Legislative aides at Capitol still lack protection against harassment

There might be a tendency to move on from the sexual harassment scandal at the Capitol now that two legislators who were publicly named have quit the Legislature.

In an interview with MPR News reporter Brian Bakst, lobbyist Sarah Walker said she wants a wider investigation of the climate at the Capitol.

Whether the Legislature, the majority of which is men, follows her demand is, of course, an open question.

But unquestionably, there’s a good reason for it: There are likely still men there who haven’t been identified. And women are still fearful of losing their livelihoods by publicly calling them out. That’s the thing with culture.

Ely Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger gave voice to his mother last week. She was a legislative aide who was forced out after being abused at the Capitol.

She had seen another Senate staffer speak out about ethical violations by a former Senate leader and saw how the female staffer was quickly shipped from an influential position in the leader’s office to the Capitol basement where she spent her days clipping stories from newspapers around the state.

She was shunned by virtually everyone, (my mother was one of the few who would still talk to her) as if she was the one who had committed the impropriety. Rumors soon circulated about the staffer’s mental health, most likely intended to undermine her credibility and further isolate her from other members of the Senate staff.

My mother envisioned such a future for herself, and just couldn’t face it.

She talked one day to a member of the Legislature’s human resources staff, but was told she had few, if any, protections, and almost certainly wouldn’t have the backing of any other legislative staff, even those who were witness to the harassment and abuse.

Everyone involved understood what was on the line. She was told that the elected members were the only ones who mattered. She was expendable and if she couldn’t take it, the alternative was finding another job.

There were other factors as well. The lawmaker who abused my mother was a married man. My mother had met his wife a number of times and liked her very much. The prospect of causing her the pain of a public accusation over her husband’s improprieties was just one more reason my mother vowed to stay silent.

And it’s one more reason that I’m not naming the former lawmaker, since he and his wife are still living today. I’d be happy to name him. More than once over the years, I was tempted to drive down to the Capitol with a baseball bat and beat him bloody.

My mother talked me out of it and she wouldn’t let me mention his name, even though it’s been nearly 20 years since she was forced to “retire.”

The end was near when one day another female staffer came into the senator’s office to find my mother crying. When she asked what was wrong, my mother told her of her predicament.

The next day, the same staffer approached my mother and told her she had talked with her husband, who encouraged her to get a lawyer. That was the last my mother ever saw of that staffer, who apparently lost her job as well for suggesting my mother take legal steps to defend herself.

Shortly after that staffer was let go, my mother’s senator came into the office and told my mother she was fired. He gave her two more months to wrap up her work, and turn 65, and then she was out the door.

Anyone familiar with my mother, who at age 82 still has the tireless energy of a 30 year-old, knows that leaving the Capitol wasn’t her choice. She lost her dream job because her abuser feared she might talk after all.

Staffers at the Legislature still have no protections, Helmberger says.