Sexual harassment scandals at the Colorado Capitol have drawn attention to one group that isn’t used to the limelight: lawmakers’ aides and interns. Many say that are they the legislature’s most vulnerable workforce.
In the run-up to the historic vote that expelled Rep. Steve Lebsock for sexual harassment, Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod recounted her first year experience as a legislative aide. Twenty-two-years-old and fresh out of college, she took enormous pride in her position at the Capitol.
She remembers being thrilled when a powerful staffer asked to meet about her future. He took her to a window overlooking the mountains and asked her to imagine what she could accomplish.
“Then, he stepped closer and he asked for a kiss,” Herod told her colleagues.
The staffer was eventually fired after Herod corroborated similar stories from another woman. Before that, she stayed quiet. She thought the behavior might be a legislature norm. Herod told the story to remind lawmakers why young workers often don’t come forward.
“As an aide or an intern, I think you feel pretty powerless to speak up and speak out against any type of sexual harassment you feel in this building,” she said later. “But it exists.”
In recent months, former aides and interns have levied a slew of harassment complaints against sitting lawmakers. Radio station KUNC has compiled their stories. They have reported leering, uncomfortable comments about their clothes and pressure to join lawmakers for drinks. One former aide alleges Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner groped her repeatedly in 2016.
Notably though, none of the allegations revealed to the public have come from current aides or interns.
Barred From Speaking To The Press
Under increased scrutiny, lawmakers and other Capitol employees may be rethinking their behavior around aides and interns. The latest class of legislative newbies also have another reason not to go public with their work problems: legislative rules forbid them from speaking to the media under any circumstance.
Over the last few months, the top nonpartisan staffer in the Colorado Senate has asked her staff to remind aides and interns of the policy.
“I know the press has been requesting interviews from aides and possibly other staff,” wrote Senate Secretary Effie Ameen in a Feb. 2 email. “If you could please remind aides of our policy in the aide handbook.”
The Senate handbook for aides, interns and volunteers says that except for designated spokespeople, “no Senate employee...may grant interviews to the press.”
Ameen followed up with a second email on March 5. It addressed a larger group of Senate staffers and again cited the policy. The email also reminded staff members that they may be contacted as a part of ongoing sexual harassment investigations.
Senate President Kevin Grantham, Colorado’s top Republican lawmaker, can understand why an aide or an intern would turn to the press if he or she saw no action on a formal harassment complaint. Since that hasn’t happened to his knowledge, he said staffers should abide by Senate rules.
“If we need to address the rules because they’re not just, then we will deal with that,” Grantham said. “But the rules are what they are right now, so that’s what we are trying to live by.”
The Colorado House has a similar policy. Democratic Rep. Faith Winter, who was the first to file a complaint against the now-former Rep. Lebsock, decided her employees could speak to the press — so long as they did not speak about bills or policy.
Her aide is 25-year-old Rachel Carlson. After working as an intern in 2017, she became an aide this session to explore the possibility of political work. While Carlson said Lebosck’s expulsion has helped some aides and interns feel more protected from harassment, she said many are still afraid to bring a formal complaint. She noted the rules on media contact aren’t helping.
“If aides and interns are being told not to talk to the press, it’s reiterating that we essentially we don’t have a voice,” Carlson said.
Another Democratic aide didn’t want to “color [her] experience at the Capitol by making this [her] fight,” and declined to be named for this story. Even with an OK from her lawmaker to speak to the press, she was cautious about jumping into the harassment drama.
Fear Of Career Consequences
Cassie Tanner, a former aide who accused Lebsock of unbuttoning her blouse, sees good reasons for aides and interns not to attach their names to a news story or a formal complaint.
Aides and interns hold temporary positions. Most count on lawmakers for career advancement. Interns are unpaid and often need to complete their tenure for college credit. Aides are paid but often rely on lawmakers for help getting a job after a legislative session ends
“These are kids who are in their 20s,” Tanner said. “This is their passion, they want a career, and they know it would be career suicide for them to speak up.”
Tanner only told her story after leaving Colorado politics entirely. She now runs SpayToday, NeuterNow!, a nonprofit spay and neuter clinic in Lakewood. Because Tanner “traded in politics for puppies and kittens,” she had the freedom to come forward.
To feel more comfortable in the limelight, Tanner said aides and interns need to know an allegation won’t dash their political hopes.
“Being the victim of harassment doesn’t mean you aren’t qualified for a job,” she said. “And being outspoken on that issues doesn’t mean can’t hold other issues in confidence that may be sensitive on a campaign or in a political office.”
A bill from Democratic Rep. Chris Hansen could partially address the issue. It would make aides into permanent employees at the legislature instead of temporary workers. Hansen said the intent of the policy was not to meant to protect aides from harassment.
“I wasn’t thinking about particular angle when I started working on this bill,” Hansen said. “Aides are having to cobble together part-time jobs to make this work… It’s just not tenable for most young people to be able to take this job.”
Partially Unprotected By Policy
The policy already has a leg up on rules at other statehouses: it counts interns as employees, which grants them protection under the rules and the federal Civil Rights Act. But Gudavalli said the policy can still be improved.
“If you are not addressing the underlying cause of why these things are occurring, you are still going to see harassment,” she said.
For Gudavalli, that underlying cause is a gap in power. Since aides and interns are at-will employees in Colorado, they can be fired for any or no reason. Many are also new to the workforce.
“It’s easy to exploit that power. That’s what sexual harassment is about. So at the core of the policy, you need to address that power differential,” she said.
CCASA has compiled potential changes to the legislature workplace harassment policy. One proposal is to grant accusers full anonymity. Under current policy, the subject of a complaint gets to see the name of their accuser, which could open the door to retaliation.
Another idea is to ban romantic relationships between lawmakers and interns. New York and Washington have each adopted anti-fraternization policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
There’s also interest in another change: if a lawmaker faces a formal harassment complaint, he or she would be stripped of their intern. That could remove an intern from a dangerous workplace, Gudavalli said. Her group has yet to endorse the idea.
Beyond changes to the policy, Gudavalli said a basic step would be to make the rules more accessible. For example, Missouri has a website where legislative interns can access sexual harassment policies and resources.
By contrast, a link to Colorado’s policy is buried at the bottom of the legislative homepage.
All those changes are on the table. In January, legislative leaders hired Investigations Law Group to gather recommendations for the workplaces harassment policy. The Dever-based firm said it plans to survey over 500 staff members at the Capitol, including aides and interns.
Senate President Grantham declined to recommend any specific changes to the harassment policy until the review is complete.
“We are in the middle of it still. So we are still learning about the process, some of the failures of the process and some of the good things about the process, if there are any,” he said.
The report is due back early April. Until lawmakers act on it, aides and interns face a tough choice. They can rely on a process many see as flawed or risk their careers by speaking out in public.