AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lobbyist Sarah Bigney says she’s been groped by a former state senator, told she owed a kiss to another lawmaker for his vote on a bill and had to change her outfit after catching a legislator staring at her chest.
She rarely spoke publicly about the sexual misconduct. But after hearing suggestions that the Maine statehouse had few problems inspired her to correct the record two weeks ago, detailing for lawmakers her experiences with harassment over the last decade by their colleagues.
“I knew I had to figure out a way to speak up, because it is happening here,” said Bigney, who works for the Maine AFL-CIO.
Since her testimony, Bigney said she has heard from scores of female lobbyists who have come to her with their stories of unwanted touching, lewd comments and suggestive looks. Six lobbyists told The Associated Press how sexual harassment has left them feeling humiliated.
“I heard from a lot of other women, I had a feeling I wasn’t alone,” Bigney said, calling on those who witness sexual harassment to call out such behavior.
Some of the lobbyists who allege misconduct are set to testify Wednesday in support of a proposed law that would mandate stricter anti-harassment training and education for lawmakers and their staffs and, for the first time, require the same training for lobbyists.
“We need to first clearly establish what our modern rules for behavior are and make sure those are clearly understood and communicated,” Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon said. “That empowers both the people who experience harassment on any level, but also the people who are the perpetrators of harassment to absolutely understand what behavior is crossing the line.”
Some of the women said they did not speak up out of fear their careers would suffer, perhaps an explanation why there were just two formal complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct by state lawmakers in the last decade, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Discussions and debate over sexual harassment also is happening at other state legislatures. So far, 15 state lawmakers across the country have resigned or been expelled since the start of 2017 after being accused of sexual misconduct. About 20 others have faced lesser consequences, ranging from forced apologies to suspensions to the loss of powerful leadership posts, according to a state-by-state review by the AP.
The AP also has found that a majority of state legislatures across the country are considering strengthening policies that have gone unheeded or unchanged for years. Power dynamics and weak or non-existent reporting policies in statehouses have long kept lobbyists quiet about harassment, preventing them from doing their jobs, said Katie Schubert, president of Women in Government Relations.
“You rely on making valid policy arguments to elected officials and staff, and if you ruffle feathers, there is a fear that in the long run, you won’t be welcome in the office,” Shubert said.
The answer is more awareness and more female leaders, not keeping women from working with men altogether, she said.
Female lobbyists and several lawmakers in Maine described a culture in which crude behavior is too common and women ask men to work with legislators known for harassing women. The lobbyists spoke of lawmakers who would call them “hot,” put their hands on lobbyists’ waists or hips, talk about lobbyists’ butts, ask them about their sexual partners, or tell lobbyists they would support a bill if they dressed a certain way.
“One legislator told me point-blank, ‘If you ever need a place to stay, you’re more than welcome to sit on my lap,'” said former Democratic Rep. Diane Russell, who is running for governor. She declined to name the lawmaker.
Laura Harper, a former legislative staffer who now lobbies for Moose Ridge Associates, said there was an expectation that sexual harassment was part of working in a legislature with a majority of older, male lawmakers.
“I came to feel it was part of the job,” she said. “What’s changed for me is just going through the consciousness-raising that I think many women are going through, realizing we don’t have to put up with this anymore.”
When Harper looked into reporting lawmakers’ misbehavior, she said she was told she’d have to make a complaint through a legislative ethics committee or go through the Legislature’s health and human resources department.
“It really didn’t seem there was much protection for coming forward as a lobbyist,” Harper said. “It would be extremely public. I just couldn’t see that my ability to perform my job wouldn’t be at risk if I went through that route.”