“I would imagine it greatly outnumbers probably the past combined five years,” Griffin said.
Most of the changes the states made aren’t huge; Griffin said they’re more like updates or clarifications to existing rules, meaning most of these didn’t even need to be signed by the governor to go into effect.
But the fact lawmakers dusted off decades-old sexual harassment policies at all underscores how much the #MeToo movement has become a political issue. And I mean that in several ways: It’s a political issue in the literal sense that leveraging power for sex is clearly happening in the halls of legislatures and in the sense that lawmakers across the country feel compelled by public sentiment to do something about it.
Of course, some of these states were forced into acting by their own scandals. By the first month of 2018, more than two dozen lawmakers across the nation had resigned over sexual harassment scandals, according to an Associated Press count.
California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D) was literally on the cover of Time magazine celebrating #MeToo activists. Now she is facing accusations she sexually harassed staffers, including one who said she fired him after he refused to play a game of spin the bottle with her. She’s denied that and other accusations against her, but California criminalized sexual harassment or retaliating against a state employee attempting to report it.
Arizona’s House of Representatives expelled one member, state Rep. Don Shooter (R), after allegations that he sexually harassed a female colleague. Colorado expelled state Rep. Steve Lebsock (D) after an investigation found he had “engaged in a pattern of egregious harassing conduct,” including toward a female lawmaker. Neither state enacted new sexual harassment policies afterward.
The states that did update their policies often went back and clarified exactly how to report a complaint. New Mexico, for example, had a “file your complaint here” policy that was one-size-fits-all, but lawmakers specifically outlined what to do if you’re a staffer making a complaint against a lawmaker or a lobbyist making a complaint against a staffer.
Griffin said another big trend in the states was extending protections to people who come in contact with state lawmakers, like the public and lobbyists. Illinois set up a hotline for people to anonymously report harassment to the attorney general’s office. Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Washington established task forces or commissions to review policies.
Washington’s new state commission is set up to “advocate for legislation affecting women” on issues including pay inequity and sexual harassment.
Almost all states already had a sexual harassment policy before this year — though Alaska adopted one for the first time this year. Most of the existing policies were really old and, arguably, perfunctory. They didn’t seem very focused on preventing harassment: An AP review found that a third of all legislative chambers do not require lawmakers to receive training about what, exactly, sexual harassment is. (Neither did Congress until this year, for the first time ever.)
Some of these rule updates might sound arcane, but in Washington, Congress’s maze of reporting regulations is what Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) said contributed to keeping her chief of staff on the job after he allegedly threatened to kill a former staffer he had dated. Esty announced she would be retiring at the end of this year and apologized for not acting sooner.
And, as I wrote in February: What system lawmakers use to report sexual harassment may seem insular. What politicians do on this front, the public watches. Former Democratic senator Al Franken’s accuser says she was motivated to come forward by a congresswoman’s account of being forcibly kissed as an aide in Congress years ago.
The question for advocates now is: Is this the beginning of hallways of power reforming how they deal with sexual harassment? Will more states prioritize updating and clarifying their sexual harassment policies next year? Or now that the #MeToo movement has faded a bit from the public conversation, was this pretty much it?
And, of course, one major outstanding question here in Washington: When is Congress going to update its policies?