Colorado’s state capitol has been clouded by sexual harassment allegations against a handful of lawmakers and their aftermath for almost a year.
While none of the men accused of misconduct are on the ballot this November, one of the most critical state senate races in this election involves two women running against each other who have at times played different roles in the capitol’s #MeToo movement.
Democratic Rep. Faith Winter — who accused former Democratic state Rep. Steve Lebsock of sexual harassment — is trying to unseat Republican incumbent Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik in state Senate District 24.
This race between Winter and Martinez Humenik has both sides raising millions of dollars, and is among the top two most competitive seats that will determine which party controls the balance of power come January. It could impact a lot of policies coming out of the capitol, including changes to how the legislature handles sexual harassment complaints.
Winter is a notable part of that effort after her allegations, and an outside investigation, led to Lebsock’s ouster from the statehouse and galvanized the movement to confront sexual harassment from lawmakers.
“Coming forward was scary and I risked my career to do it,” Winter said.
The capitol’s sexual harassment issues and her role in exposing it isn’t something voters frequently bring up. She said the overall topic was mentioned more during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation.
“When it does come up nationally, people do start thinking about it locally, now that it’s becoming a national conversation again it’s bringing attention to what’s happening locally again,” she said.
Winter’s opponent, Martinez Humenik said when the #MeToo movement is mentioned to her, it’s usually someone expressing frustration, especially now that it has become cast at times in such a partisan lens.
“What I have heard is people are tired of hearing about it and think that it’s actually affecting the folks that are wanting to bring forth claims to the point where they may not want to because they don’t want it played out in the media,” said Martinez Humenik.
One of the workplace harassment investigations from the 2018 legislative session involved a complaint against Democratic Sen. Daniel Kagan. Martinez Humenik recently released the report, which originated with a complaint she filed that she saw him in an unmarked women’s restroom. She called for a public apology from Kagan.
Both Winter and Martinez Humenik served on a legislative committee over the summer that was tasked with recommending changes to improve the capitol’s workplace culture. Yet, on the campaign trail, neither are going out of their way to talk about the issue of sexual harassment. They are focused on more bread and butter issues directly impacting voters.
That doesn’t mean it’s not being brought up at all in the final weeks of the campaign though. The Adams County GOP sent out a mailer urging voters to back a slate of Republican candidates including Martinez Humenik: “He said, She said...ENOUGH! Vote today for your say!” It adds “One Republican Senate seat Majority SAVED Colorado!”
A Democratic linked group, Coloradans for Fairness, is dropping mailers and digital ads criticizing Martinez Humenik for her vote not to expel a senator accused of sexual harassment.
“When sexual harassment erupted in our state capitol, Republican Beth Martinez Humenik protected the harasser,” the flyer states. It adds “Vote Against Beth Martinez Humenik. A party-first politician.”
The Senator in that case — Republican Randy Baumgardner — denied the allegations that he grabbed and slapped a staffer’s buttocks twice in 2016. An outside investigator found the allegations credible. Martinez Humenik stands by her vote not to expel him.
“There was too much reasonable doubt and not enough credible evidence there,” she said.
One week after the expulsion vote failed, mostly along party lines, allegations against Baumgardner of inappropriate conduct from eight other people were found credible. Martinez Humenik said she never read the second investigative report.
Katerina Birge, the former staffer who filed the first complaint against Baumgardner, said many consider it “a settled matter and I think it’s a non-issue to most Coloradans.” She is disappointed that what’s happening in the state isn’t more top of mind for voters and wishes more people were interested in holding lawmakers accountable for misconduct.
“I don’t see myself as a movement,” Birge said. “I see myself as a person who told the truth and thought what was happening was destructive. Sadly, I don’t even want to go back to the capitol anymore because I’ve lost faith in the people who run the capitol.”