Lawmakers' Sexual Harassment In The Spotlight, After Decades Of Allegations
From TV networks to corporate board rooms to the halls of Congress, powerful men are making pledges that sexual harassment must end. They say new reporting structures are being put in place. The cultures that have allowed harassment to happen are changing. Although this is a moment when many brave women are coming forward with their stories, it is not the first time. Harassment scandals involving former Senator Bob Packwood, former San Diego Congressman Jim Bates and former Mayor Bob Filner remind us that the harassment culture takes a long time to turn around. Joining me are Shannon Bradley former staff writer for roll call Washington DC and now executive producer with the University of California television. Walk into the program. Laura Frank is here she is a senior at founder of rebel communications. Laura, welcome back. Shannon, when you are working with roll call, the Capitol Hill newspaper in the 80s, what did you learn about Congressman Jim Bates and how he treated his staffers?At that time, roll call was about covering Congress and Capitol Hill as a community and covering the people of the hill. I was young in my 20s. I hung out with a lot of staffers. What I kept hearing about was a tremendous turnover in Congressman Bates's office. That was curious. It turned out to be 100% turnover in two years that was unusual. I started asking what was going over -- going on at the office that people felt they had to leave. That's when I started hearing stories about how he treated the women in the office.Can you tell us what they told you?They told me that he would ask them for hugs every day because it gave him more energy and made him feel happy. He would physically touch them in ways that made them uncomfortable. He would talk about their physical attributes and have constituents in one case admired the physical attributes of one women. It was Gross. Overly flirtatious and Gross.This was one of the first stories of sexual harassment allegations against the congressman. What was the culture like in DC at the time .it was just assumed that if you had a problem in the office, you leave. The way we framed the story, this is a credit to my editor who was brilliant, he said let's present this as a story of nowhere to turn, no recourse, no place a person who is experienced this can go. We framed this as nowhere to turn for young women with experience in this. There was some way that they can talk about the problem but it was not effective. They could report an issue and that member would take it to another member and discussed privately and the other member would discuss what they wanted to do about it. It was weighted towards the member not the staffer.Remind us what became of the allegations against Jim Bates.The story came out in October he was reelected in November. After that, some women went on the record and we did a series and they put their names to it some of them put a complaint in with the ethics committee. He was reprimanded in some way. They lost reelection in 1990.Right now, some people are calling the ways of sexual harassment allegations of reckoning. Was there any talk back then that the Bates story would lead to substantial change?Legislation passed that was supposed to make it easier for staffers to complain. It was nicknamed the rollcall bill based on our series. Nothing changed. The story was picked up in the Washington Post. I know some of the San Diego media covered it as well. It just died. Later on with Packwood it came up again with Anita Hill. There were stories after that. It was certainly not like it is now where people feel like there may be real change with enough people talking about it.Laura, let me bring you into the conversation. Mayor Filner was a mayor for many years. Last week an allegation that during those years he cornered and tried to kiss a Congresswoman in the elevator. Is this behavior something you are aware of at the time?I don't know that anybody was fully aware. I knew he was a bully and there was an incident where he sexually harassed me. I think your little silo and sometimes sometimes in the case is like Jim Bates, it was a known fact. One of the parallels is that Rissman Filner had height turnover in his office as well. Both men and women. You know that there are problems. But the scope and degree, you are not familiar with. Until it happens to you.Can you remind us why you came forward and what the interaction was?There was a press conference that mentioned anonymous victims and the mayors office after he ascended to the post. I remember mentioning in my letter that I wanted to see this not happen to other women. I wanted there to be a stop to it. I had distance, power, I had the ability and resources of people I could talk to that would support me in coming forward. I thought it was something I had to do.Hearing Shannon describe the situation back in the 80s and that culture, doesn't seem different from what it was like in the decade that you experienced this? It sounded like you did have somewhere to turn.I went to the Chief of Staff and documented it. I sent an email to the congressman himself. I was on the campaign staff. I had no path to complain to are in HR department. A lot of times that is the problem. We see this recurring theme. We see this problem not eliminated. The stories are similar. Part of that is because of the institutions have not become accountable. We don't hold corporations accountable. We here in Sacramento and Washington that there are not mechanisms in place for recourse. We do know that there is profound protection for the perpetrators. The victims has few resources and are held to greater account in some cases.When he came forward to people question your motives?Absolutely. There were political motivations that were ascribed to me. There was a lot of oh she's a fame seeker, she would just wants to get her 15 minutes in the limelight. You name it. I experienced all of them. That is not unique to me. That is true of many, many other women that stood shoulder to shoulder with me when we were in that particular face. You are prepared for it. I talked to my friends that were in communications and media. I said what I need to do or be prepared for. I really was as prepared as I could be. It was hard. It was embarrassing. In particular, after years of working to establish your credibility as a professional, you become known for this incident. It is no fun.It happened to meet also as a reporter. My motives were questioned. I got a call from the LA Times reporter asking me if I was in cahoots with the local Republican Party in San Diego because of the timing of the story. We had nothing to do with that. I was outraged and laid in on the guy because it was so out of line. It took a long time to get the story. It started collecting stories over the summer time. By the time we were ready to go it was October. There were some sense that maybe I was doing this for political reasons which was absolutely nonsense.As you look at how these obligations are allegations are being taken as you look at powerful men in Washington DC, do you see a change in the way they are being accepted or listen to, Shannon?I certainly do. It has been front page news for weeks. The fact that it is happening across so many industry. All of it I think it's a good thing.How about you, Laura. Do you see a significant change in the way these allegations are being received?I see a shift and a lot of creating -- courageous women stepping forward. And courageous reporters covering the story. I think there is a limit. You have to have a certain amount of power and notoriety for your story to make hills -- news. We need to make sure that we don't just haven't media accountability. We have real accountability. Not only that but a cultural shift where we decided this is not okay. You do not get to be in a position of cultural power and influence if you perpetrate these kinds of behaviors. I don't think we have decided that. We still very much have sexism really pervades our culture. It is still fairly acceptable. On its face. Until we change those roots, we are going to see this behavior continue. It is all about accountability and not putting so much pressure on the women. But really changing the way that we support women who come forward. Also that we hold men accountable for their behavior.I hope more of them are afraid after all of this public outing. Maybe they think twice about being obnoxious. I've been speaking with Shannon Bradley executive producer with University of California television and Laura Fink founder of rebel communications. Thank you all very much.
California state legislators held hearings Tuesday into sexual abuses in the Capitol, amid the recent national focus on sexual harassment and the wave of allegations against prominent politicians, journalists and entertainers.
The hearings were held a day after Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Pacoima, resigned over accusations he made unwanted physical advances towards women. And Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, was removed from his leadership position Monday after three women accused him of sexual harassment.
But this is not the first time women have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment by powerful lawmakers. San Diego Rep. Jim Bates was the first congressman to be reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee for sexual harassment back in 1989.
Shannon Bradley, then a staff writer at Roll Call, broke the story in 1988 after investigating the high turnover in Bates’ office. She found Bates would ask women on his staff for hugs every day so he would “have more energy,” and touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. The story was published a month before the 1988 election, which Bates won. After the Ethics Committee reprimand, Bates lost his 1990 campaign.
The story led to a bill that made it easier for Capitol Hill staffers to report sexual misconduct. But Bradley said the issue quickly faded.
“I don’t think anything changed,” said Bradley, now executive producer of University of California Television. “It just kind of died.”
Laura Fink was a campaign aide to then-Rep. Bob Filner from 2004 to 2006 and one of the women who came forward when he was mayor alleging sexual harassment. Fink described an unwanted advance by Filner at a campaign fundraiser. Filner later resigned. One of the links between Filner and Bates was that Filner’s officer had high turnover too, Fink said, and he was known to be a bully. The culture has only recently started to shift, she said.
“But I think there’s a limit. I think you have to have a certain amount of power and notoriety for your story to make news, and I think there may only be a limited appetite for the number of stories,” Fink said. “(We need) a cultural shift, where we decide this isn’t ok, that you don’t get to be in a position of cultural power and influence if you perpetrate these behaviors. And I don’t think we’ve decided that.”
Bradley and Fink join KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday with more on the culture of sexual harassment among politicians.