Female lawmakers who say they have experienced, witnessed or heard about sexual harassment in Annapolis are pushing for changes to the Maryland General Assembly's anti-harassment policy, which they say does not adequately address a pervasive culture of misconduct.
Unlike counterparts in California, New York, Congress and elsewhere, the Women Legislators of Maryland group is working mostly behind the scenes, and members have been reluctant to publicly describe their experiences or demand immediate changes.
"There is not really a safe environment to discuss the issue. It's not something that people really want to be addressing," said one female lawmaker, who like most people interviewed declined to be named out of fear of reprisal. "For me to come out and identify, it would be me basically deciding to lose my career and credibility. And that's the way it is understood in Annapolis."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said they want women in Annapolis to feel comfortable reporting complaints. Both longtime legislative leaders said they have taken steps over the years to make that happen, including adding mandatory training for lawmakers and staff, increasing the number of people who can receive complaints and including the legislature's Ethics Committee in the adjudication process.
"The ultimate goal is to have the safest, most accommodating workplace we can possibly provide for everybody who works here," Busch said. "That's staffers all the way up to legislators, lobbyists and others. We take it very seriously."
Del. Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery), president of the women's caucus, said the group created a panel more than a year ago to look into how the legislature deals with harassment. Its proposals will come by the end of the 90-day legislative session that begins Wednesday.
Many of the ideas being considered, Kelly said, would not require legislative action. She applauded the recent changes implemented by Busch and Miller, but she and other women said more needs to be done.
Some of the possibilities being weighed by the caucus include third-party reporting and having independent investigators and confidentiality in the reporting process. Kelly said the panel may propose barring sexual relationships between supervisors and subordinates or interns, adding committee chairs to the list of officials who can receive complaints and creating protections for lobbyists.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed column, Kelly wrote that in her first year as a delegate, a married senior colleague grabbed her rear end while two male colleagues watched. "I was utterly humiliated," she wrote. "The next morning I went into a female legislator's office, closed the door and cried."
She considered reporting the incident but ultimately decided against it.
In an interview, Kelly said sexual misconduct in government "has been something I have really struggled with my whole tenure, trying to figure out a way to effect positive change."
"We're at a great moment, and I want to make sure we make the most of this moment."
Female staffers, lobbyists and legislators, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisal, said sexual harassment is ingrained in the Maryland statehouse's culture. They say the abuse ranges from groping and sexist comments to belittling and unwanted sexual advances.
"It's the long, lingering hug, the touch in the small of your back, calling you 'miss' or 'little lady,' " a former lobbyist said. "It becomes something, unfortunately, you have to deal with to work down there."
The targets are generally young aides, staffers and lobbyists trying to establish their careers. The culture persists, women in Annapolis said, because victims are often afraid of reporting it and because those who act inappropriately are not punished properly.
"There has to be some accountability," Kelly said. "And that's difficult because we are a self-regulating body."
Mona Lena Krook, a political-science professor at Rutgers University who studies sexual harassment in politics, said the harassment "has an effect on democracy."
"People who are staff run for office themselves," Krook said. "If you are harassed out of that space . . . it can deter women's participation. . . . It becomes not just about the moment but about the future."
Alexandra Hughes, Busch's chief of staff, said Busch has taken leadership positions away from delegates who have acted inappropriately and has referred complaints to the state prosecutor's office.
"Because there is not a public shaming process doesn't mean there isn't action taken," Hughes said. "We generally follow the lead of the victim, and if the victim doesn't want to report but wants the situation handled, there's a process for that. If the victim wants to report but doesn't want to disclose what the resolution is, there is a process for that."
Sara Love, a former lobbyist for the ACLU of Maryland, recalled a lawmaker greeting her with a "hug and a nasty wet kiss."
She later learned that the delegate has a reputation and is widely known as the "grabber in chief." She said she never went to his office by herself or spoke to him alone again.
A retired lobbyist remembered being accosted in an elevator in the early 1990s. The lawmaker grabbed her arms, she said, and asked: "Have you ever been with a black man? Don't you want to be with me?"
She pushed him off but didn't report him. Nor did she report another legislator who grabbed her thigh and told her "Not now, honey," when she tried to make a comment during a legislative meeting.
"If I had reported it, I never would have gotten into their offices," she said.
Love didn't report her incident, either. She said the lawmaker's reputation was widely known and there had been no repercussions that she was aware of.
In recent weeks, as allegations of sexual harassment by politicians, journalists and celebrities have increased across the country, a former staffer circulated a letter among women in Annapolis demanding that the legislature strengthen its anti-harassment policy. She said she hoped to get dozens of signatures and then release the letter to the public.
But the woman, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, put her effort on hold as the opening of the legislative session neared. Many women who initially told her they would support her initiative, she said, backed out because of concerns about retaliation.
"Things in Annapolis are handled in-house," said the female lawmaker, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It makes me ill to think about it, as a woman and someone who has daughters, to think that I perpetuate this culture. But if I'm being honest, I have to weigh: You could lose your opportunity to push issues that matter, the ability to advocate for victims. Do you lose that for all the people who you could help?"
Last month, the legislative policy committee ordered the General Assembly's human resources director to begin keeping track of the number and type of harassment complaints and how the complaints are resolved. Until that point, the office did not tally or analyze complaints. The committee also told the director of human resources to annually report the data to the committee.
Earlier changes came in 2016, following harassment allegations against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
At that time, the committee designated a male staffer to receive reports of harassment, in addition to a female staffer, and allowed witnesses — not just victims — to report. The committee also clarified that the legislature's anti-harassment policy applied to harassment of transgender individuals.
"We're trying to accommodate for everyone to bring their complaints forward and listen to both sides of the story," Busch said. "Hopefully, people will have their opportunity to have their say. . . . And if we find out that that's not working, we'll have to look into other areas to deal with it."