Government

In session marked by scandal, Iowa lawmakers pass no bills dealing with sexual harassment

Legislators enhance own rules amid national wave of new policies

(File photo) The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File photo) The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers convened for the 2018 legislative session with many issues to face, perhaps none more pressing than that of sexual harassment.

The state still was dealing with the fallout from sexual harassment assertions in the Capitol, and a nationwide movement was shining a bright and powerful light on such misconduct.

Simply put, there was pressure on the Iowa Legislature to act.

But since the session began Jan. 9, lawmakers have passed no legislation that deals with sexual harassment.

A measure introduced by Democrats, who are in the legislative minority, would have directed the Iowa Attorney General to try to recoup any money the state had paid on behalf of public officials found liable for sexual harassment damages. The measure died earlier this session.

And even though he had been named as one of several defendants in a lawsuit over retaliation for sexual harassment allegations involving his own caucus, Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix nonetheless was caught on video kissing a lobbyist who was not his wife. He immediately resigned March 12 when the stunning footage surfaced.

Despite that scandal and lawmakers’ lack of action on sexual harassment measures, this year has seen an “unprecedented amount of legislation on sexual harassment and sexual harassment policies” in state capitols across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan organization.

The organization’s website lists 88 pieces of legislation that have been introduced in the nation’s statehouses.

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The measures include rules for expelling members, criminalizing sexual harassment in legislatures and mandating harassment training within the legislature, among other topics.

The report lists two pieces of legislation in Iowa, but both actually were introduced in 2017, and simply pertain to the Legislature’s ethics code.

Iowa lawmakers have, however, made changes to the manner in which sexual harassment in the Iowa Capitol is reported and addressed.

The changes were sparked by allegations of sexual harassment among employees working for Iowa Senate Republicans. Former staffer Kirsten Anderson alleged she was fired in 2013 after reporting that she was subject to sexual harassment on the job.

Last year, Anderson won her case at trial and the state agreed to forgo an appeal and pay $1.75 million to end the case.

Republican leaders in the Statehouse this year took myriad steps to bolster the Capitol’s sexual harassment policies. Many of the changes were recommended by Mary Kramer, a former state lawmaker and former human resources executive for Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Kramer researched the policies at the behest of Senate Republican leaders.

l Legislators hired a human resources director to assist employees and supervisors with a host of workplace-related issues, including harassment.

l Iowa House leaders updated their sexual harassment policies.

l House leaders also required legislators and staff to complete sexual harassment training offered by the state’s administrative services department, and perform in-person workplace harassment training conducted by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Previously, House members were not required to complete the training in-person.

l Senate leaders said they enhanced their harassment prevention training.

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l Senate leaders also required everyone who attended harassment prevention training to sign an attendance log and provided a copy of the Senate rules on harassment prevention.

l The Senate is working with human resources to review and improve its harassment prevention rules.

Kramer said it will not be enough just to implement new policies. She said a new atmosphere of respect and compliance must be created.

“I like the Chinese proverb that says when the student is ready the teacher appears. And I don’t think the students have been ready up until this point,” Kramer said on a recent episode of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press.”

Janet Petersen, leader of the Senate Democrats, said more steps must be taken at the Capitol.

“We continue to press Senate Republicans to ensure the Legislature doesn’t adjourn without adopting new policies and procedures to make the Senate a safe and welcoming environment for all employees, to protect Iowa taxpayers, and to protect the rights of those who raise concerns about harassment,” Petersen said in an email.

The sessions is set to expire April 17, although there is speculation it could go into overtime.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, the first woman to serve as Iowa’s chief executive, this year called for all executive branch employees to retake sexual harassment training. And recently Reynolds’ self-described “zero tolerance policy” was tested.

On March 24, she fired former Iowa Finance Authority Director David Jamison over what she called “credible allegations” of sexual harassment from multiple employees. Reynolds acted swiftly; she fired Jamison just one day after the allegations were brought to her staff.

“I hope this sends a strong message. I think it does,” Reynolds said. “I can’t legislate morality. I can’t pass a law that says everybody treats everybody with respect. But I can lead and I can set an expectation. And that’s what I did. I heard about it and I took action. And that should let every employee know that if they are experiencing this, that it won’t be tolerated and they have a safe place to go to file that complaint. And if they do, they will be heard and action will be taken. And that’s what happened. That simple.”

Democrats have pressed Reynolds to provide more details of what led to Jamison’s firing, but Reynolds said she will not release those details to protect the anonymity of the accusers.

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“For the victims of sexual harassment, coming forward is a hard thing to do. It takes courage. So at the request of the victims and to protect their privacy and identity, there is only so much that I can say about the details of the allegations,” Reynolds said. “But what I can do is emphasize, again, that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in my administration.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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