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Me Too, when even an acting Colorado State Legislator is sexually harassed

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It took Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, three drafts before finally publishing a post to Facebook acknowledging that she, too, was a victim of sexual assault and harassment. The most recent incident was just a week earlier, she wrote.

State Representative Daneya Esgar made public on Facebook that she too was sexually harassed and assaulted by a “colleague” and was expected to stay quiet.

The posts tagged or titled “Me Too” started as a rallying cry after an exposé in the New York Times cataloged the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Social media posts on Twitter and Facebook came from women of all walks of life, all skin colors, all sexual orientations — a message that it wasn’t one type of woman that fell victim to sexual violence. The message was one that quickly reinforced that the problem is widespread and doesn’t discriminate.

“Like the (Facebook) post said, the first time I was sexually harassed I wasn’t even old enough to go to school,” Esgar said.

The latest was just a week before a wildfire of “Me Too” posts hit the internet.

“I was at an event with a number of different professionals and colleagues from the general assembly were there. I had to leave for another event, so I went to another table to thank the woman who planned the event,” Esgar recalled.

As she was standing, waiting to say goodbye and slip off to the next gathering, Esgar said she felt a hand wrap around her thigh “and start moving upward.”

“There was a table of people around that didn’t realize what had just happened,” said Esgar, who exclaimed, “Oh my gosh!” as she quickly realized she was groped by a man she only described as somebody she regularly works with sitting at the table.

The response from the man was, “Now, darling. You don’t need to make a scene,” according to Esgar.

“It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but it’s completely inappropriate and for him to tell me not to make a big deal about something,” she said.

Perhaps that’s also part of the problem, Esgar said: That women often feel like they’re the ones who are overreacting.

“We are (as women) absolutely conditioned to feel guilty,” she said. “We need to start calling out sexual assault and sexual harassment for what it is. We should put it out there and what was interesting about the ‘Me Too’ campaign was to see the number of men surprised by the number of women admitting they had been apart of an incident.”

House Speaker Crisanta Duran said the social media campaign has brought a sense of prevalence to the issue, but it’s one that isn’t new.

“In my opening day speech I spoke to the importance of inclusiveness, and of condemning that which is inexcusable,” she said in a statement. “Everyone should have the right to feel safe and respected in their workplace and in their day to day life.”

Duran, who would be in charge of investigating any kind of reported sexual harassment that took place in the legislature, added that “it’s clear that this is an issue that impacts us all, and we should all strive to create a more inclusive, safe, and respectful environment, in the legislature and more broadly.”

Esgar said she’s grateful that in her past she was able to have access to therapy after incidents of sexual assault, and that she feels comfortable admitting it happened to her. But that doesn’t mean every woman who has encountered that type of abuse should feel that they have to speak out like she has.

That was the flipside conversation to the campaign: that it would be a trigger for many women. Esgar said no woman should feel shamed into talking about their incident or not talking about it, healing is individual.

Nationally, one in five women will experience rape, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. In Colorado, the prevalence of sexual assault against women is 23.8 percent, higher than the national average of 18.3 percent.

If it seems like sexual assault and harassment have landed a permanent place in the news cycle, it’s probably because it has. Esgar points to the current president, who was elected even after an old tape surfaced in which Trump boasts his own fame, saying he can do anything to women, even “grab them by the p*ssy,” as the tipping point.

The Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault spokeswoman, Neta Meltzer, said on one hand, the different recent news events — the Trump tape, Taylor Swift winning a symbolic dollar against her assaulter, and Weinstein’s several accusers — have shined a light on the previously taboo subject. On the other, she said many women fear they will be met with blame or disbelief if they speak up.

“Our goal is to make sure that individuals feel safe to come forward – to make sure they know that they will be believed and that they are never to blame for what happened to them,” Meltzer said. “So many survivors have been met with skepticism and victim-blaming responses, so it is easy to understand why reporting or disclosing one’s experience is not always a safe or realistic option. The important thing is that survivors get the help and resources they need, and that they know they are not alone.”

Esgar said she has been in two abusive relationships in the past, but is fortunate to have had access to counseling and now has a supportive wife and title that allows her to talk about the issue of sexual assault and harassment.

“Nothing has changed with this position. But it does give me a platform to call things out a little bit louder,” Esgar said of her job as a state lawmaker.

She recalls one particular moment during the 2017 legislative session when debate on an immigration-related bill amendment caught a comment about a rape, which Esgar said had become routine throughout the session.

Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs, referenced a case in Maryland where an 18-year-old student raped a 14-year-old girl in a school bathroom stall. It was later discovered the offender was from Guatemala, illegally living in the U.S.

On that day in mid-April Esgar left the floor and found Rep. Faith Winter, also a survivor of sexual assault, sitting and waiting out the speech outside of the chamber as well.

“I went to her and said we’ll go (and speak) together and we waited our turn to speak and we went down and basically said we didn’t want another survivor’s story to further his political agenda anymore,” Esgar said.

At the well of the House, standing side-by-side, the two were obviously upset. Winter said the story of a sexual assault victim was being used to “target hate” and “incite fear against an incredibly important population.”

Esgar told the chamber that using one woman’s traumatic experience over and over again had to end.

“We put up with it all session,” the lawmaker, on the verge of tears, said. “And we can’t take it anymore.”

The two promptly left the well and after more discussion the amendment failed.

After Esgar published her “Me Too” Facebook post she said she didn’t think it was such a big deal, even as she saw the speech from Williams as distasteful and insensitive. Esgar said she knows so many women who have encountered similar incidents as she has. But she also hopes maybe her story, like millions of others posted to social media, will shift the conversation and convince men to listen and women to stop shaming each other.

“The therapy went through helped me because of what happened. Every single day I’m working to stand up for people at the Capitol,” Esgar said. “I try to hold myself in that strength and to move me forward and be strong not just for myself but for the people I make decisions for everyday.”

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The #WhatNow of #MeToo for the #COLeg

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AP Photo/David Zalubowski

When several lawmakers, lobbyists and staff at the state Legislature came forward this fall to allege they were victims of sexual harassment by lawmakers, two big questions followed: how often does this happen? What can be done to prevent more cases?

Reporters have asked state officials the first question repeatedly, returning to readers with little response from the state. The latter prompted a conversation from leadership, but as for what’s next—how the allegations, formal complaints, and legislature’s response—will impact politics under the gold dome and whether women will feel any safer is to be determined.

So far, top state lawmakers have decided to hire a human resources officer—who would be independent from the legislature—to be a contact person when incidents involving sexual harassment are brought forward. Now, leadership is tasked with handling and investigating such claims.

The group also decided to hire an independent consultant to review the legislature’s sexual harassment policy, and lawmakers, staff, and aides will undergo another round of sexual harassment training this year. Typically, those working at the Legislature are only required to go through training every two years.

Those changes are a good start, said Erin Hottenstein, executive director of Colorado 50/50, an organization that aims to get more women in public office. But the legislature stopped short of changing any current policies. And Colorado 50/50 called for an entire overhaul.

“I’m very pleased that there was a recognition that the policy needs to be improved,” Hottenstein said.

But there weren’t any specific recommendations regarding transparency, which Hottenstein said is significant in looking at what happens next.

Lawmakers and staff said they couldn’t disclose how many sexual harassment claims that leadership in each chamber have received because they were personnel issues.

“I think there’s a way to be transparent and safe,” Hottenstein said. “There should be a high- level summary document that shows on a certain date a sexual harassment complaint was made and who it was against and a date of a deposition and what the result was.”

Hottenstein said transparency becomes crucial in these cases because it leads to accountability and the public’s right to know what actions the people elected to office are taking.

In October, Pueblo Rep. Daneya Esgar broke her silence posting on Facebook that she was no stranger to sexual harassment and experienced it just a week earlier with a colleague she works with regularly as a lawmaker. The post was part of the #MeToo movement after a New York Times expose highlighted the stories of several women who said they’d been sexually harassed or assaulted by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Then, a flood of other allegations were brought to the surface in Colorado politics. Rep. Faith Winter said fellow House member Steve Lebsock had harassed her at a legislative party in 2016. Winter and a lobbyist say they filed formal complaints against Lebsock.

An intern said Sen. Randy Baumgardner harassed her with sexually suggestive comments. The same went for Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial, who was accused of telling an intern that if she wanted to get ahead in her career, he could help.

Rep. Paul Rosenthal, who is openly gay, allegedly groped a man and used his seat to try and get a date with another.

But the case between Lebsock and Winter gained the most attention, even prompting Lebsock to take a polygraph test, which the administrator says he passed, to prove his innocence. Lebsock has hinted that the entire incident may be a case of dirty politics, alleging that Winter is the one lying.

When several lawmakers were asked if the case would mean a splintered Democratic party in the House, they were unsure, but optimistic about the session.

Still, there haven’t been any resignations over the allegations, though several, including leadership and editorial boards from across the state, said these legislators should step down from their seat. Some even called for House Speaker Crisanta Duran to step down from her position because she promoted Lebsock to a chairmanship despite knowing there was an incident between him and Winter.

The transparency piece has yet to be addressed by state lawmakers, and it’s unclear whether any policy or legislative changes will address that in the coming months. But for what it’s worth, the women who have broken their silence about sexual harassment in the Legislature are supportive of the changes leadership has discussed.

“I’m encouraged to see the direction leadership is taking when it comes to developing new and independent methods of dealing with complaints of sexual harassment at the Capitol,” said Esgar, who still hasn’t named the colleague she said grabbed her thigh at a legislative event earlier this year. “I’m hopeful that new ideas are still being formulated and considered, when it comes to ways to change the culture itself.”

The lawmaker added that a new session will certainly mean new ideas will come to light, “it’s our responsibility to lead the state in changing cultures to help make work environments safe and productive for all employees on every level.”

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Overdose overload: Addicts in distress put the strain on first responders

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The opioid and heroin epidemic has created a growing number of drug overdoses, which are taking their toll on first responders in southern Colorado’s urban and rural areas – first responders who are charged with administering initial treatment at the scene and transporting distressed addicts to hospitals.

Brandon Costerison, who is a spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and based out of the St. Louis area, says there are two trends coming out of the opioid and heroin epidemic. The first is positive: Hospitals, once overdosed addicts are brought to their facilities for initial treatment, have been more and more able to put those addicts into long-term treatment programs with the help of community support. Costerison likens overdoses to heart attacks in that essential follow-up treatments concentrating on “high blood pressure and all the other things that caused the heart attack” are needed for preventing heart failures in the future. He adds that not all communities, particularly those in rural areas, can offer follow-up treatments for addicts who overdosed and who often leave the hospitals and/or incarceration without getting the treatment they need to get off drugs and prevent future overdoses.

The second trend, though, is most disparaging: the high number of overdosing addicts has put a strain on first responders to get overdose patients through emergency room doors. Costerison says that emergency medical technicians have about two to three hours to get opioid addicts who overdose to the hospital. He adds that he has relatives in the Pueblo area and wonders about the toll put on EMTs in southeast Colorado’s rural areas, where the nearest medical facility could be as far as 45 miles away or even greater.

Third strike, and done?

As for the toll overdoses take on a community in terms of dollars and cents, Costerison refers to a June 28th story appearing on the USA Today website about an Ohio town that has suffered such financial losses from repeat opioid overdose calls that its city council morbidly discussed a three-strikes rule. Middletown, Ohio, which has less than half the population of Pueblo, actually ruminated over leaving a distressed opioid addict for dead if that person was treated and taken to the hospital by the city’s EMTs for an overdose two times prior.

The city council cited, among other things, the high cost of Narcan, the drug used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose. “That somebody’s life is only worth a few bucks is really disconcerting,” Costerison says.

A call last month to Middletown city media representative Shelby Quinlivan humanely revealed that the three-strikes discussion “went nowhere” and the councilman who brought up the idea did not get re-elected and will leave his post this month.

Thankfully, a discussion like the one had by the Middleton City Council would be highly improbable in Pueblo.

Pueblo Fire Chief Shawn Shelton explains that, although his firefighters are also trained as EMTs, they don’t take anyone to the hospital and in at least some cases don’t administer Narcan. He says the City of Pueblo contracts with a Greenwood Village-based national company called American Medical Response or AMR for those services. (AMR has a similar contract with Canon City.)

In AMR’s hands

In regards to opioid and heroin overdoses, Pueblo firefighters and police officers usually arrive at the scene first, then call AMR, which sends EMTs and an ambulance. The AMR EMTs in many cases administer the Narcan and then transport the overdose patient to the hospital. AMR then bills the patient or the patient’s insurance provider for the Narcan and services rendered. The only expense for the city is for the firefighters to call and observe the AMR EMTs, and those firefighters would be on duty anyway.

Also Shelton’s firefighters have observed that, like in Middletown, there have been a number of addicts in Pueblo who repeatedly overdose, but figures on just how many were not readily available.

As an aside, the fire chief says Narcan, which is also known by the generic name naloxone, is only a temporary fix that lasts a relatively short time before the negative symptoms of the overdose – vomiting, dizziness, seizures, etc. – return. Shelton says addicts often get angry after the Narcan is administered (to help save their lives) because it interrupts or ruins the heroin high for which they paid a lot of money to buy on the street.

Mike Lening is operations manager for AMR’s South Region, which serves Pueblo, most of Pueblo County (except for Rye and Beulah), and Fremont County. He says an increase in opioid overdoses across his region “makes it tougher” on his company’s resources (EMTs and equipment). As for the cost of treating overdosing addicts, who most often cannot pay for AMR’s services, Lening says his EMTs do not curtail their services based on someone’s perceived inability to pay for them. He adds that sometimes in rural areas his EMTs have to transport patients to hospitals that are “up to 45 minutes to an hour away.”

As for the urban area, Lening says AMR has seen “a little bit of a spike” in opioid overdose calls in the city of Pueblo recently.

By the numbers

Although Lening says he cannot come up with the total number overdoses his EMTs treat during any given time frame, the Pueblo Fire Department was able to come up with statistics relating to the number of times Narcan has been administered in the presence the city’s firefighters during their calls. Pueblo Fire Inspector Erik Duran, who is also the fire department’s information officer, provided a chart that shows in 2014 either firefighters, AMR EMTs or Pueblo police officers administered Narcan during calls labeled as drug overdoses and alcohol and other poisonings 69 times. Duran explains that roughly 95 percent of those calls are in fact overdoses. That number increases dramatically in 2015 to 92 calls, then goes down to 73 calls in 2016, and back up again to 84 calls from January 1st to mid-December of last year. Other calls during which Narcan was administered, which might have been overdoses, are those in which the victim was unconscious or near unconscious at the scene and there was no telltale paraphernalia when first responders arrived, so the victim’s medical condition could not be immediately ascertained. In those calls, AMR EMTs took over treatment. Those numbers are 32 such calls in 2014, also 32 in 2015, 48 in 2016 and 37 during most of last year. And yet during other city fire department calls, which again might have been overdoses, the victim received Narcan during treatment and died at the scene. The numbers for those calls are two in 2014, one in 2015, six in 2016 and five for most of 2017.

Rural areas not immune

EMT resources in rural areas are being stretched, to say the least. Alamosa Police Department Capt. Samuel Maestas says that the cost of opioid overdose calls for his city had been steadily on the rise until they “flat-lined” recently when the city took advantage of a state grant giving rural areas the funds to purchase Narcan. The move also allows Alamosa police officers, who are usually the first to arrive at the scene of an overdose, to administer the drug before EMTs from San Luis Valley Health arrive to transport addicts to the hospital thereby taking fire department personnel out of the picture in most instances. San Luis Valley Health provides emergency medical response, through its Alamosa Ambulance Service, for the city of Alamosa and all of Alamosa County.

Ted Andersen is the director of the Alamosa Ambulance Service and he estimates that his company’s emergency call volumes for overdoses have increased by roughly 24 percent from the start of 2015 to the beginning of last month. Andersen says, “We almost don’t have enough ambulances to handle all the overdose calls,” adding that the cost of keeping those ambulances stocked with Narcan is astronomical. Also, Andersen says he needs more EMTs because of the heroin and opioid crisis, and EMTs are in short supply mainly because they require four years of training – much like registered nurses do.

Andersen explains that most of the distressed addicts his EMTs encounter are transients (homeless and from out of state). He adds that many of them are repeat, to coin a phrase, overdosers, who­ – once they are hospitalized – refuse the long-term treatment that would get them off heroin and opioids for good.

Andersen theorizes that addicts come to Colorado without jobs because they know marijuana is legal here and surmise local officials are lenient when it comes to other drugs. He says he has heard that Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and even Denver are dealing with the same issue.

At the scene of the overdose, the EMTs usually encounter an addict who is either not breathing or having seizures. Andersen says EMTs are putting their lives at risk because, once the Narcan is administered, the addict becomes hostile. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Hey, man, you just ruined my $200 high. Thank you very much!’” he says. Then the punching and kicking begins.

Andersen says his EMTs now wear protective vests to counter these violent reactions. To avoid conflict at the scene in the first place, the EMTs, if possible, try to clear the patient’s airway and get him or her stabilized without using Narcan. Andersen says they save the Narcan treatment for the emergency room, where the environment is more controlled.

What to do?

Southeast Colorado’s first responders are seeing their resources being stretched to the limit when it comes to handling overdose patients – many of whom are repeatedly coming into contact with EMTs because they refuse long-term treatment. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse’s Costerison says in St. Louis the opposite is true. They have overdose patients who want treatment and can’t get it largely because Missouri, unlike Colorado, has not expanded its Medicaid program making long-term treatment unaffordable to most addicts. Yet Costerison says St. Louis has instituted a peer program whereby addicts, once they are done with initial overdose treatments and are in recovery, receive bedside counseling from former addicts who also have been through overdoses. Costerison says the peer program has been more effective at urging distressed addicts into long-term treatment than suggestions that they should get help by medical professionals who have not been through the addicts’ ordeals.

However, St. Louis has a population of almost three times that of Pueblo, so it might be difficult for Pueblo and particularly the smaller communities in southeast Colorado to find enough recovered addicts to be on call whenever an overdose occurs. So a solution to the problem of overdosing addicts may remain elusive for some time. Meanwhile, first responders are risking life and limb and taxing their resources to save opioid addicts from themselves.

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The uncertain Trumpian in Colorado: State Representative Judy Reyher’s barbed politics and unknown positions

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It’s unclear what plans newly appointed Rep. Judy Reyher, R-Swink, has for the legislative session or whether political fallout will follow the firestorm her controversial and racially-charged Facebook posts caused in November.

State Representative HD-47 Judy Reyher. (Photo Facebook)

One post singled out African Americans as “hatred-filled beings.” In another, Reyher, the former Otero County Republican Party chair, said she wanted to “bitch slap” every person who voted for Barack Obama. Other shared posts and memes challenged Obama’s citizenship. When questioned about the posts, she later told a Denver Post reporter, “the black community and the Democrats are the most racist group of people that exist,” and saying blacks “hate white people with a passion.”

Reyher later apologized for the posts in a letter to the Denver Post, asserting that she is not racist and embraces diversity.

PULP reached out to Reyher numerous times, by phone and email, asking what her plans were for the legislative session, which will begin mid-January, because her district — which includes Otero, Pueblo and Fremont counties — faces issues much different than the ones of urban Denver and western Colorado.

It’s unclear what bills Reyher will carry. She didn’t return messages. One major question is her stance on alternative energy. One of Reyher’s shared posts was an article about the “Utter Complete Total Fraud of Wind Energy.” HD47 borders the Pueblo Vestas plant, which employs hundreds in the region, several likely living in her district.

The 2018 legislative session is also slated to be hot with partisan bills, as many lawmakers are facing elections and carry bills that aim to satisfy the political base, even if they don’t stand a chance of reaching the governor’s desk.

Reyher was appointed to her seat in House District 47 by fellow GOP members to replace former Rep. Clarice Navarro, a staunch Trump supporter who vouched for now-president through 2016 and took Pueblo chile to the inauguration.

Navarro was tapped to serve under the Trump administration as the executive director of the Colorado Farm Service Agency. While in the legislature, the southern Colorado native sponsored a variety of bills ranging from crime to transparency in schools. Few were specific to challenges that rural Colorado face, such as healthcare, broadband access and economic development. though she did sign on to and voted for bills related to those topics.

Whether Reyher’s statements will be an issue or distraction when it comes time to rally the troops in the House is unclear. Colorado GOP Chairman Jeff Hays wouldn’t say one way or another.

“I’m disinclined to stand in public judgment of legislators’ comments. Making myself the arbiter of controversial statements, however ridiculous or offensive, would set a bad precedent and distract from the chairman’s primary mission,” Hays said in a statement. “I will repeat what my administration has said before, which is that legislators speak for themselves and their constituents, not for the party. That’s true when the press is good and when it’s bad.”

But some other Republicans aren’t as indifferent.

Pueblo Republican Tamra Axworthy, who challenged Reyher on being elected to the seat by her fellow party members, said the party is unified, but called the questionable Facebook posts damaging.

Axworthy lost the appointment by one vote, also stirring controversy.

“I believe that on the most important issues we are united. Things like restoring the American dream, defending the constitution, government reform, and honoring our veterans are all things Republicans agree on,” she said in an email. “Judy’s remarks on social media are harmful to our party and its image as they proved able to fuel animosity, feed the stereotypes, and discredit our progress. However, no one person, including Judy Reyher, has the power to divide us on things that matter.”

The Pueblo Republican said HD47’s big issue is the economy, whether that relates to education or water. And there isn’t as much of an emphasis on rural Colorado either, Axworthy added. But that’s because there are fewer rural legislators than urban ones.

“Unfortunately that makes them extremely outnumbered and quite unpopular as they so often have to vote contrary to the ‘party agenda’ in order to protect their districts,” she said.

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