Amid Calls For Resignations, The Texas Legislature Braces For A Sexual Harassment Reckoning

Dec 8, 2017

From Texas Standard.

The content of this story may not be appropriate for younger listeners.

Annie’s List, which works to elect female Democrats in Texas, is calling for the resignations of two powerful Democrats – Sen. Borris Miles of Houston and Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio.

The news comes after the Daily Beast published a story that will likely have major implications for Texas politics.

In our roundtable, we get three takes on this breaking news from the Daily Beast reporter Olivia Messer, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), and Professor Joanna Grossman, the Southern Methodist University Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and the Law.

Olivia Messer reported on sexual harassment at the Texas Capitol back in 2013. This time around, she reveals more stories from women who are breaking their silence.

“This intern told me that while she was working in the Legislature, she was drinking during the last week of session, out with some friends who were her fellow interns,” Messer says. “And at some point State Senator Borris Miles pulled up in some kind of a carriage and had a lot of money with him, handed some to an intern, and then turned to this intern who I spoke to for my story and essentially propositioned her.”

Messer says her source was shaken, fearful, and confused. “[Miles said] ‘Bitch, do you want to f*ck with me tonight?’”

Messer says the intern immediately called the legislator she worked for and his chief of staff. She says they picked her up and were concerned.

“Then she left,” Messer says. “She is no longer working at the Capitol. She didn’t believe she would ever have to see him again. For her, it was something that she just never wanted to talk about. She didn’t want to have to think about it again.”

Messer says a former political consultant is coming forward with an allegation against Senator Carlos Uresti. “She was walking up a staircase in the Capitol and she says that she ran into Senator Uresti, who was at the time a representative I believe, and he said, ‘Are you wearing a thong under that dress to match your polka dots?’” The woman says it was explicitly a come on or sexually inappropriate comment.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia says the Legislature needs to develop harassment policies that are enforceable and hold people accountable. “I think the bigger issue is, what is it that we do at the Capitol to make sure that we provide an environment for any individual who feels like they have been harassed or been discriminated against or abused or bullied to have an avenue and a path for justice, while protecting the equal protection and due process of all the parties,” she says.

Sens. Borris Miles and Carlos Uresti have each issued statements denying the anonymous allegations against them.

SMU Law Professor Joanna Grossman says, “The fact is, the reason some allegations remain anonymous is because people do not feel comfortable. There is a real risk of retaliation.” She says women bear a tremendous burden in coming forward, which is why so few of them choose to do so.

Grossman says it’s unlikely that the allegations described in Messer’s reporting are isolated incidents. “We’ve been studying sexual harassment for a long time and we’ve known that this stuff is going on,” she says. “It’s just this moment where all of a sudden the public is realizing that it’s going on.”

Garcia says that for women to report harassment, the Capitol will have to change the environment. “You’re not going to make a complaint if you know that nothing’s going to happen,” she says.

That’s why she says the Texas Legislature needs to pass legislation similar to what Senator Amy Klobuchar passed in the U.S. Senate.

Still, Garcia has not joined Annie’s List in calling for Miles and Uresti to resign. “Certainly if this is investigated and there is some truth to any part of this – because the reports are horrific – obviously I’ll join them in doing that,” she says.

Messer says that reporting these stories has been a nerve-wracking process. “These are not the only officials that I am looking into allegations about inside the Texas Capitol,” she says. “These are not the only allegations that I plan to publish and even against these two men, more women have come forward since yesterday. So they are very difficult allegations to hear and to report on. I want to be thorough and absolutely certain that the information is credible before we publish things, but it’s disturbing content. And these women who come forward are afraid.”

Garcia agrees that these reports are difficult to hear. “I don’t think I’ve talked to any woman since these stories erupted that hasn’t recounted a story,” she says. “It takes a lot to come forward, and it takes a lot for reporters like Olivia to listen to this, because it’s very emotional. I think there’s a lot of feeling among a lot of women that enough is enough and they’re just tired of it.”

Grossman says that to fix the system, legislatures will need to audit the culture of the Capitol and take a look at power dynamics. “That has to be done by someone independent,” she says. “This is not a job for an internal committee.”

Written by Jen Rice.