The open letter — signed by almost every female lawmaker in the Maryland General Assembly — was supposed to refocus attention away from ugly allegations about sexual harassment in Annapolis and onto women’s progress in the legislature and efforts to address inappropriate conduct.
But instead the missive released last week created a backlash, with the head of the women’s caucus asking for her signature to be removed and alleged victims of harassment saying they felt blindsided and further marginalized.
“We are disappointed to learn so many legislators had disregarded the stories of current and former staffers,” said a statement provided to The Washington Post last week by an advocate and two former Annapolis staffers, including Nina Smith, who testified before the caucus last month about being harassed by six lawmakers over eight years. “With this action, many of us have been forced to relive our traumatic experiences.”
The letter, signed by 57 of the 60 female lawmakers, pushed back against part of a report by the women’s caucus, in which an anonymous victim of alleged harassment describes the General Assembly as a “frat house.” The characterization was “unfair and . . . is disrespectful to the work that we do every day,” the letter said.
On Wednesday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) had a clerk read the letter on the Senate floor, then thanked the women for writing it. The letter, Miller said, “shows that we’re making progress . . . and if they recognize that, it makes everybody feel better that what we’ve been doing to protect the workplace has not been in vain.”
Del. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City), one of three women who refused to the sign the letter, said she considered it the latest attempt by legislative leaders to control the narrative coming out of the State House on the topic of harassment. “It was more focused on protecting the institution rather than those who are experiencing sexual harassment,” she said.
Washington said she was taken aback by a decision by Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to form a commission to study the legislature’s anti-harassment policy at a time when the women’s caucus was finalizing its recommendations on the same issue.
Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery), president of the women’s caucus, said she initially signed the letter because she wanted to highlight that there “is more to the legislature than just the horrifying ‘frat house’ environment we described in our report.” She said she also wanted to “keep peace among women legislators,” including those who had circulated the letter in the first place.
She removed her name late last week because of what she said were unintended consequences. “Unfortunately some of the very victims we are working to support have communicated to us they feel betrayed by this letter,” Kelly wrote in a statement. “Others have attempted to use this letter to support the idea of holding off on legislation to address these issues.”
The House Rules Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Monday on a bill sponsored by Kelly that would strengthen anti-harassment policies, adding procedures to deal with lobbyists who might be victims or perpetrators and requiring the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics to refer claims against lawmakers to an independent investigator.
But Miller said last week that although procedural changes are possible, he does not expect any anti-harassment legislation to be approved before the commission he and Busch created comes up with its own report, which is expected by the end of the year.
Maryland’s capital has been increasingly focused on allegations of harassment in recent months. Last week, Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgmery) accused a lobbyist of touching her inappropriately, and former lobbyist Sarah Love said Del. Charles E. Barkley (D-Montgomery) in the past had hugged and kissed her in ways that were not acceptable.
It was the first time women connected to the State House have publicly named men who they said were responsible for wrongdoing. Previously, women had spoken anonymously, or without naming alleged perpetrators, about what they called a pervasive culture of misconduct in the General Assembly. Barkley and the accused lobbyist, former delegate Gil Genn, denied behaving inappropriately.
The women’s caucus report, released in mid-February, included numerous accounts of alleged harassment and assault, including one incident in which a woman said she had to “forcefully” push a co-worker away after he grabbed her breasts and stuck his tongue in her ear during a ride home from a work event.
Another woman is quoted saying, “It feels like a fraternity house.” That description, which was picked up in news reports, is what prompted some female legislative leaders to propose the open letter and ask their colleagues to sign it.
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), one of the women legislators who came up with the idea, said she never intended to appear to dismiss the accounts of the women who shared their stories.
“Under no circumstance would I ever do anything to minimize a victim’s experience,” she said. “I’m sorry if someone took it that way. Our concern was that the articles seemed to concentrate on the reports of pretty despicable behavior and the term ‘frat house’ was used. . . . We just thought the stories were not balanced. That’s what we were trying to address.”
Dumais said the idea to write the letter came from conversations she had with Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) and House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County).
Although Szeliga said she doesn’t think anti-harassment legislation needs to be passed — noting several policies implemented over the past two years to expand the process for reporting harassment and tracking complaints — McIntosh seemed open to the option.
“Nobody who wrote the letter, signed the letter . . . viewed it as saying to the women who came forward ‘shame on you,’ ” McIntosh said. “All of us are going to be supporting bills to try to address sexual harassment, not only in this workplace but in other workplaces. Rather than getting into the battle of the letters or the battle of the press, I’d rather get down to work on legislation or policy work, changes to our personnel practices.”
In addition to Smith, the statement from the former Annapolis staffers criticizing the open letter was signed by Jessica Semachko, who worked for an advocacy group until 2015, and Neal Carter, who worked at the State House from 2007 to 2009. Both had posted on social media about experiencing and witnessing sexual harassment.
In their statement, they and Smith said the letter from the female lawmakers has made them even more determined to push for changes in Annapolis.
“Those of us who have shared our stories won’t be deterred,” the statement said. “We’ll continue to demand systemic change, and we’re determined to use the legislative process to do so now more than ever.”