Politics & Government

Kansas legislative interns say they have faced sexual advances, lewd comments

The Wichita Eagle file photo

Legislative interns and other young women in the Kansas Capitol have faced sexual advances and lewd comments from lawmakers of both political parties, but their harassment remained largely hidden until recent revelations.

There’s a pervasive “good ol’ boy” environment in the statehouse, said one female college student, a former statehouse intern.

“It’s a regular occurrence, hearing comments,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she continues to see legislators to advocate for bills. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, why would you say that? It’s super inappropriate and you’d never say that to a male intern.’ It becomes normal after a while. As time goes by, you just kind of accept it.”

“But you’re also like, ‘OK, I really like this internship and it’s a good opportunity,’ so you’re willing to ignore things that were said, which sucks because you shouldn’t have to.”

Women at statehouses from California to Rhode Island have been speaking out on sexual harassment in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which sparked a national conversation.

In Kansas, legislative leaders have sought input from the Women’s Foundation, a Kansas City-based group that advised Missouri on reforms when its culture of harassment was uncovered by The Star two years ago.

And Democratic candidates for governor released plans for new training and reporting standards in the wake of former staffers and others speaking out last week about inappropriate behavior by Kansas Democrats, including a reliance of female interns as designated drivers after lobbyist-hosted cocktail hours.

But the issue is not confined to one political party. Two former interns recounted harassment they received from Republican lawmakers.

About two years ago, the first woman, a student at a small Kansas university, was talking to a House Republican at an event, telling him why he should vote a certain way on a bill.

“He completely disregarded what I was saying and asked, ‘How hard would you slap me if I tried to kiss you?’ I was just out of high school and he knew that,” she said.

At one point, she said, the legislator told her that he’d had sex with two other young women she knew and didn’t understand why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She later told the other women what he’d said and they told her it wasn’t true.

“He’s so gross. He just makes my skin crawl and he made other people feel that way, too,” the woman said. “If your comment has anything to do with a woman’s body or clothing or it’s not work-related, you probably shouldn’t say it.”

That lawmaker is no longer in the Legislature.

“(The statehouse) can be a very sexually objectifying environment,” the woman said.

But she thinks it’s much better than it used to be. Part of the reason? More women serving in the Legislature, she said. A total of five women have been added to the statehouse since 2015.

“There definitely were times when the Legislature was more hostile toward female interns,” she said. “Two years ago was a lot rougher, when there were not as many female legislators. There was a legislator that tried to introduce a female dress code in the Capitol. It felt way different, not as welcoming. This session felt more comfortable, and I would have felt comfortable talking if anything happened to me.

“We need even more women in the Legislature. The environment would drastically improve with more women elected, and the female interns really look up to them.”

KU intern’s experience

Another woman, who requested anonymity, recently described to The Star an experience she had as a legislative intern through the University of Kansas’ intern program in 2009.  

She remembers being on the Senate floor near the windows in the chamber when a male Republican senator approached her.

“He just came up,” she said. “And it wasn’t ... it was just like a very passing comment, like he looked at me, he smiled, he said, ‘Hey, do your panties match your outfit?’ and then winked, and then walked on by.”

She remembers worrying about what she was wearing, even though she said her outfit wasn’t flashy. She wondered if she needed to wear baggier pants or a turtleneck.

“I just kind of really faded out because I just didn’t want to be around. I just got a really bad taste for it,” she said. “I thought it was my fault.”

She shied away from social events involving the Legislature because she “felt weird vibes from other senators.”

Asked if she had received any training or guidance from KU on making a sexual harassment complaint or about boundaries with lawmakers, she said, “Absolutely not.”

“I didn’t know what sexual harassment was,” she added. “I had no idea.”

Burdett Loomis, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Kansas, has run KU’s legislative intern program in Topeka for more than 30 years and has said he’s never received a complaint about harassment. The program has roughly 15 to 20 students every session.

After recent revelations, Loomis said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the panties comment made to one of his former students.

“If you’d asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I might be more surprised,” Loomis said. “All I’m saying is, I’m talking to you in the context of 2017.”

Loomis said KU does not provide any specific sexual harassment training for students going through the legislative program, including on how to report harassment.

“The Legislature itself might do some,” he said. “We have never done anything explicitly. We talk to them about being in office and, to an extent, about being in social situations as well, but no, we haven’t.”

Loomis added that either through the Legislature or KU, some kind of training will be incorporated into the program for the next session.

KU students do receive broader sexual harassment training through the university each year, according to Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a spokeswoman for the University of Kansas.

She called the description of the exchange between a student and a former lawmaker “unacceptable and troubling.”

“At KU, we would encourage any intern who has experienced harassment to contact legislative leaders, law enforcement, the internship program director, or our Office of Institutional Opportunity & Access,” she said in an email.

Barcomb-Peterson said that both “the Legislature and the university – if notified – would investigate the complaint.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said the remark described by the former KU intern was “absolutely unacceptable behavior.”

The title of representative or senator doesn’t given anyone the right to abuse his or her power, Wagle said.

“The problem we run into with these incidents is, people are unwilling to name the perpetrator,” she said. “And we really need, when it comes to sexual harassment, for women to name the perpetrator. Because once one person is named, usually a number of people come out with the same complaint. But it takes one brave woman to name someone.”

Wagle said she’s willing to talk to any person who wants to report harassment at the statehouse. “If people want to name names, we’ll investigate,” she said.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said Monday that his office has had to deal with sexual harassment during his tenure as speaker, which began this year, and that it followed the procedures laid out in the Legislature’s official policies.

“That’s what we’ve done in the past and we’ll continue to do that,” he said, without providing any specific details on individual cases.

Internships from the various universities are overseen by the House speaker pro tem’s office, which is currently held by Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican.

Schwab’s office would not say how many interns work in the Capitol each year, but said in a statement that all interns take part in an orientation program where they are informed about conduct, sexual harassment and proper reporting channels.

“In addition, all interns are instructed to remain in contact with their assigned caucus coordinators and are encouraged to immediately report to their caucus coordinators and/or assigned legislator anything they find inappropriate or that makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened,” the statement said.

Kansas State University spokeswoman Cindy Hollingsworth said in an email that roughly 10 K-State students hold internships at the Capitol each session, “but the university does not manage any part of the program.”

Natalie Parker, who worked as an intern during the 2015 session, said she was never sexually harassed during her time at the Legislature. However, she said, she observed a culture of disrespect for women.

“Some of what I observed or experienced is, just in general, older gentlemen being less formal and so I think what that kind of lends itself to is older men sometimes not understanding where they need to create boundaries,” she said.

Christina Ostmeyer, a Lawrence resident who served as an intern in 2016, also said she was never harassed and considered her time at the Capitol to be a great experience.

But she said she did recall one occasion when she overheard a male lawmaker comment on a female legislative staffer’s body.

Designated drivers

The treatment of interns at the Capitol became a focal point in Kansas politics after Abbie Hodgson, a former Democratic staffer, said that during the 2016 session female interns had been asked to serve as designated drivers for male lawmakers who had been drinking.

Hodgson alleged that Democratic leaders had been reluctant to deal with the situation after she raised concerns.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and a candidate for governor, was not in leadership at the time but was in the Legislature.

After leaving a meeting Monday afternoon at which legislative leaders discussed sexual harassment, Ward would not answer questions about whether he had ever relied on interns as drivers.

“I have given all the statements I’m giving on sexual harassment,” he said. “I have given two.”

When pressed about the designated drivers, Ward tried to change the topic.

“I am talking about schools today,” he said. “That’s it.”

Hodgson said in an email Monday night that Ward and a group of lawmakers with whom he shares a house in Topeka were the most frequent passengers of interns.

“There is a group of legislators, of whom Jim Ward is one, that live in what they proudly refer to as the ‘frat house.’ ” Hodgson said.

When read Hodgson’s comments Tuesday, Ward would not answer the question about designated drivers and instead demanded to know whether Hodgson had accused him of harassment.

“You wrote stories that suggest that all of this is sexual harassment,” Ward said in a phone call. “So you’re asking me a question about Abbie Hodgson, here’s my answer: I never sexually harassed Abbie Hodgson. Period.”

He said he had never harassed any intern.

In a second phone call Tuesday, Ward was clearer on the issue and said that he had ridden in cars with both male and female interns.

“I remember at least one time an intern was driving. Nothing inappropriate happened,” he said.

“I have ridden in cars with Republicans, Democrats, staff members, including interns. And we would be going to lunch events, legislative events immediately after work. And these would be receptions ... and that was the activity. Sometimes dinner was involved,” Ward said.

He said alcohol was available at some of the events.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who lives in the same building as Ward, said that it’s nicknamed the “frat house” because the building once belonged to a now-defunct law fraternity at Washburn University.

The roster of residents changes somewhat from session to session, but the house is primarily used by male Democratic lawmakers, who have their own apartments in the building.

Carmichael said that he could only remember interns serving as drivers on two occasions and that nothing inappropriate happened either time. He said that the only time he rode with a female intern, lawmakers went to the Blue Moose Bar and Grill in Topeka and returned home after dinner and drinks.

Rep. Brandon Whipple, a Wichita Democrat who also lives in the building, said in an email that he only recalled being driven by a male intern to an event with other lawmakers, staffers and interns.

Tom Day, director of Legislative Administrative Services, the agency that handles the Legislature’s human resources, said lawmakers are informed about the institution’s zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment.

He said the information is given out during a legislative orientation, which is primarily for new lawmakers.

“I can’t tell you that an actual document is given to them with all the policies, but they are informed,” he said.

Executive branch employees have to go through an online course on sexual harassment to “keep them aware on an annual or a biannual basis of the sexual harassment policies of the state of Kansas,” Day said.

But lawmakers themselves are not required to go through similar training on a regular basis, Day said.

State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, said lawmakers and other people who work in the Capitol should undergo regular training on the issue.

“It’s 2017 and we should have specific training … I was always surprised that we didn’t,” Bollier said, noting that major corporations nearly universally provide such training to their employees. “We need that and I hope they put that in place.”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

Kelsey Ryan: 816-234-4852, @kelsey_ryan

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3