Like all of Colorado, we have heard enough about unsavory and menacing incidents of sexual harassment in the Colorado Legislature to know that some kind of independent mechanism must handle current and future complaints.
State lawmakers themselves are ill-suited by the political nature of the system to police themselves.
For the past two weeks, scandals over an assortment of accusations have made it clear that the problem of sexual harassment at the state Capitol is pervasive. Four separate incidents were revealed by media reports of a wide range of victims: women, men, younger, older, gay and straight.
Given the nature of the complaints and the nature of the allegations, there are undoubtedly more victims who haven’t told legislative officials — or possibly anyone. No doubt there are more incidents that are not only personally abusive, but in the realm of legislative government, they directly make all Colorado residents victims of what amounts to political extortion.
We take these incidents of abuse as serious affronts to the public and individual victims they’re inflicted on.
Clearly, it is impractical and inadvisable for state politicians to patrol themselves on this matter, as we’ve pointed out before. Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran inflicted irreparable political damage to her credibility by permitting outed abuser Democratic state Rep. Steve Lebsock to ascend as committee chairman this year. Corroborated witness accounts reveal that Lebsock is at best a cad, and he should resign. Duran allowed him to become chairman of the state House Local Government Committee not only knowing the sordid details of Lebsock’s possibly criminal abuse of one and potentially more legislative officials, but she permitted his chairmanship even after working to ensure Lebsock’s office was as distant as possible from other women legislators.
Duran has tried to deflect criticism of her poor judgment by saying she did it to protect victims who did not want to publicly confront Lebsock. The excuse is as poor as her judgment in the matter. Neither we nor many current and former state lawmakers believe there was just no way to keep Lebsock from assuming his chairmanship without outing one or more victims.
The choices Duran made in handling complaints about Lebsock gave both the clear and perceived appearance of impropriety, inviting criticism that she worked both to assuage victims and avoid political embarrassment for fellow Democrats.
Political allies only enhance that problem by adamantly defending Duran’s decision to let Lebsock become a committee chairman, saying she and a victim had worked this out to the victim’s satisfaction, and that only perpetrators warrant criticism in these cases.
That’s painfully wrong. No supervisor in or out of government responsibly lets any kind of abuser off the hook for any reason, knowing there’s a very real potential for more victims. This is the stuff of huge liability lawsuit settlements.
Duran’s decision sent a clear and disheartening message to everyone who was abused by Lebsock, or those who knew about his abuses. Duran’s decision signaled that what’s important in these cases is not getting caught. If you are caught, make sure your victims don’t want to go public with their complaint.
It’s important to protect the confidentiality of victims, but it’s equally important to protect others from becoming victimized. Despite what Duran and her supporters claim, the two are not solely contradictory. Duran’s decision permitted Lebsock to continue to potentially abuse other victims and possibly use that abusive behavior to affect the the legislative process.
The Colorado Legislature is not just another business that sets up an environment for sexual harassment, it is the government of Colorado. Its participants are and must be held to higher standards, and its operations must always be transparent and accountable.
Duran’s handling of this escapade and the very process that allowed for it happen are anything but acceptable, and we ask again that she step down as speaker.
Regardless, the Legislature should immediately create an independent, non-political system to hear and act on sexual harassment complaints, and eventually, other ethical complaints as well.
As to others at the Capitol snared by the recent wave of sexual harassment outings, each case is unique and similarly disturbing.
In allegations such as those leveled recently against lawmakers such as state Sen. Jack Tate, state Sen. Randy Baumgardner and state Rep. Paul Rosenthal, each should step down from their seats for either knowingly acting inappropriately in their role as legislators or acting that way and not having the good judgment to know how inappropriate and potentially abusive of victims and the legislative process it was.
For lawmakers looking for dates, romance, sex or anything but professional collegiality, do it on your own time — not on government property and not while conducting government business. Ever.
In the case of Tate, who defends making remarks in a Capitol elevator about the skirt of an 18-year-old intern and later inviting this stranger to look him up if she wants to get ahead: no. This isn’t wherever in the South that Tate and his supporters say he hails from where this kind of thing is just friendly banter. If Tate doesn’t have the good judgment to know state lawmakers have no business commenting on the attire of young men and women or offering strangers paths to advancement, then it warrants serious concern about his judgment in other matters of government.
In these and so many cases, there is always the lack of an earnest apology and a plethora of justification or outright denial. People should credit to tell the difference between an innocent comment gone awkward and lechery and abuse.
There’s little the public can do to prevent people everywhere from becoming victims or perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse, other than continue to resist, complain and act on complaints. But in the case of the Colorado Legislature, voters can insist on independent investigation and personal accountability now, and voters can act on the issue at the polls during next year’s election.