In his most in-depth interview since allegations against him first rocked Salem late last week, Sen. Jeff Kruse denied he inappropriately touched women in the state Capitol.
Sitting in an armchair in his childhood home in Roseburg on Wednesday evening, Kruse, 66, acknowledged he has touched and even hugged women during the course of legislative business. But he said his gestures were always well intended and, he thought, well received.
The Republican lawmaker and part-time farmer expressed uncertainty about the line separating acceptable contact from harassment and lamented a changing culture that he said makes it hard to tell the difference.
“Have I ever touched a woman in the Capitol? Hell yes, lots of times,” Kruse said. “I have had physical contact. Shaking hands is physical contact.”
He demonstrated to a reporter three kinds of closer contact that he said he has made with men and women at the Capitol: A hand on a shoulder, a full-on hug with taps on the upper back, and a one-arm side-hug.
Kruse denied groping anyone, calling it a “terrible” thing to do.
“I have never done anything that I believe anybody could portray as being sexual,” he said. “And it’s never been my intention and never will be.”
The escalating public accusations against Kruse and complaints being registered more broadly about harassment at the Oregon Capitol were spurred by the high-profile implosion of movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s career this month amid accusations of repeated sexual assault.
When a Senate Republican staffer tweeted late last week that Sen. Sara Gelser and two other Democrats had accepted donations from Weinstein, Gelser shot back. “I have no $ from HW,” she tweeted. But would Republicans ensure no state senator from their party gropes or inappropriately touches female senators or legislative staffers? she asked via Twitter shorthand.
Before the week was out, Senate President Peter Courtney had stripped Kruse of nearly all sway in the Capitol.
So far, only two women have given public accounts of specific conduct by Kruse that they say they witnessed and found unacceptable. Sen. Ginny Burdick told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she watched as Kruse stood far too close to Gelser, then wrapped both arms around her on the Senate floor this year. And former Sen. Jackie Dingfelder said Thursday that Kruse placed his hand on her back in an inappropriate way during a committee hearing in 2011 or 2012.
In addition, Gelser, another female senator and one other woman who works at the Capitol have reported to legislative officials that Kruse touched them inappropriately. But the exact nature of those three women’s complaints has been kept confidential. Gelser said she should not have to spell out exactly what she says transpired in order to be believed.
Gelser told The Oregonian/OregonLive Thursday that over years, Kruse behaved toward her in ways she found demeaning, humiliating, and in violation of accepted social boundaries. The touching was not the kind that happens outside of an intimate relationship, she said.
“I am not complaining about a side hug or a pat on the back,” she said.
Kruse, who has served in the Legislature since 1997, acknowledged that legislative legal and human resources officials admonished him in 2016 and again this year not to violate other people’s boundaries. But he said they did not give him specific guidelines and expressed befuddlement at what he may have done that women consider offensive.
Dexter Johnson, head attorney at the Legislature, said Wednesday that he was clear with Kruse in 2016. Johnson said he explained to the veteran legislator “the nature of the contact” women had raised concerns about and “told him that this was inappropriate and that he could not do that.” Johnson said he told Kruse that people “felt he was invading their personal space and that he needed to back off.”
Kruse’s power in Salem was dramatically curtailed when Courtney stripped him of all committee assignments. Kruse can still file bills or vote on them once they reach the Senate floor. But he can’t take part in the critical give-and-take of amending or suppressing proposed legislation that occurs exclusively in committees.
In his official disciplinary notice to Kruse Friday, Courtney cited his conclusion that Kruse had continued to touch women inappropriately after being admonished to stop and his continued smoking in his office as the causes for the censure.
Kruse said he would not consider resigning. “I still have work to do and resigning, quite honestly, would be an admission of guilt and I’m not guilty.”
On Wednesday, Kruse, a fifth-generation Douglas County resident, was alone in the house he grew up in. About 15 minutes from downtown Roseburg, the home lies at the end of a road surrounded by fields and littered with farm equipment, near the North Umpqua River. A red Mustang and a pickup truck were parked outside.
In the dim light of his living room, two armchairs pointed towards a muted TV showing the Houston Astros playing the Los Angeles Dodgers. A landscape painting with a snow-capped mountain hung above the fireplace, and shelves of books and vinyl record albums lined the walls.
On the TV, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig walked up to batting coach Turner Ward, who’d buried his face in his hands anticipating Puig’s ritual post-home run kiss. Puig pulled Ward’s head toward him and kissed his hands. Ward pulled away with a look of irritation and disgust.
“That was sexual harassment by the way, in case you’re wondering,” Kruse said, turning from the TV.
“Some people are characters, you know?”
In between watching the game and answering questions about the accusations against him, Kruse talked about making and selling hundreds of Thanksgiving pies, his past as a drug addict and his love for rock and roll.
Although Kruse has no drug convictions in Oregon he says he abused marijuana, cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine before getting clean for good 32 years ago. At the height of his addiction, he said, he was spending $400 a day on methamphetamine.
Talking about the whirlwind of attention that has surrounded him since Gelser first tweeted about his conduct, Kruse appeared bewildered. He thought he was friends with Gelser, he said, and that she would have told him directly if she had a problem with his behavior.
In an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive, Gelser did not directly address whether they were friends. When asked, she said Kruse has been a valuable legislator.
“I just wanted the touching to stop without disrupting the collegiality of our relationship,” she said.
Kruse said he’s gotten about 10 emails a day over the past week from people calling him a “scumball,” among other things.
“There’s a lot of people assuming I’m an incredible deviant,” he said. “And that’s their opinion, and I don’t care.”
As he tried to fathom what women thought of his actions, Kruse said he didn’t want to make inferences about other peoples’ states of mind. That’s “dust in the wind” – incidentally, one of the band Kansas’s greatest songs, he said.
But Dingfelder, the former senator, said when Kruse placed his hand on her back she was clear with him that his touching was unwanted. She confronted Kruse then and there.
“I said, ‘Jeff, don’t do that. That’s inappropriate. Don’t ever do that again.’ And he never did,” she said.
Dingfelder, who served with Kruse in the Legislature for 13 years, said she would not describe his conduct as “predatory” and said they always had a cordial relationship. But she added that Kruse “had a different sense of personal space probably than most people felt comfortable with.”
“He got into people’s personal space. … He would stand a few inches from your face,” Dingfelder said.
Gelser said Kruse’s inappropriate behavior toward her started in 2011. She said she first reported it in 2016, when she made an informal complaint through the Legislature’s harassment-free workplace rules. Johnson, the chief legislative lawyer, and legislative human resources director Lore Christopher interviewed Gelser, then admonished Kruse to cease the behavior.
But Kruse continued, Gelser said.
Kruse said Johnson and Christopher told him only to be more careful – instructions that were too vague to follow. But he acknowledged he could have done better.
“I probably forgot a lot,” he said. “I just go back to my normal stuff.”
Touching is a normal aspect of collegial interactions at work, Kruse said. As an example, he cited what he said is Governor Kate Brown’s propensity for hugging.
Kruse and Brown have hugged “more times than I can count,” he said, with many of those hugs initiated by her.
“Should I file a complaint against the governor when she hugs me?” Kruse asked.
Brown’s office declined to comment. On Tuesday, she released a statement saying workplace harassment is “absolutely unacceptable.” She did not name Kruse.
When Kruse gave examples of the kind of physical contact he’s had with women in the Capitol, he provided hands-on demonstrations. Within a minute of a reporter entering his house, Kruse put a hand on his shoulder. Within 15 minutes, Kruse asked the reporter to stand up and gave him a hug, patting him on the back. Near the end of the interview, Kruse demonstrated the kind of side-hug that he said he has given Gelser.
Gelser has declined to specify how Kruse touched her or other women. But she said on OPB’s “Think Out Loud” program this week that behaviors women in the Capitol are regularly subjected to include “having a hand on your thigh either above or below your skirt” and “a hand around the shoulder where the fingers are going beneath your shirt.”
Meanwhile, Kruse said he is struggling to figure out what he could have done differently since he was admonished last year.
“I probably could’ve done a better job,” he said, struggling to put his thoughts into words. “Well, I don’t know, maybe I should ask everybody? You know, maybe before I hug somebody, I should say, ‘Is it OK if I hug you?'”
Consent is key, Gelser said.
“When someone goes to work,” she said, “they have not consented to be touched. … People have the right to go to work, be safe and not be frozen by demeaning and humiliating behavior.”