RICHMOND — Virginia's House of Delegates passed its first sexual harassment training policy Thursday, but only after the topic touched off some of the most heated partisan discord of this year's session.
The bill sponsored by Del. Roxann Robinson (R-Chesterfield) requires all members and staff of the General Assembly to get annual training about sexual harassment, and instructs the clerks of the House and Senate to devise the program.
But in a sign of how white-hot the topic has become in the #MeToo era, the measure and the Republican majority's handling of it drew sharp criticism from Democrats - even though it passed with broad bipartisan support.
And Republicans, in turn, pointed fingers at Democrats for picking an unwarranted fight.
Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax) led an effort to change the Assembly's approach to the issue, calling for adoption of a specific set of guidelines that have already been devised by the governor's office for use by the executive branch.
The Republican approach of leaving it up to the clerks to formulate is "a closed, behind-the-scenes way," she said. "I want to do it in an open way." Watts tried to amend Robinson's bill, but her changes were struck down on party-line votes.
For their part, Republicans pointed to a letter that Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) sent out before the session started in which he pledged a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. They said Watts' proposal would put the legislature's policy under the control of the executive branch, and that they trusted the clerks to formulate their own.
This part of the debate played out on Wednesday, in the first part of the two-step process the House uses to consider and then pass a bill. And it was during this portion when Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) made a statement that ignited a Democratic firestorm.
Watts and Robinson were simply advocating two different approaches, Gilbert said on the floor of the House. "We are saying to the world that we are...being accountable for the things we do here and for the things that go on in the buildings that we occupy," he said. "We are taking responsibility for this issue and I think this is much ado about nothing, and we are being very aggressive and very forward-thinking."
There were murmurs among Democrats when Gilbert said "much ado about nothing," and soon social media was flying with accusations that he had dismissed the issue of sexual harassment.
House Democrats called a press conference Thursday morning in which Watts described being shut out by Republicans as she tried to formulate a policy over the past several weeks. When her proposal came before the powerful Rules committee last week, she said, the 11 men on the panel listened to her presentation and then killed the bill with no debate.
Later, when Robinson's bill came up in the House for a final vote, Watts alluded to her own struggles to deal with an episode of abuse as she angrily responded to Gilbert's comment from the day before.
"It is not 'much ado about nothing'," she said. "It is about many people such as me who have to spend years and years -- people who through the #MeToo movement in fact are stepping out with the courage to heal."
Gilbert said her characterization of his words was "irresponsible." Later, in an interview, Gilbert said he felt Watts had been given many chances to be heard on the topic, including in a meeting in his office the day before the General Assembly convened last month.
"We had a very productive conversation where we both agreed this was an extremely important issue," he said. "I think it's interesting that this became a political football all of a sudden without any followup from her on the conversation that we had."
Robinson's bill passed the House by a vote of 88-10; Watts and nine other Democrats voted against it. She said later that she will try to work with the clerk's office to formulate the training program.