A group of current and former lawmakers and journalists participated in a frank conversation about sexual harassment in the Texas Capitol.
In the discussion, hosted by the Texas Tribune in Austin on Tuesday, the five women addressed the “Me Too” movement and renewed efforts to protect lawmakers and staff members.
The participants included former State Sen. Wendy Davis, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, and reporter Olivia Messer of the Daily Beast, who has extensively covered sexual harassment in the Texas legislature.
The session comes amid a national conversation about sexual misconduct, and accusations against two Democratic state senators, Borris Miles and Carlos Uresti.
“How do we hold people accountable who don’t have supervisors?” Howard asked, addressing the complicated nature of self-policing.
Huffman and Minjarez said they’re working with their staffs on how to report complaints within the office.
“No one wants to come forward and do something this hard if they feel like it’s just going to fall into a hole somewhere,” Davis said, claiming she herself was harassed by a member of the House while she served in the Senate. ”I think that’s the problem that exists right now in the Texas Legislature.”
Huffman said the lawmakers “need to change the culture,” emphasizing zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior.
“If [zero tolerance is] what’s expected of staff and expected of the elected officials and eventually I think we can get there, that will be the behavior that’s the norm the capitol,” Huffman said after the panel.
Howard added that creating a governing body to oversee complaints would be difficult, and may not be effective, because lawmakers would be creating that body, meaning there would not be complete accountability.
“That requires that we take the politics out of it as much as possible, can we do that totally? I don’t know,” Howard said. “We have an ethics commission that I think a lot of people would say doesn’t have a lot of teeth to it.”
None of the lawmakers on the panel called for the resignations of Miles or Uresti, and for now, no one is investigating the allegations, despite continued calls for zero tolerance.
“We look at our policies and recognize that they are not being protective, but they are not giving good guidance, but they are not giving the confidence to those that are recognizing this happening in the Capitol to feel like they can actually come forward and trust that that policy is going to mean anything,” Howard stated.
Davis mentioned that victims need a system in place that allows for comfortable and confidential reporting of harassment.
“We’ve got to surround them with the kind of support that if something does happen there is an immediate accountability for that in a way that helps them feel like coming forward is actually going to result in the kind of consequence that they need to see,” she said.
Huffman said the process that lawmakers need to create must incorporate due process for the people accused of misconduct.
“Victims need to come forward and be willing to discuss and provide information of what specifically happened to them and then provide due process for those accused and then ultimately it will be up to the voters to decide what they choose to do with their elected officials who have been through this process,” she added.
In December, the House adopted guidelines implementing sexual harassment training for members and staff. The Senate held a hearing to begin reviewing its policies and procedures for handling sexual harassment reporting.
Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she and her colleagues take sexual harassment “very seriously.”
“The Senate Administration Committee will now craft any needed improvements to protect our senators and employees to ensure that the Texas Senate is a safe and welcoming workplace for all,” she said.
To watch the full panel discussion presented by the Texas Tribune, click here.