one step further, voting to provide free legal representation to survivors.

Every member of Nevada’s delegation in D.C. has followed through on the requirement and had their staff go through the training.

What’s the latest on accusations against Kihuen?

Kihuen as well as Republican Reps. Blake Farenthold, who reportedly settled a harassment complaint with taxpayer money, and Joe Barton, who apologized to constituents after a nude selfie circulated online, are not running for re-election.

Though Kihuen is declining to run again rather than vacating his seat, he is still facing an ethics investigation in Congress. He said he looks forward to clearing his name.

Heller has called for Kihuen’s resignation and spoke out against the Senate candidacy of Roy Moore, who lost his election after being accused of pursuing a minor. Heller is supporting several bills related to sexual assault, including one seeking to address this type of violence on college campuses.

Is reform still needed in Congress?

With training in place, some lawmakers are looking at the lengthy process of filing complaints.

Survivors have to go through 30 days of mandatory counseling, 30 days of mediation and a 30-day “cooling-off period.” Cortez Masto says this traumatizes survivors even further than they already have been.

“That’s all cloaked around confidentiality before you can even move forward if you wanted to file a complaint in court or have any type of investigation,” she said. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

Cortez Masto said the ethics committee is another area that needs reform. There needs to be consistency in handling complaints, she said, and an assurance that they will be processed quickly rather than taking years, as some cases do. In late March, all 22 women in the Senate came together in a bipartisan group to call on Republican leaders to bring the reforms up for debate.

Titus, who cosponsored the House’s mandatory training resolution, said sexual harassment is definitely a problem in Congress, and training would be helpful.

“We need to be sure everybody knows what sexual harassment is, how to recognize it, how to deal with it, and how to prevent it,” she said.