Women sign letter calling for change at Washington Capitol

By Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — More than 170 women — including lobbyists and lawmakers — signed a letter Monday calling for a culture change at the Washington state Capitol dealing with sexual harassment.

The signers, who include more than 40 lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle, say that as “women serving and working in the legislative and political realm, we add our voices to the chorus of ‘enough.’ ”

The group said its members “stand together to change a culture that, until now, has too often functioned to serve and support harassers’ power and privilege over protection of those who work with them.”

The fallout from sexual harassment and assault allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein and others in Hollywood has stretched to Legislatures, with hundreds of lawmakers, lobbyists and consultants across the nation calling the problem pervasive.

Accusations also have emerged in Oregon, Rhode Island, Illinois and California.

The letter in Washington state comes a week after four women said publicly that former Democratic Rep. Brendan Williams sexually harassed them.

Also last week, leaders at the Washington state House acknowledged for the first time that the reason for former Rep. Jim Jacks’ sudden resignation in 2011 was because of allegations of inappropriate behavior toward a female staffer.

“At some point in our lives, every one of us has experienced, witnessed and counseled others through unwanted advances or a range of dehumanizing behavior — from innuendo to groping, from inappropriate comments and jokes to unwanted touching and assault,” the letter reads. “Our political world is one of explicit and implicit power differentials.”

The letter challenges legislative leaders and members of both chambers “to lead the way in our state by working together with us to change the culture from one which silently supports and perpetuates harassment to one which supports and preserves safety.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said last week that after the 2011 incident, the chamber changed policies to create a chain of command on how to report harassment.

He noted that another review has been ongoing this year, and that a private consultant is expected to release a report and recommendations in a few weeks.

Previously, Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib — who serves as the presiding officer of the Senate — said he would be reaching out to Senate administration to discuss ways to improve policies and procedures surrounding reporting of harassment in that chamber.

Republican Sen. Randi Becker, who signed the letter, said in a written statement that it’s “important that everyone who works at the Capitol feels safe and comfortable in their work environment.”

“If there’s anything we can do to improve the Senate’s grievance process so that those who have been subjected to sexual harassment trust the system more and come forward, we owe it to them to do so,” she wrote.

Also Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to state agencies noting recent news stories that “are showing us how pervasive this kind of behavior can be and how challenging it is for victims to speak out.”

“Some employees may not feel they have a safe, confidential and trusted source to go to for help,” he wrote.

“That’s one of the things we can improve and I will report back to you as we make changes.”

Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said that Inslee also has asked all of his agency leadership teams to assess their internal processes and procedures “in an effort to ensure we are continuously strengthening and improving our expectations related to workplace culture and conduct.”

Eight House Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Frank Chopp, wrote in a joint statement that it’s “unconscionable that in this day and age we still face the ugly fact that sexual harassment is all too commonplace.”

They wrote that they would work with other caucuses, legislative staff and lobbyists to coordinate efforts.

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