California Says Enough: Taking On Sexual Harassment in the Golden State’s Legislature

Late last month, the Joint Legislative Rules Committee of the California Legislature unanimously approved a proposal for a new policy on how the Senate and Assembly will investigate sexual harassment complaints—in the wake of claims of misconduct within the chamber and in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

“We believe these recommendations are what the Capitol community is looking for,” Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), Assembly GOP leader Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) and Senate Republican leader Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) wrote in a letter to Capitol staff. “They include processes that are independent, protect employees from retaliation, provide appropriate transparency and underline our flat refusal to tolerate sexual harassment from anyone.”

The California Senate and Assembly currently have different processes for handling sexual misconduct, which has led to a lack of action and accountability across the Capitol. Under the proposed policy, an investigative unit would look at all complaints from both chambers, collect evidence and interview witnesses—and then a panel of outside experts would determine whether allegations are substantial and make recommendations on potential consequences. Changes to the proposal by lawmakers added provisions for accepting reports of inappropriate conduct from lobbyists and other third parties and granted the chief justice of the California Supreme Court the power to appoint a majority of the experts on the outside panel.

“Culture eats policy for breakfast,” Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), who helped lead a panel examining the state legislature’s existing misconduct policies, told the LA Times. “You could have the best policy on paper, but until the culture of your organizations really embodies the culture you want to have, those policies can only go so far.”

Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine told lawmakers that her office is preparing to implement the policy and currently drafting legislative language for lawmakers to vote on before they adjourn at the end of August. After that, lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown will need to agree on funding for five panel members under contract and four permanent employees —an attorney manager, two attorney investigators with employment law experience and a clerical support staff member—as well as an office space with adequate security and privacy, the creation of a a new hotline reporting website and a case management tool for the team. The new policy, scheduled to go into effect February 2019, can be initiated as soon as the new independent investigative unit is ready.

Last October, over 140 women who work in California politics signed on to an open letter calling out a “pervasive” culture of harassment in the state’s Capitol. “As women leaders in politics, in a state that postures itself as a leader in justice and equality, you might assume our experience has been different,” the women wrote. “It has not. Each of us has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces… Why didn’t we speak up? Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes out of shame. Often these men hold our professional fates in their hands. They are bosses, gatekeepers and contacts. Our relationships with them are crucial to our personal success.”

That moment sparked a movement—We Said Enough, an organization dedicated to eradicating harassment in state legislatures co-founded by Adama Iwu, grew out of the statement. “This is what progress looks like,” the group posted on Twitter after the new sexual harassment rules cleared committee. “Turning #MeToo survivor stories and staff surveys into policy ideas and independent investigations will advance respect and equity for all!”


Alicia Kay is a former editorial intern at Ms. and a freelance writer and photographer. Her writing has appeared at Rooster Global News Network, Jump Magazine and The Radical Notion; her photography has appeared in The Temple News, Jump Philly and Three Teaspoons of Sugar and a Hint of Milk by Ileena Irving. She was a finalist in the Nature Visions Photography Student Contest 2015. Alicia has a myriad of public speaking experience, including speaking at the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference and presenting research papers at the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the U.S. Department of Education.