A female state senator who accused a male colleague of inappropriate touching said Monday she’s heard accounts from other women in the Oregon State Capitol of such behavior by men and insisted “the culture needs to change.”
Democratic Sen. Sara Gelser said the accounts were relayed to her over the weekend, after a senator who was accused of making unwelcome moves on Gelser was punished on Friday.
Gelser told Oregon Public Radio’s “Think Out Loud” program that the women told her about various offensive behavior.
“It can be anything from being touched too long, having a hand on your thigh either above or below your skirt, and what someone believes is just a friendly way, that hand around the shoulder and the fingers beneath your shirt … or someone that is talking to you so close that your ear is wet when you step away,” she said.
Women have been touched “under the dais at a committee hearing, and, you know, it’s happened on the floor of our chambers, and that is not appropriate,” Gelser added.
The complaints in Oregon were brought to light after Senate Republican spokesman Jonathan Lockwood said a week ago on Twitter that Gov. Kate Brown and Gelser had received cash linked to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who recently was accused of sexually harassing and abusing many women over decades. Lockwood asked if Brown and Gelser returned the money.
Weinstein donated $5,000 to the Democratic Party of Oregon during the 1995-1996 election cycle, a decade before Gelser was elected to the Legislature.
Gelser, who is from the university town of Corvallis, shot back on Twitter, denying receiving any Weinstein money and asking if Lockwood would ensure that no Senate Republican “inappropriately touches or gropes” female lawmakers and staffers.
In an interview Monday with The Oregonian/OregonLive, Gelser identified Republican Sen. Jeff Kruse as the colleague she had previously complained about. She alleged that inappropriate touching had occurred for years.
The newspaper also quoted Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick as saying she saw Kruse wrap his arms around Gelser at her desk on the Oregon Senate floor and step inappropriately close to her during a debate.
“I said, ‘Get your hands off Sen. Gelser,’ ” Burdick recalled telling Kruse.
Kruse, whose committee assignments were removed Friday by Senate President Peter Courtney as punishment, says he hasn’t been informed what he’s accused of. He earlier denied any inappropriate behavior.
“Because I am being denied access to any of the specifics of the allegations and actually I am being denied due process in this whole thing there is very little I can say because I don’t know what the allegations are,” Kruse, who represents the southern town of Roseburg, said in an email to The Associated Press. Kruse served on the health care, education and judiciary committees.
Asked if Kruse had not been given the opportunity to respond to the allegations, Courtney’s spokesman said the senator knew his behavior needed to change.
“There are on-going work-place issues which Senator Kruse has failed to resolve. As a result, the Senate President took the action Friday to remove Senator Kruse from his committees,” spokesman Robin Maxey said in an email.
Gelser said she was voicing the harassment issue on behalf of other women, and she doesn’t want attention on her own situation.
“I think as an elected leader in the Legislature, I have a responsibility to the many, many young women that work in the building, and older women too, as staffers and as lobbyists who are encountering these problems on a regular basis,” she said.
Maxey also said the door to Kruse’s office in the capitol would be removed this week, because he has continued smoking in there despite a smoking ban in the building.
Oregon is not alone in seeing sexual harassment accusations emerge recently.
— The California Senate announced Monday that it has hired a law firm to investigate sexual harassment after numerous women working in and around the Capitol described a culture of sexual intimidation. No male lawmakers have been accused by name. But female lobbyists, lawmakers and legislative staffers have described accounts of men making inappropriate comments, touching them and asking them to perform sex acts.
— In Arizona, a legislator has joined a growing chorus of women going public about sexual harassment they encountered from men in the workplace. Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale said she encountered harassment soon after taking office in early 2011, including “unwanted sexual advances and lewd and suggestive comments regarding my body and appearance from male colleagues.”