Since long-time public radio reporter Bente Birkeland first broke the news of multiple allegations of sexual harassment against Democratic state Rep. Steve Lebsock (D-Thorton), three more Republican state lawmakers have been accused of sexual misconduct.
In Lebsock’s case, there was an all-out media blitz that ensued for weeks following the original report, and rightfully so. Lebsock’s alleged abuses were many, and his bewildering response, including a frantic denial of the accusations, was newsworthy, to say the least.
But there’s another key reason why Lebsock’s case received so much coverage – his own Democratic colleagues in the General Assembly, joined by numerous leading Colorado Democrats, were ready and willing to take action by calling for his resignation and denouncing him en masse, including stripping his power by removing him from his committee chairmanship.
Democratic leaders also stripped state Rep. Paul Rosenthal (D-Denver) of his role of vice-chair of the Local Government Committee, even though he was eventually cleared of his sexual misconduct charges, after it was determined that the incident occurred before he became a lawmaker.
The Democrats, for their part, did what we ought to expect of people who possess a modicum of decency and respect for women, and their vocal lack of tolerance for sexual misconduct is commendable given the potential political risk of hanging their dirty laundry out to dry in front of the media, and consequently, voters.
Republicans at the capitol, however, have been notably less outspoken and transparent when it comes to the undeniable problem of sexual harassment within their ranks.
Republican lawmakers who have been accused of sexual harassment at the capitol include state Sens. Randy Baumgardner (R-Hot Sulphur Springs) and Jack Tate (R-Centennial), and, most recently, Sen. Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa), and they’ve had much less reproach to endure from their colleagues, and consequently, scrutiny from the media.
Senate President Kevin Grantham, for example, hasn’t removed any of the accused Republicans from committee chairmanships. And Baumgardner continues to sponsor a high priority transportation bill, Senate Bill 1.
When asked by The Denver Post if Baumgardner should resign, Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said, “I have nothing to add. Let’s talk about those issues that the vast majority of people want to talk about in Colorado,” such as “how are we going to fix our roads.”
The Denver Post’s John Frank, to his credit, reported on the lack of transparency from Grantham, who wouldn’t promise to make public the results of the investigative report into Baumgardner’s behavior, or say what disciplinary action will be taken.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that coverage surrounding Baumgardner didn’t ramp up until he faced a unilateral call from Democrats to resign, and leading Republicans weren’t pressed on the issue until the complaint against him was found to be credible by an outside investigation.
In an article yesterday, also in The Denver Post, Grantham described Democrats’ calls for Baumgardner to resign as a “partisan circus.”
And silence and inaction from top Republicans aren’t just morally reprehensible in the abstract; it endangers women at the capitol every single day, a fact which should be plainly presented in the news every single day until sexual abusers are held accountable.
It’s understandable that reporters cover concrete developments in stories, or stories around which important people are making noise. But if there’s anything the #metoo movement has taught us, it’s that the stories that have been shrouded in silence, where little action is taken and few conversations ensue, are most important to tell.
Birkeland, the KUNC radio reporter who has for months been breaking news on sexual harassment at the capitol, seems to have grasped that fact.
For example, Birkeland was the first to report on the lack of transparency from Grantham and the fact that Capitol rules regarding the confidentiality of the investigation process may be cited as a reason not to make the disciplinary outcome of that process public, triggering Frank’s Denver Post report.
And, in late January, after the #metoo buzz the capitol had all but subsided, Birkeland published another KUNC report in which she checked back in on the mood at the capitol as formal complaints of sexual misconduct were still “looming in the background” – and pointed out the fact that Republicans accused of harassment weren’t seeing any punishment from their peers.
Just as the media has reported on Democrats’ active support for victims and calls for abusers to resign, they ought to report Republicans’ sluggishness, or reluctance to act at all, with equal or even greater scrutiny.
For example, the allegations against Tate — namely, a formal complaint against him for allegedly making repeated inappropriate sexual comments toward an intern — have barely garnered any media coverage at all, much less comment from his colleagues. Tate continues to serve as chairman of the Senate Business, Labor, and Technology Committee.
And with the recent news that Crowder allegedly assaulted and harassed fellow lawmaker Susan Lontine, it’s well worth asking what it will take for Senate Republicans to finally own up to the misogyny within their caucus and do anything at all to protect women at the capitol from sexual violence.
Reporters need to ask them every day.