‘I stayed silent’: A former legislative staffer on the culture of sexual harassment | Column

By: - August 12, 2021 6:00 am

The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul as the sun sets on Election Day, November 3, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster.

Thwack!

My brain didn’t connect the sound with the sting on my backside as I stepped off the elevator. But within seconds I felt a rush of color creep up my neck and onto my cheeks as I realized what had happened. When I turned around to look at the small group of legislators and lobbyists still in the State Office Building elevator, I saw on their faces a mixture of amusement, discomfort and obliviousness. What I didn’t see was shock — and in the split second before the elevator door closed, it dawned on me that they’d likely seen this kind of thing before. 

I stood frozen for another 10 seconds, maybe more, maybe less, trying to process what had just happened. Then I walked back to my office, sat down at my desk and got to work. I didn’t tell anyone or file a complaint with Human Resources. At some point I may have told a coworker, but not in an attempt to hold the person accountable, rather in a “ha, ha, I can’t believe that happened” kind of way. It didn’t occur to me that what I’d experienced was sexual harassment, nor was the incident any more egregious than a handful of others that took place over the course of my six-plus years as a legislative staffer at the Minnesota House of Representatives. It was part of the culture — steeped in tradition, power-obsessed, hyper-focused on meeting every demand a legislator might make. I accepted the less savory aspects as part of the cost of having a job I loved in an organization where I felt deeply connected to the mission and the people.

When I read the story recounting the sexual harassment Cynthia Callais experienced while working as a Senate staffer, two thoughts kept running through my mind. The first was that Ms. Callais’ experience sounded very familiar. I can’t count the times I witnessed an inappropriate comment or an overly familiar overture directed to a female colleague, or less frequently, was on the receiving end of either. 

I started at the House after an extended break from the workforce to stay home with my young children, so I was a bit older than many of my fellow legislative staffers and aides. I’d also spent more than a decade working in a male-dominated field in the private sector, and much of what I saw at the House paled in comparison to my experience there. Perhaps because of my age and mid-career status, I didn’t experience some of the more egregious behavior directed towards some of my co-workers. But I was witness to it, and on a few occasions, experienced it myself. Which is why the stories about sexual harassment that emerged from the House a few years ago rang true, and why Ms. Callais’ story about her experience at the Senate carries the same ring of truth.

My legislative career was limited to working for the House, not the Senate, and my time there predated reforms that have reportedly been implemented in the lower chamber in recent years. Yet it’s easy to understand how the legislative culture itself creates conditions that allow bad workplace behavior to occur. There is a “service above all” mentality that pervades every interaction between members and staff. An entire infrastructure has been built solely to make sure legislators can be as effective as possible — or at least are perceived that way. Dedicated staff — ranging from experienced attorneys, communications professionals and policy experts, to bright young political science graduates just out of college — research and write bills, schedule meetings, craft speeches, talking points and opinion pieces, and respond to requests and concerns from constituents. Legislative employees, especially partisan staff, are encouraged to go above and beyond to meet the needs of elected officials, asked to staff events outside regular work hours, expected to work around the clock during the grueling legislative session, asked to remain on call during holidays and give up part of their earned time off to help get members re-elected. The culture is encouraged by legislative leaders who rightly want to show their caucus members hard at work for Minnesotans, but whose expectations help create an exaggerated power differential between members and staff, and between junior and mid-level staff and their more senior counterparts. That differential, often exacerbated by age, race and gender, leads to an environment in which elected officials and some staff can start to feel overly entitled. On the few occasions in which bad behavior is called out, people are rarely held accountable, at least not publicly.

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This would be a good time to pause and say bad behavior is not the norm among most elected officials at the State Capitol. I’d also say without reservation that despite the incidents I witnessed or experienced, I loved my job at the House and found it one of the most fulfilling of my professional career. It would be wrong for readers to walk away with the impression that the halls of government in Saint Paul are teeming with predators or that every staffer is subject to daily or even occasional abuse. None of the men who actively harassed me or my co-workers hold office any longer, and besides, most people holding election certificates — and the people who work alongside them — are for the most part honorable people who take their responsibilities seriously and treat their colleagues and coworkers with respect. But it is also true that the longstanding culture creates a power imbalance deeply ingrained in the day-to-day workings of House and Senate business, making it easier for a few bad actors to engage in, get away with, or enable inappropriate behavior. Which is why clear workplace standards and processes, along with meaningful accountability measures for those who violate them, such as those implemented in the House, are essential to discouraging problems from arising, and addressing them swiftly when they do.

My second thought while reading Ms. Callais’ experience is that I wish I’d been braver when I worked at the Legislature. I thought the same thing three years ago when reading the accounts of female candidates and lobbyists who came forward at great personal cost to share their stories of being harassed by two now-retired lawmakers. The courage of this newer generation of women — women drawing healthy expectations for acceptable behavior in the workplace in ways women of my generation did not — inspires and amazes me. It shames me a little, too. I wondered then, as I do now, what would have happened if I’d responded differently — or at all — to what was happening around me and to me. If I had called out the bad acts I heard about, if I’d voiced my objections instead of squirming silently when I heard a lewd joke, if I’d encouraged and supported female colleagues to report their discomfort with the way they were treated, if I’d yelled “knock it off” at the man who slapped me on the rear in an elevator on a Tuesday morning, would it have helped hasten a long overdue reckoning?

I’ll never know because I stayed silent. Which is why I’m grateful for the bravery of the women stepping forward now. I hope every one of them who finds the courage to say “enough” knows that when they stand up for themselves, they are standing up for me too.

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Charlene Briner
Charlene Briner

Charlene Briner lives in Saint Paul. She is a storyteller, mother of three adult sons and formerly served as deputy commissioner at both the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

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