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Opinion In Maryland politics, the reckoning on sexual harassment is here

The Maryland State House in March. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Before I was elected to the state legislature, I worked as an advocate in Annapolis. I knew there was a certain “old boys club” culture that women worked around to get their jobs done. There were offices you didn’t enter without a buddy and committees that had a reputation for being hostile to women. The women legislators I admired were all tough as nails. To do their jobs well, they had to be.

After my election in 2010, I returned to Annapolis as a member of the House of Delegates. I was warned by colleagues that relationships are everything in politics, and, above all else, I must be likable. Eager to best represent my community, I tried to take their advice.

The first time a married senior colleague grabbed my rear end, I was shocked. It was my first legislative session, and I was still getting to know people. Two of my male colleagues witnessed this sustained and shameless public groping. I was utterly humiliated. The next morning I went into a female legislator’s office, closed the door and cried.

We talked about reporting the incident but concluded it would publicly embarrass a senior colleague, his allies might rush to his defense and I could be accused of making a big deal out of nothing. If politics is all about relationships, that would not help my career.

Instead, I had a direct conversation with the member and told him, “I look forward to a long productive working relationship with you. Please don’t ever grab my ass again.” Until his retirement, our relationship was always awkward, and I suspect I lost opportunities to work on certain issues as a result. That’s the thing about sexual harassment: Women are never sure exactly how much of their professional potential it limits.

This story is just the tip of the iceberg of my early experiences in Annapolis. As I grew more senior, these experiences became less frequent.

As hard as these instances made it for me to do my job, I was pained thinking about people with less power. What was it like for the legislative aides, the interns, the journalists and the lobbyists? Some Women’s Caucus colleagues and I started sharing our stories in the hopes that others would share theirs with us. We heard stories of a hostile work environment, unwanted touching and sexual advances and sometimes assault. All these women were understandably afraid to file an official complaint, and they often spoke to us only months or years after the incidents took place. Relationships are everything in politics.

The saddest part for me was when I spoke with young women who left a promising career in politics or advocacy because they found the culture too hostile to women.

We started talking with our male colleagues about their thoughts on the culture and were encouraged to learn that many agreed it needs to change. In response to these conversations, 26 male legislators sent a letter last winter to the presiding officers urging them to take action to improve the culture for women. Ultimately, our goal is to enact voluntary reforms to make Maryland the most woman-friendly state legislature in the country.

After the "Access Hollywood" tape broke, members of the Women's Caucus met with Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). I told him about the stories we had heard from interns, lobbyists and legislative aides — and about my own experiences. We discussed why it is hard for people to report these incidents and that it is a lot of pressure for victims to depend on a complaint-driven process. The speaker agreed to work with the Women's Caucus to update our sexual-harassment reporting and accountability policy and to significantly improve our sexual-harassment-prevention efforts. He started right away, by working with the minority leader to ensure that the Democratic and Republican caucuses knew we have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.

This year, the goal of the Maryland Women's Caucus is to prevent harassment with a combination of tough policies, meaningful enforcement and education. Some possibilities include requiring third-party reporting by members, increasing confidentiality in the reporting process and hiring independent investigators. We will also weigh prohibiting romantic and sexual relationships between supervisors and subordinates or interns, creating protections for lobbyists and increasing their accountability, and increasing the training of committee chairs so they can better work to improve the culture within their committees.

Together, we will make Maryland the best state in the nation for women in politics. Because when more Maryland women are involved in politics, we can make Maryland the best state in the nation for improving the lives of women.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County in the Maryland House and is president of Women Legislators of Maryland.

Read more about this issue:

Ruth Marcus: The creepiest sexual-harassment story we aren’t talking about

The Post’s View: Congress sheds some light on sexual harassment, finallly

Karissa Fenwick: I was sexually harassed. Question my story.

Kathleen Parker: Are we rushing to judgment too quickly on sexual harassment?