Staff Columnist

New Statehouse sexual harassment rules welcome

Leadership still must release names of elected harassers

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

There’s new movement in the Iowa Senate on sexual harassment and, regardless of how late it arrived, it remains movement in the right direction.

Members of the Senate last week adopted an enhanced harassment prevention policy and updated its code of ethics.

“This is one of several steps that the Senate will take to address workplace issues,” Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, who floor-managed the resolution to amend the ethics document, told Gazette political reporter Rod Boshart.

Senate leadership has not yet informed the public regarding future steps toward the creation of safe and equitable workplace environment at the Iowa Statehouse, but given that the most recent changes follow recommendations offered in January by former state Sen. Mary Kramer, it’s likely others may be adopted. Hopefully, it also signals the end of the Senate majority foot-dragging on needed reforms.

It’s been nearly five years since Republican leaders received a sexual harassment complaint from their communications director, Kirsten Anderson. She was fired hours after filing it, which led to a wrongful termination lawsuit in which taxpayers (not the political caucus) were placed on the hook for $2.2 million. The state later settled the case for $1.75 million.

Bill Dix, the Senate majority leader throughout the mess, continued to disparage Anderson’s claims until he was forced to resign in disgrace last month, following separate ethics questions about an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist. To date and to my knowledge, none of the newly established majority leaders have reversed Dix’s position and formally apologized to Anderson. They should.

It’s also clear the small changes Dix had touted as addressing the problem of sexual harassment were not effective.

Earlier this month, Jake Dagel, a clerk for Republican Sen. Waylon Brown of St. Ansgar, was immediately fired following a complaint of sexual harassment. Dagel admitted to the misconduct despite having only recently completed mandatory training intended to prevent such incidents, according to state records and statements by Senate Secretary Charlie Smithson. No other details have been released, so it is unknown if Dagel harassed a peer, an elected official or one of the teenagers who serve as pages in the Capitol.

“All other issues related to this matter are a confidential personnel matter,” Smithson said.

While statements of this nature may be par for the course in private industry, they remain troublesome in the public sector. Iowa voters will soon head to the polls in June primary elections, and the general ballot is just around the corner in November. Although an internal investigation ordered by Dix uncovered sexual harassment perpetrated by elected officials, leadership has chosen to protect those names. By doing so they are denying the one body charged with holding elected officials accountable for their behavior an opportunity to fulfill their obligation, and giving unacceptable behavior a tacit nod.

In a separate incident that resulted in the firing of Iowa Finance Authority director, Gov. Kim Reynolds says she relied on “credible” reports of sexual harassment, but has otherwise refused to comment.

It’s all part of a long-standing and ongoing culture of sexual harassment that can’t and won’t be quelled without sunlight.

Kramer’s report, which leadership requested, pointed out such problems months ago. “There is nothing that has changed to prevent additional inappropriate behavior and ensuing problems,” she wrote.

It’s curious, for instance, why a senator would choose Dagel as his clerk, given Dagel’s very public history. In addition to working on at least one national political campaign, the 2016 presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Dagel was a member of Turning Point USA, a national conservative organization known for its questionable and often inflammatory tactics. Three years ago, for instance, Dagel circulated a petition to end the right of women to vote as part of a ploy to see if people would confuse “suffrage” with “suffering.” He recorded the antics on behalf of Turning Point. Ha ha.

New measures in the Iowa Senate create a formal process for complaints, aim to protect victims from retaliation, and dole out punitive processes for those who violate the new policies. They also allow for external investigations, initiated by those harmed, if an internal one is not deemed reliable.

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These changes, while welcome and overdue, don’t get to the heart of the cultural problem in Des Moines. The state needs more than after-the-fact policies regarding sexual harassment. It needs leadership willing to pop the partisan bubble of protection and name names.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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