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Enough is Enough: Sexual Harassment at the Colorado State Capitol

If there is a moment to drop politics and have a human moment then I’m going to spend the rest of the editorial struggling with what we printed last month.

Thirty some odd days ago, our nation and our state was different. In that time Colorado saw for the first time that even those sitting in the high seats of Colorado State Government can be targets for harassment and assault.

The State learned that sitting State Representatives were harassed, groped or pursued in ways that were unacceptable.

It started with Rep. Daneya Esgar who told us that she was groped by a man she “regularly worked with.” Then Rep. Faith Winter told a Denver Radio station she was harassed by Rep. Steve Lebsock.

Then other aides, interns and lobbyists came forward to oust Lebsock, and other legislators, both Democrat and Republican, of alleged inappropriate behavior and harassment.

Before Thanksgiving, Rep. Lontine said she was also groped by a legislator but didn’t disclose a name.

This all may be the beginning of more accusations coming to light but the current tally of those with allegations leveled against them beyond Lebsock are Rep. Paul Rosenthal, Senators Jack Tate and Randy Baumgardner, one unknown legislator and the individual who touched Esgar.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and Senate Majority Leader Kevin Grantham have pledged, twice now, to introduce reforms to allow victims and the alleged perpetrators of harassment to have due process but also to enact stricter punishments.

Incredulously, the old process allowed the leadership in both houses to be investigator, jury and judge. And there’s no real way for a legislator accused of this indiscretion to be removed.

This whole thing, beyond the harassment, is frustrating and disgusting to watch as it plays out.

The frustrating part is seeing elected officials stay quiet on harassment. I fully understand that as a female legislator, staffer or intern, if your accusation isn’t a guaranteed political career ending kill shot, the blowback can burn you more than the harasser. If Colorado didn’t know that before this scandal, it should now.

We are seeing that play out in the accusations made and the responses at the State Capitol.

Lebsock defended his actions, saying it wasn’t true and that he wasn’t going to resign. This was after calls from the Governor and other Democratic legislators. On the other side of the aisle, two Republican State Senators accused of wrongful behavior, Baumgardner and Tate, have largely stayed silent on their accusations and the State Senate GOP has pressed that it’s important for due process to take place.

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For all the campaign promises and self-promotional talk of “district first” this whole process just reeks of district last.

Let’s just concede staffers, interns and lobbyists don’t have the luxury or power to come out more forcefully. There’s a power dynamic here and it disadvantages anyone not elected.

And let’s just concede that Esgar, Lontine and Winter are also right that merely coming forward and blasting out names may make things worse for them because of the current culture facing women and victims.

So that leaves the rest of the legislators on the hook for standing up for the victims, against the harassers and saying we will not tolerate in Colorado for constituents.

I can’t even believe I have to try to sell the fact that constituencies should know if their elected State Representative or Senator is a harasser.

We all can agree we don’t want to unfairly level accusations against innocent men or women without due process. But let’s be real about what was happening. Harassment at the state capital wasn’t a secret. Democratic leaders knew of the Winter-Lebsock incident. Staffers and lobbyists knew certain members of the legislature, Democrat and Republican, were not safe to be around. People knew and it wasn’t until the media asked questions did they move on this.

And I say all this because I go back to what started all this — Daneya Esgar’s admission that a colleague inappropriately placed his hand on the inside of her thigh at a public event. Why her incident is so egregious isn’t just because of the act, but rather because of who she is, where she was and the moment, while brief, illustrated harassment so clearly.

Let’s call this for what it was. This was about power through sexual aggression. It should bother you, it should bother the legislative leadership (it didn’t as they appeared lukewarm to her statement), it should enrage the constituents of House District 46 knowing someone violated their elected representative (full disclosure Esgar is my Representative) and it should rally fellow legislators to say, “No more.”

Sadly, just like in D.C., we are watching political expediency rule over moral authority. Remember there are six legislators, some named and some not, accused of harassment. No one has resigned with just over a month to go before the new session.

What’s needed now is for victims saying no more silence, and their colleagues, who profess to be proponents of the victims, to not tolerate one more incident of harassment towards Colorado Legislators and those who work at the capital. What’s more important now is not to enable perpetrators even if it costs your party the seats.

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