Legislative session could start with updated sexual harassment policy


Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Fallout from the national uproar over sexual harassment hit the New Mexico Legislature hard last year.

There were complaints about male lawmakers harassing female lobbyists and staffers. And in a story that broke in The New York Times, a prominent lobbyist from Albuquerque accused a former state representative from Mora County of forcing himself on her.

State Senate Democrats, reacting to public outcry over years-old harassment lawsuits against Sen. Michael Padilla, stripped the Albuquerque Democrat of his post as majority whip. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver began conducting voluntary sexual harassment workshops for lobbyists.

But perhaps more significantly, leaders in the Legislature responded to reports about sexual harassment by several women, including at least one lawmaker, by working on an overhaul of its old policy.

That will be discussed and voted on Monday by the Legislative Council.

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, a Los Lunas Republican who is a member of the bipartisan committee that crafted the proposed new five-page policy, said the problems have been caused by “a small number of bad actors.”

“Sexual harassment is not an epidemic in the Legislature,” she said, but added those who cross the line need to know that their behavior won’t be tolerated. The proposed policy would help achieve this, she added.

One longtime New Mexico feminist activist said Friday she was happy the Legislature is taking a “first step” in ending sexual harassment.

But Giovanna Rossi Pressley, president of Collective Action Strategies and host of The Well Woman Show on KUNM, said a comprehensive approach — not merely a single sexual harassment policy — must be implemented.

“Until we are ready to peel back the layers and address issues of power and equality, we can’t say we’ve addressed sexual harassment,” she said.

Fajardo was instrumental in getting that ball rolling in November, when she wrote to legislative leaders.

“During my five years as a state representative, I have personally experienced harassment in the Roundhouse,” she wrote. “I have also witnessed instances of harassment where colleagues and lobbyists have been subject to repeated profane comments and innuendo. I heard stories of sickening quid pro quo propositions where legislators offered political support in exchange for sexual favors. Tolerating this behavior is seen as the price of doing business in the Roundhouse, especially for women. … The previous ‘anything-goes’ culture of the Roundhouse must end now.”

On Friday, Fajardo said perhaps the most important part of the policy is a new reporting system in which legislative leaders would be required, in the case of alleged harassment by a lawmaker, to consult with an outside lawyer who has experience with harassment matters.

“Even if all of the legislative leaders say there’s no basis for investigating the claim, if the outside counsel says there is, it will be investigated,” Fajardo said.

The new policy also proposes procedures for reporting sexual harassment by legislative staff members and others at the Capitol during a session.

“It’s important for the public to know that we’re not just policing ourselves,” she said. “They need to know they can report these incidents and they will be taken seriously.”

The new policy goes into far more detail than the current two-page policy adopted in 2008. Other parts of the proposed policy:

  • Sexual harassment as defined in the policy includes requests or demands for any type of sexual favor; repeated, unwelcome requests for a date; sexual innuendos; use of sexually offensive words or phrases in any language; jokes of a sexual nature; teasing and threats that are sexual in nature; unwelcome physical contact, such as touching, tickling, pinching, hugging, patting, cornering, kissing or fondling.
  • Harassment that’s not sexual in nature, including racial jokes or racially offensive words or “derogatory descriptions.”
  • Complaints of harassment and documents related to any investigation will be maintained confidentially and will not be subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act.
  • Retaliation against any person who reports harassment, files a complaint or cooperates as a witness is prohibited.
  • Legislators and staff will be required to go through at least four hours of training on harassment prevention every two years.

While Fajardo said she hopes to change the culture at the Roundhouse in terms of sexual harassment, she said she’s not trying to discourage normal banter between men and women. And she’s not trying to encourage frivolous lawsuits or partisans using sexual harassment as a “political football.”

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said last week he’s supporting the proposal. Requiring an outside lawyer to look at complaints is “a good idea and is in response to the great weight of public comments,” Egolf said.

Fajardo wasn’t the only woman to complain about sexual harassment at the Roundhouse. Toulouse Oliver said late last year that she personally experienced inappropriate touching and unwanted invitations at the Roundhouse more than 20 years ago. She was 19 at the time and lobbying the Legislature for the Indian Gaming Association.

“You cannot be a woman of a certain age involved in politics here and not have experienced things like that,” Toulouse Oliver told The New Mexican in December. “That’s the unfortunate reality.”

The Associated Press reported last week that the state Risk Management Division has no record of any financial settlements related to sexual misconduct by lawmakers during the past 10 years.

But late last year, lobbyist Vanessa Alarid accused Thomas Garcia — who was a state representative from a district in Mora County — of offering her his vote on a controversial bill in exchange for sex. She also said Garcia forced a kiss on her and touched her breasts at a downtown Santa Fe hotel.

Garcia, in an interview with The New Mexican, called Alarid’s story a “complete fabrication.”

Alarid, who is married to Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, was representing the land development firm known as SunCal, which was seeking tax breaks for a proposed development on Albuquerque’s west side. She said Garcia made his proposal and his alleged assault on her on the night before the SunCal vote. She fended him off, she said.

As he voted the next night, Garcia looked up at Alarid who was watching from the House gallery. She said Garcia shrugged and “blew me a kiss.” He voted against the bill, though he’d voted in favor of it in a committee.

Garcia, who left the House for an unsuccessful Senate race in 2012, said in December that he was considering running for his old seat again this year. Alarid said if he does, she’ll campaign for his opponent and tell her story to anyone who wants to hear it.

The only other name of a legislator publicly accused of sexual harassment is Padilla, who was voted out as Senate majority whip by fellow Democrats. He also dropped his race for lieutenant governor after U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and others called on him to step down.

Two women claimed Padilla created a sexually hostile work environment when he was hired by the city of Albuquerque to overhaul its 911 center in 2006. One of his accusers received a settlement from the city. A jury sided with his accuser in another lawsuit after a trial. Padilla, 45, has denied the allegations.

When Padilla first ran for Senate in 2012, a primary opponent raised the issue. But voters favored Padilla, who went on to win the general election that year and re-election four years later.

Senate Democrats will choose a new whip Monday afternoon.

On Thursday, Toulouse Oliver’s office began conducting voluntary anti-sexual harassment training sessions for lobbyists. Office spokesman Joey Keefe said Friday that between 35 and 40 lobbyists attended the first session. Another session is scheduled for Thursday.

In a news release sent earlier this month, Keefe said that starting this year, lobbyists are being asked to disclose whether the companies they represent have existing sexual harassment policies in place and whether they have received any sexual harassment training in the last 12 months.

Contact Steve Terrell at (505) 986-3037 or [email protected]­n.com. Read his blog at santafenewmexican.com/roundhouse_roundup.

This BBSNews article was syndicated from NMPolitics.net, and written by Heath Haussamen, NMPolitics.net. Read the original article here.

This BBSNews article originally appeared on NMPolitics.net.