"Analysis: Changing the boys' club culture at the Texas Capitol

"by Ross Ramsey Nov. 15, 2017

AUSTIN — It's hard to argue that Texas lawmakers do as much as they could to protect the victims of sexual harassment in the state Capitol — staffers, lobbyists and even some female lawmakers. It's been a boys club for a long, long time.

Hey, Texas legislators, how about setting an example once in a while?

It could be something simple, like getting rid of — or perhaps, at least, editing — that historically false Confederate war marker in the extension to the Texas Capitol. It might’ve been easier to do it 24 years ago, when the extension opened and the plaque in question was moved to its new location. But there’s always time to correct a mistake.

Or something else that’s well-identified but slippery and harder to achieve, like significant reform to the ethics laws for state officeholders — reforms that have been on the emergency-items-not-addressed lists for Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature for four years now. Self-regulation is always hard, especially when it gets tangled up with the kind of score-settling that starts in political campaigns and takes hold when the winners take office.

Or maybe, legislators could set their sights on one of the oldest and least acknowledged issues in this and many other governments (not to mention the movie and media industries, to name two) — that of sexual predators with official titles preying on staffers, lobbyists and, once in a while, each other. That cultural cancer — the subject of a cringeworthy story by The Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura, Morgan Smith, Jolie McCullough and Edgar Walters — is only partly about the sexual harassment that plagues the Legislature and the people around it; it’s also about the failure of the system to give the victims meaningful help or recourse.

That failure is something the leaders in the executive and legislative branches can repair, if they want to.

The great state of Texas has had 5,415 men in the Legislature and only 155 women. This is and always has been a boys club, often marked by misbehavior. But sex and sexual harassment aren’t the same thing. The first involves mutual consent; the second doesn’t. And that’s where the leaders can do some good, if they are so inclined — they can make a distinction in their rules and laws, and make it stick. As it stands, women in the Capitol can’t do much to stop harassment; reporting it carries career and professional risks and little assurance that anything will happen to the predators who assault them. Too much of the time, it’s a take-it-or-quit culture.

It’s not easy. A woman on the House side could bring a complaint to the House Administration Committee, but there’s not really a procedure there to protect her and her job if she does. She’s going to run into Charlie Geren, the Fort Worth Republican who heads that committee. Here’s what he told the Tribune when asked about complaints: “There’s nothing to talk about because we don’t have any. I don’t deal in ifs. When there’s one I’ll handle it. And that’s it.”

If he’s right, the Texas House of Representatives might be the safest workplace for women in the United States, which is lucky, since you can’t sue the state without the state’s permission.

Geren’s in no position to police this, anyway. Each of the 183 representatives and senators, their staffers and the lobbyists who haunt the halls is tied together in a system of trades, favors, debates and relationships that conflict with their ability to settle disputes over sexual harassment. Geren has the same conflict of interest everyone else does. He’s got bills to pass — an imperative that competes with the need to police fellow lawmakers.

This legislator needs that legislator to pass a bill, to get out of the way, to do something or not do something; horning in on that touchy business with something as volatile as a sexual harassment claim messes with the work they’re hired to do.

That’s not an excuse for the way they act; it’s a description of the conflict of interest that prevents even trustworthy and moral legislators from protecting the victims of the Capitol’s worst occupants. And there are already calls to action coming from state officials who want to make it a safer place for women.

Anyone working in the Texas Capitol — whether on their own account, on the state payroll or on behalf of someone who can afford a lobbyist — ought to be safe from sexual predators and protected when they report harassment. That’s not how it is right now: In practice, the predators are free to do what they’ve always done.

 


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