If Arizona state Rep. Don Shooter has learned anything over the past four months, it’s that the hugs he shared with female colleagues were “perceived as creepy and lecherous” and the raunchy jokes he doled out while conducting the people’s business weren’t all that funny to people not named Don Shooter.
“If I’m going to be a comedian,” the Republican told colleagues on Tuesday, reflecting on his newfound understanding of appropriateness, “I have to understand and be sensitive to my audience, not blame them when my jokes fall flat.”
But there he was on Tuesday — at the special Arizona legislative mandatory harassment and discrimination training inspired by complaints colleagues have made about him — opening with a joke that made light of the #MeToo controversy tearing through state government.
“Members, I know you all want to thank me for my part in bringing you here today,” he quipped.
What followed was a meandering, six-minute apology that was part self-defense, part victim blaming — and a climax to a months-long sexual harassment saga in the Grand Canyon state.
“My own involvement in all of this has been greatly magnified as a result of a complaint that was filed against me for reasons that I believe are largely unrelated to the complaint itself,” Shooter told his colleagues. He added later that he was frustrated by “a few complaints that were not true or were made for personal or political vendetta.”
At least nine people — lawmakers, lobbyists, a former intern for the Arizona Capitol Times — have said that Shooter made sexual or otherwise inappropriate comments or engaged in unwanted touching. The accusations resulted in Shooter being suspended as chair of the powerful appropriations committee and the rest of the legislature sitting through a two-day sexual harassment seminar ordered by the speaker of the house.
Other politicians and prominent Arizonans have demanded that Shooter resign. Two investigations are ongoing, and according to the House speaker’s newly issued sexual harassment policy, a legislator who commits unlawful sexual harassment can be discharged from the chamber.
Shooter’s first and most prominent accuser was state Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a fellow Republican.
According to the Arizona Republic, Ugenti-Rita said Shooter sought a romantic relationship with her on several occasions, continuing to make advances even after she said it was wrong.
“There was an incident where he came to my office during the day and asked about my chest,” Ugenti-Rita told 3TV. “At a conference, he came to my room uninvited with a six-pack of beer. I never answered the door.”
Both Shooter and Ugenti-Rita are married. Neither responded to messages from The Washington Post on Wednesday morning seeking comment.
Shortly after Ugenti-Rita’s initial public comments, Shooter publicly apologized, then backtracked in a splenetic statement that accused her of having an affair with a legislative staffer.
“I was particularly critical of her carrying on a very public affair with House staff, specifically the House Speaker’s Chief of Staff,” he said in a statement sent to Phoenix CBS-affiliate KPHO that name-dropped his accuser’s spouse. “I knew Frank, Michelle’s husband and the father of her kids, and I thought it was a lousy thing to do.”
Meanwhile, other women and one man came forward, saying Shooter’s statements and actions had crossed the line.
A Democratic lobbyist said Shooter put his hand on her knee during a meeting at a Phoenix restaurant. Shortly after joining the legislature, a Democratic representative from Tempe said Shooter told her she “would be a nice view to look at.” Another representative said she was uncomfortable when Shooter “repeatedly referred to his male genitalia as a gun.”
For those who have come forward and many, many others, the stories are an eye-rolling recognition that creepy guys exist in all careers, across all socioeconomic strata and even in the top rungs of government. The stories have different characters but similar themes: men in positions of power, and women who feel their institutions didn’t do enough to protect them.
In Arizona, for example, Shooter was the chair of the appropriations committee and held large sway over budget requests. Many of the accusers said Shooter made inappropriate comments or touched them as they were requesting his help or influence.
And Ugenti-Rita said she reported sexual harassment to House leadership, according to the Republic, but was told they could do little because legislators are elected officials, not state employees.