Sexual Harassment at the Capitol

Pat Helmberger (courtesy photo)

About 18 years ago, Pat Helmberger was forced out of the workplace she loved: the Minnesota State Capitol, where she’d worked in various roles for 12 years. Her male boss sexually harassed her repeatedly — grabbing her, kissing her, even ripping open her blouse. 

His actions weren’t invisible, but may as well have been — others knew, sometimes even witnessed, what was happening, yet looked away. Helmberger also talked to human resources staff, but found no support there. “[He] was the one who mattered,” she says.

Helmberger told a few people about the harassment; one dismissed it by saying, “It’s just the way he is.” She told another employee, who in turn talked to her husband about it; he said, “She’s got to get an attorney.” 

“Evidentally that [conversation] got back to my boss,” says Helmberger, “because that was the day he fired me.”

When her boss fired her, he told her she could stay on until she turned 65 — a few months away — “and then he wanted me out the door,” Helmberger says. “They were perhaps the worst months of my life as a staff person there. Every day I was filled with dread, although I knew that financially it helped me” to stay until age 65.

The day she left, Helmberger says, her boss grabbed her and kissed her yet again, as if to reinforce that he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it.

“Once a woman [reports harassment], she’s often seen as a troublemaker and could have a difficult time getting another job,” Helmberger says, adding, “I could have worked at the Capitol for several more years.” 

Transcending the culture

Nearly two decades later, sexual harassment at the statehouse has burst into the headlines. Various solutions have been proposed, including mandatory sexual harassment training for legislators (with sanctions for noncompliance), updated harassment policies, changes to legislative rules governing complaints and investigations, and changes to state laws on workplace protections generally.

Three women — Reps. Erin Maye Quade and Jamie Becker-Finn, and 2016 House candidate Lindsey Port — have proposed that leaders of both parties work together to support the formation of an independent bipartisan task force of experts in sexual harassment, human resources, and employment law to make recommendations to the Legislature. 

In early November 2017, Port reported that DFL Sen. Dan Schoen made suggestive comments and grabbed her buttocks at a campaign event in 2015. 

In a similar timeframe, Maye Quade reported receiving sexually inappropriate texts from Schoen as well as Republican Rep. Tony Cornish. Both Schoen and Cornish announced their resignations later that same month.

Becker-Finn, a first-term DFLer, previously worked as a Legislative Assistant in the House.

“The sexual harassment issues are connected to the bigger problem of women often being devalued here,” she says. Given that the Capitol culture has led to the current situation, in which sexual harassment has been ignored, minimized or tolerated, Becker-Finn, Maye Quade and Port intentionally proposed a task force so as to ensure that the solutions would not come only from legislators. 

Whatever approach is taken, says Becker-Finn, “I’d like to see it protecting not just [legislators and staff], but also lobbyists, and anyone who visits the Capitol.”

Lobbyists not protected

Lobbyists have a unique work environment: they’re not state employees, yet the Capitol is their workplace. Indeed, Becker-Finn notes, some unpaid citizen-lobbyists don’t work for any organization — a lobbyist could be “a mom who feels passionately about an issue.” They often work behind the scenes, sometimes in one-on-one, closed-door meetings with lawmakers. 

“Lobbyists have been invisible in the context of sexual harassment because there has never been an articulated manner for them to report harassment without fear of repercussions or retaliation,” says Sarah Walker, who lobbies on criminal justice issues. Walker went public about being repeatedly harassed by Cornish, one of the factors that led to his resignation.

A legislator isn’t a lobbyist’s “boss.” Lobbyists typically do their work on behalf of their client(s), which could be a school district, a corporation, a nonprofit, or any group with an interest in passing or blocking legislation. But that doesn’t mean there is no potential for retaliation if a lobbyist reports harassment by a legislator.

“Bills you’re working on might not get a committee hearing,” says Walker. “Or a provision you worked on might get pulled out of an omnibus bill.” Omnibus policy and funding bills are often hundreds of pages long and contain numerous provisions.

“This is a relationship game,” Walker notes. Maintaining positive, productive relationships with legislators is key to a lobbyist’s effectiveness.

Since they aren’t legislative employees, taking harassment complaints to a legislative human resources office may not make much sense for lobbyists. Walker would like to see a third-party reporting system for lobbyists and members of the public that protects the identities of victims. She also believes the investigation of sexual harassment reports should be “taken out of the hands of the politicians” — beyond, for example, the House Ethics Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct.

“My biggest fear is that without a third-party system that allows reporting free of politics, culture change will not be institutionalized,” she says. Walker adds that when it comes to moving toward institutional change, “a lot of that work should be led by groups that have long been working on behalf of Minnesota women, like MNCASA [Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault] and the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.”

Asked what kind of timeline she expects or hopes for, Walker notes that the 2018 legislative session will be short — beginning February 20 and ending by May 21 — which “may impede long-term policy change.” However, she adds, “it is important that we don’t rush to pass a policy for the sake of politics.”

Asked what’s being overlooked in the current discussion, Becker-Finn says that while she and her colleagues “have the privilege of having someone listen to us,” many women still lack the power or safety to tell their stories — particularly women in the service industries, many of whom are women of color. They can’t take the financial risk of coming forward, she says.

“I’m mindful of those stories,” says Becker-Finn, “not just those of the movie stars and elected officials.”

Wanted: More Women

Both Becker-Finn and Helmberger believe that electing more women would help prevent and address sexual harassment at the Capitol. Given that a large percentage of women have been sexually harassed, electing more women would increase awareness of the problem and shift the perspective from which it’s viewed, says Becker-Finn. She recalls attending a harassment training session for new legislators that emphasized “what you should do if you don’t want to get into trouble — it was not at all victim/survivor-centered.”

While men should, of course, learn not to harass women, the training failed to consider that legislators might be women subjected to harassment. At the training session Becker-Finn attended, a new female legislator asked what would happen if she reported harassment by a colleague. “There was essentially no answer,” says Becker-Finn.