Before Anita Hill, before #metoo, there was Dorena Bertussi.
The first person to file a sexual harassment complaint against a member of Congress — and win — was deeply jaded by an experience so political she worried that others would be discouraged from speaking out.
But nearly three decades later, Bertussi is hopeful that Congress will seriously address a problem that nearly took her well-being, self-confidence and career.
"I guess it was some sort of validation," she said, through tears. "I am so excited. This is really going to work. I think this is really going to be positive for the staffers."
In the span of just a few months, seven members of Congress have resigned or announced that they will not seek reelection amid allegations of inappropriate behavior or harassment.
In response to an inadequate reporting and investigation process, a House committee is working on a bill to overhaul the Congressional Accountability Act, including Bertussi's suggestion that a victims advocate be hired.
Members on Tuesday finalized guidelines for mandatory harassment training for all members, staffers and interns.
No such initiative existed when Bertussi was a 34-year-old nurse on disability from San Diego who was newly hired to work for her local congressman, Democrat Jim Bates.
After a few weeks in a district office, she moved to Washington and had what she said was her first unpleasant run-in with her new boss. At the end of a workday, she was changing into her subway shoes in a staff room. He walked in and made a comment about her breasts, she said.
"And I had my sock in my hand and I hit him with the sock," she recalled. Later, he called her into his office and asked whether she was "physically being taken care of," she said. Another time, she said, he told her she looked "like someone who likes to have it done rough to her."
Once, when she picked him up at the airport, driving past L'Enfant Plaza, he vented to her about a young assistant, saying he "wanted to push her against up the wall and hit her until blood trickles out her mouth," she said.
According to Bertussi, the next words out of his mouth were: "So what would be the first thing I would see if I came over to your house? Would it be the bed?"
Then came the final straw. She was sitting at her desk with her legs crossed. He entered the room and straddled her leg, she said. Then, according to Bertussi, he looked her square in the eyes and said, "Don't ever do that again," laughed and walked away.
Reached by phone in San Diego, Bates, 76, said Bertussi misconstrued his comments and actions.
"In retrospect, my take on all this is I was too casual or familiar in talking to my staff and should have been more professional," he said. "I admit that I kidded and flirted [with others] and probably shouldn't have, in retrospect. But I never sexually harassed anyone."
The situation sent Bertussi in search of another job within months.
"It was really a big dent to my confidence," she said. "My self-worth was going downhill."
Then a Roll Call reporter called, and Bertussi agreed to join 20 women who shared stories of harassment perpetrated by Bates. She went on television with her face blurred and voice disguised. She did not feel like a trailblazer.
"I was hunkered down," she said. "I was on autopilot."
She came home one night to a phone message with the sound of a clock ticking. The U.S. Capitol Police advised her to find another place to stay, but she felt she had nowhere to go.
The morning after a San Diego reporter unmasked her, a TV camera appeared at her door. Soon she was speaking out on TV and in print without her identity obscured.
Bertussi said Bates mocked her, saying she had not filed an Ethics Committee complaint. she considered it a dare and marched over to the office.
She was given a postcard-size book of procedures, she said. She crafted a complaint that was rejected because it was not notarized or delivered by a member of Congress on her behalf.
Republicans tripped over themselves for the privilege, she said. Eventually, Bill Thomas, then a Republican representative from California, stepped up because he saw an opportunity to help knock Bates, a Democrat, from his seat, Bertussi said.
Attempts to reach Thomas were unsuccessful.
Bertussi said she was often quizzed about her motives by male reporters and others looking to vet her story. Her answer was always the same.
"I could not deal long term with knowing that he could really hurt someone," she said. "I would feel responsible. That's why I did what I did. . . . I just got strong."
As Bertussi spoke to The Washington Post in her Alexandria home, the television in her living room showed White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissing women who accused President Trump of sexual misconduct.
In 1988, Bates won reelection with support from the National Organization for Women.
"It was betrayal," Bertussi said. Yet she understood NOW's political predicament. Bates was pro-abortion rights, and NOW could not risk losing his vote in Congress.
The following year, the Ethics Committee issued a "letter of reproval" to Bates, which was a meaningless gesture to Bertussi.
He sent her a seven-sentence apology on his office letterhead, which she keeps buried in a storage container. Bertussi said the letter contains this wording: "This happened because of inappropriate behavior on my part. Any discomfort I have caused you, I regret. I was insensitive and careless. For that I am truly sorry."
Speaking from California this week, Bates said his attorney wrote the letter, which he said he signed to put the situation behind him.
Compared with allegations of assault, his transgressions were "very mild," Bates said.
"I'm being skewered and roasted and left out to dry," he said. "This is painful, having to go through this over the years. I just think it's so unfair."
Bertussi, a 65-year-old federal employee who leads a quiet life with her rescued greyhound, Tess, recently received a call from Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.). The two-term congresswoman from Northern Virginia wanted to know more about Bertussi's story.
"It was pretty much woman-to-woman," Bertussi said of their talk. "Believe me, there's no one more jaded than me, and she convinced me our conversation was apolitical."
The next day in a public hearing of the House Administration Committee, Comstock described Bertussi as brave and said she could hear the pain but also the resolve in her voice when they spoke.
When the committee convened again weeks later, Bertussi attended as Comstock's guest and met a half dozen members who wanted to shake her hand.
"There were no Democrats or Republicans in that room," Bertussi said. "Everybody was serious about doing something. Enough's enough."
As the hearing began, she sat silently in the second row of a room steps from Bates's old office, mentally running through all she had endured to reach this moment.
"I kept thinking, 'It's been 28 years, people. Let's move this forward.' "