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‘I was touched without permission’: Former Annapolis staffer details harassment

A view of the Maryland State House in Annapolis. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

For nearly six minutes, the former legislative staffer sat before a panel of female lawmakers in the Maryland House Office Building, describing how male lawmakers and their aides had propositioned her, rubbed against her, stared at her body.

Nina Smith paused at times to collect herself. When Del. Susan K. McComas (R-Harford) delicately asked how many lawmakers had “caused you problems,” Smith hesitated, and began to cry.

The answer, she said a minute later, was six.

“In the eight years I worked in Annapolis, I was touched without permission,” Smith told the Women Legislators of Maryland caucus on Wednesday. “There was a legislator who told me he wanted to perform a sexual act on me in front of a lobbyist. Another would reach out to me at the most inappropriate hours asking me to come to their room. One legislator rubbed his private parts on me. I started buttoning my blouses a little higher after I noticed that a chief of staff to a congressman wasn’t being friendly, he was looking down my shirt.”

Smith’s testimony to the caucus did not name any alleged harassers. But it was by far the most public airing to date of what women have privately described as a pervasive culture of misconduct in Maryland’s General Assembly.

“You’re really a hero,” Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery), president of the caucus, told Smith after hearing her story.

The caucus is finalizing its recommendations to prevent and address instances of misconduct, after months of allegations across the country against politicians and other powerful men.

Kelly said she plans to introduce legislation to address some of the recommendations and will discuss them with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who have appointed a commission to examine policies dealing with workplace sexual harassment in all three branches of state government.

Del. Carol L. Krimm (D-Frederick), co-chair of the caucus’s Sexual Harassment Policy Workgroup, expressed solidarity with Smith, noting that she, too, once worked as a staffer.

“I understand your position, how difficult it is for you to be here today . . . how it has touched you and how it has had an impact on you even today,” Krimm said. “We are committed to you and staff here to make changes.”

Smith, 36, worked as an intern in the office of then-Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Prince George’s) in 2004. She spent most of the rest of her time in Annapolis working in the governor’s office.She said she felt ashamed and unsure what to do after each incident, and sought the counsel of older, more experienced women.

Their advice: “Wear longer dresses . . . avoid form-fitting or attention-drawing clothing — advice they used to navigate land mines in their own political careers,” she said.

Eventually, she found herself sharing the same advice with young interns and staffers who came to her seeking help.

“All of the interns that came through my office when I was working in the governor’s office, I would advise them to be careful,” Smith said, wiping her eyes and cheeks. “My job and future trajectory was in the hands of these same men. . . . This is political life, and it certainly didn’t help for someone like me to rock the boat. So after awhile it became normal, always expected.”

Smith circulated a letter late last year among women in Annapolis calling for changes in the state’s anti-harassment policy. She hoped for dozens of signatures but dropped the idea after many women said they were concerned about retaliation.

She described the current process for reporting harassment as “murky,” suggesting that the list of officials and staffers in the legislature who can receive initial reports of harassment should be expanded. That idea is included in the caucus’s recommendations, along with scheduled training for lawmakers and lobbyists; anonymous reporting that could include hotlines; confidentiality in reporting; and requiring an independent investigator to work with the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics to investigate allegations of misconduct.

Last year, the Legislative Policy Committee, chaired by Miller and Busch, ordered officials to start collecting data on sexual misconduct complaints against state lawmakers or their staff members.

Kelly thanked Smith for her courage in speaking out on behalf of “the many women who have shared experiences.” She said Smith’s experience and those of other women make “the case that we need to make these changes.”

The commission created by Miller and Busch is scheduled to hold its first meeting Feb. 16.

Read more:

Maryland’s female lawmakers push back — quietly — on harassment

In Richmond, partisan clash over anti-harassment training

Men in political office un the U.S. outnumber women 3-to-1