As staffers break silence, a #MeToo moment for Alaska’s Capitol

Alaska State Capitol, Feb. 7th, 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

A Legislative Council subcommittee released a draft policy on sexual and other workplace harassment on Jan. 25. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The “Me Too” movement has reached Alaska’s capital.

In the weeks since the state legislature convened, there’s been a workplace training, proposed changes to the legislature’s sexual harassment policy and allegations made against one lawmaker — Bethel Democrat Rep. Zach Fansler — who has now resigned.

When asked before session whether the Alaska Legislature had a harassment problem, Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, gave a tentative “no.”

“I don’t think it’s wide ranging however, I don’t think that anybody really knows the level that it exists because of the reluctance – and understandable reluctance – of reporters,” Ortiz said.

But in recent months, the legislature has been reconsidering that question, rocked by high profile reports from female staffers.

Accusations were brought against Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, and after legislative aides accused Rep. Dean Westlake, a Democrat from Kiana, of making unwanted sexual advances, an investigation was launched.

Westlake later resigned. That was last session.

This session, the Juneau Empire reported Jan. 27 that Fansler assaulted a Juneau woman in a hotel room Jan. 13, rupturing her eardrum.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and several other House members called on Fansler to resign.

Edgmon’s statement reads, “I am overcome with sympathy and respect for the victim. It takes immense bravery to bring these matters forward.”

While protecting her identity, the Juneau Empire reported the woman is a state employee.

Until these events, sexual harassment within the Alaska legislature had little visibility.

Since 2000, the Legislative Affairs Agency has conducted 11 investigations into sexual harassment and two into other kinds of workplace harassment.

But what about cases where victims haven’t come forward?

Republican Sen. Bert Stedman said he’s seen bad behavior when tensions run high.

“Doors slamming. Windows breaking. Screaming, hollering. Sometimes vulgar language, sometimes that type of stuff goes on,” Stedman said, adding, “Not around my office.”

Though new to the building, Rep. Justin Parish said there’s pressure among younger staffers – who are at-will employees hired twice a year – to stay silent when something happens.

“The perennial concern is that if I should report, I’ll never work in the building again. And that’s hard to bear,” said Parish, a Democrat representing Juneau.

Many lawmakers agree that the legislature’s current policy for handling “Sexual and Other Workplace Harassment,” adopted in 2000, needs an update.

There’s a six-member subcommittee working on this.

They released a draft version on Jan. 25, building off language from the Oregon legislature.

Whereas current policy has just a paragraph on how to report harassment, this draft has 10 pages.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican on the subcommittee, wants potential victims to know they have options and that any formal investigation will be led by someone outside the Legislative Branch.

“That member’s case would be investigated externally, so the public had great confidence in the outcome and that it wasn’t politically either underreported or overreported,” MacKinnon said.

Many lawmakers interviewed for this story said that unbiased investigation is key, in a workplace where everything a staffer does can have political consequences for his or her boss.

The draft policy would map out those structural changes, but what about cultural changes that can’t be written in words?

What about behavior that isn’t illegal, but uncivil or uncomfortable?

Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz wants to create an environment where staffers can talk about that too.

“What I have been most surprised by was how uncomfortable our staff felt filing complaints or bringing up concerns to the legislators that they work or to the Legislative Affairs Agency,” Spohnholz said. “That says to me that our culture is really, really broken.”

MacKinnon said the culture is better than it used to be, calling it a bit of a “good old boys club” when she was elected in 2006.

“I’ve seen these new, younger men coming into these elected positions be more sensitive to equality for everyone,” she said. “It is a cultural transition that we’re going through. I think it takes all of us standing up to say, ‘Some behavior is unacceptable.’”

For Sitka Democrat Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, that’s meant coming to terms with the scope of the problem. He said that the multiple harassment allegations have produced “sobering” conversations and he hopes for a zero tolerance policy.

“We should be held, at the very least, to the same standard everyone else is, which is (zero tolerance) for illegal predatory or harassing behavior, but ideally a far higher standard,” Kreiss-Tomkins. “And we’re not there yet.”

KTOO’s Andrew Kitchenmann, KRBD’s Leila Kheiry, KHNS’s Berett Wilber, and KTOO’s Adelyn Baxter contributed reporting. This story is part of a CoastAlaska series on the current legislative session (which began January 16th) and Southeast lawmakers’ perspectives on fisheriesferrieseducationa fiscal plana ballot initiative for “good government,” and the legislature’s functionality

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