Nicole Grant was excited when she arrived at the state Capitol in 2010 to lobby on behalf of the Certified Electrical Workers of Washington. A journeyman electrician by training, Grant would be representing her fellow union members on issues such as workplace rights and safety.
Grant quickly realized that the workplace climate in Olympia was different than anything she had experienced.
“There was always a very lively gossip mill about who was up to what,” Grant said. “Sort of like an extracurricular, non-professional haze that sat over the political environment.”
Then one day in 2011, as she was leaving a Democratic legislator’s office, she said she experienced something that embodied the non-professional haze.
“Right as I was stepping out the door, he gave my ass like a little pat or something, like a little slap,” Grant said.
She was so shocked, she didn’t say anything.
“I just wanted to be away from there, just be far from there,” Grant said.
The Northwest News Network, The News Tribune and The Olympian are not naming the lawmaker since no formal complaint was filed and he is no longer at the Capitol.
Former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, a Seattle Democrat, told a similar story. She said a lobbyist once “grabbed” her butt while working in one of the buildings that houses legislator offices and committee rooms.
“That was shocking. It was very clearly a pat on my heinie, not my waist” said Farrell, who served in the House from 2013 until 2017 before leaving to run for Seattle mayor.
Grant and Farrell were two of nine women who told Northwest News Network, The News Tribune and The Olympian stories about the climate for women working at Washington’s Legislature in light of reports of male misconduct emerging at statehouses across the country.
The women—mainly a mix of current and former legislative staff and lobbyists—described an environment over the last decade where overt sexual harassment is rare, but inappropriate comments, lingering hugs, unnecessary touching and unwelcome attention are common. Many of the women said they warn each other about alleged wrongdoers or overly forward men and are regularly forced to take steps to avoid uncomfortable or potentially dangerous interactions.
Compounding the situation, they said, is the high-stakes nature of a legislative environment and the lack of a traditional human resources process, particularly for lobbyists.
“You’re working with people who have power over you, over what you’re trying to accomplish, over your client,” one lobbyist said. “There’s always also a power differential with whomever you are encountering and also no clear hierarchy of accountability the way you would find in a nine-to-five job.”
Seven of the women who spoke with the three news outlets asked to remain anonymous, fearing that talking on the record about their experience would either cause them to lose their jobs or significantly hinder their current work or future job prospects.
Grant said she was comfortable talking on the record since she is now gone from Olympia and has no plans to return. She currently works as executive secretary-treasurer at the King County Labor Council.
At the time, Grant did not report the incident with the Democratic lawmaker. Nor did she report two other incidents when she said she was “assaulted,” both involving a fellow lobbyist, over the six years spent in Olympia.
“You’re there to deliver on something that’s important for people you care about and it’s a very strict timeline,” Grant said. There’s a “high bar” for success, she added. “Either your bill passes or it doesn’t, and so there’s just almost no room for distraction.”
Unwanted behavior common
Grant and Farrell’s were the worst stories, but all of the women interviewed said they had to contend with behavior that made them feel uncomfortable.
Several of the women interviewed by the news outlets said male colleagues have commented on their appearance while on the clock at the Capitol.
One veteran lobbyist, who has more than 30 years of experience at the Legislature, said at some point in the last two years a male Republican state senator took her hand, pulled her close, looked down her blouse and told her she looked “real good.”
She decided to confront the lawmaker, who she said told her he was just trying to compliment her.
Farrell said a male colleague told her that her hair “was really distracting” during an appearance on television. Another time a fellow lawmaker came up to her on the floor of the House during a break in late-night voting and proceeded to massage her shoulders.
A current lobbyist who represents progressive causes said men will make comments that have sexual overtones, even if it’s not explicit.
“You don’t even have hard evidence,” she said. “You’re like, ‘I felt uncomfortable because he said my dress looked nice.’ But it’s the word plus the look plus the body language.”
Women also said they feel the need to warn each other not to attend meetings with certain lobbyists, staffers or lawmakers alone. Many women described lawmakers who will give lingering hugs, or touch their arms or lower backs. The progressive lobbyist said she has learned an “artful dance” to escape such touching.
Other times it’s more serious.
“It’s just like, ‘Oh, you have to watch out for that person. They’re a predator,’” said a former Republican staffer and intern.
The lobbyist for progressive causes said there is an informal list of four to five lawmakers and lobbyists to avoid that women share with interns and new female lobbyists.
Women and legislative staff also counsel against going to some events held by lobby groups, particularly those where alcohol is served.
The former House GOP legislative staffer said when she was an intern in recent years, nonpartisan staff would warn women to avoid certain receptions held by lobby groups out of fear the men attending would try and get them drunk and sleep with them.
Because of that implication, even attending those receptions is “frowned upon,” she said.
If you went, “you would probably be less likely to be hired” at the Capitol later on, she said.
A former high-level legislative staffer said women being told to avoid certain situations “isn’t fair and it isn’t right, but you’re gonna to be the one that gets your reputation damaged, not the men.”
Hunter Goodman, the secretary of the Senate, and Bernard Dean, the House’s chief clerk, both said they do warn young Capitol workers of all genders about events with alcohol.
Goodman and Dean said they do so to encourage staff to avoid situations where professional boundaries can get blurred.
Little trust in complaint process
Both the Washington House and Senate have explicit anti-harassment policies that prohibit behavior such as unwelcome compliments and verbal or physical expressions that are sexual in nature or gender based. They also make staff and lawmakers attend respectful-workplace training periodically, although Dean said it’s been several years since the House has done so.
Both chambers outline a range of options for addressing violations of harassment policy. In the Senate, these include engaging a facilitator, raising the issue with an immediate supervisor or requesting a formal investigation by the Senate leadership.
The House has a two-step process that begins with “informal” problem resolution. The next step is a more formal grievance procedure that results in an investigation.
Some legislative staffers and lobbyists interviewed said they fear using such a route could result in a backlash and interfere with their work at the Capitol.
“I worked really hard to build my business, and I worry that if I say something about it then you’re ostracized and marginalized,” said a lobbyist who runs her own firm.
Lobbyists and legislative staff also said there’s a concern that if they go to the political caucuses or the House and Senate administrations, their complaint won’t remain confidential.
“We don’t live in an age where there aren’t repercussions for the woman,” said the veteran lobbyist. She said the safest approach would be to alert an influential woman lawmaker to bad behavior in hopes she would pressure leadership to intervene.
The Senate’s complaint policy states investigations will only be kept “as confidential as possible.”
Some lobbyists who have issues with other lobbyists say they don’t feel as if there’s any place to report inappropriate behavior. There is an informal lobbyist organization called The Third House, but membership is not mandatory and there is no formal structure.
Dean said he is striving to create an environment that protects women and holds people accountable.
To that end, he said the House started reviewing its harassment and complaint policy and practices in January and has since brought in an outside consultant to help advise on best practices. Dean expects the policy will be updated before the next legislative session. The clerk’s office and its Senate counterpart act as a human resources department.
He said his staff is “always open to making improvements” but added, “You’re bound to have some individuals who don’t comport themselves professionally in the workplace.”
“Our challenge is to deal with those circumstances when we’re made aware of them,” Dean said.
Goodman said he and top lawmakers welcome complaints from anyone who interacts with the Senate. He said he couldn’t name a time in the last several years where a formal complaint was lodged and found substantiated.
The House does not collect data on how many complaints are lodged. It is unclear if the Senate collects any data on the subject.
The Legislature has declined in the last year to disclose complaints of harassment against lawmakers to Northwest News Network, The News Tribune, The Olympian. Legislative administrators claim an exemption the Public Records Act when denying the records.
A coalition of media groups, including those three news outlets, are suing the Legislature for access to the records, saying they’re not actually exempt from disclosure.
On Tuesday, Democratic state Senator Karen Keiser tweeted that she intends to introduce legislation to exempt sexual harassment and assault cases from "gag rules and secrecy," as well as non-disclosure agreements.
— Karen Keiser (@KarenKeiser1) October 31, 2017
Some progress made
Historically, Olympia was a male bastion and stories of sexist behavior abound. In his book “My Ride,” former legislative attorney Allen Hayward wrote that up until 1984 some male members of the Washington House would issue a “Leg of the Day Award” to a woman in the House gallery. The practice ended, according to Hayward, the day the award went to the daughter of a lawmaker.
Generally, women who work at the Capitol say the environment has gotten better over the years as some of the more problematic lawmakers and lobbyists have left or retired and awareness about sexual harassment has increased. More women in positions of power helps, too, say many of those interviewed.
“There are so many good people. It’s the few bad apples,” said a construction industry lobbyist.
Still, there is room for improvement the women say. Grant said her experience was so bad it was one reason she took another job away from Olympia.
Farrell previously told The Seattle Times about some of her experiences in the Capitol, but said events of recent weeks, including the #MeToo social media campaign, has made her realize that what she experienced is more universal than isolated. Farrell said she is hopeful that by speaking out she can help make the Capitol environment more respectful to women.
“If you are fundamentally worried that somebody is going to do something inappropriate, it makes it a lot harder to do this work,” Farrell said.
Walker Orenstein is a reporter with The News Tribune and The Olympian. He partnered with Northwest News Network to produce this story.
*This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Jessyn Farrell previously spoke about her experiences in the state Capitol.