“If She Can’t Get Him to Back Off, I Don’t Know How Anybody Can”

A new report on sexual harassment in the Oregon Legislature reveals the workplace perils for female politicians.

Front of white stone Capitol building in Salem, Oregon
The Oregon State Capitol zrfphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The dynamics of workplace sexual harassment are often easy to understand. Typically, the harasser is in a position of power, making it difficult for his or her victims to resist or to report sexual advances without risking their careers. But what happens when your harasser is a state legislator, and you are too?

A new report from Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries illustrates how one state senator, enabled by allies in the legislative body, was allegedly able to engage in persistent sexual harassment of lobbyists, externs, and fellow legislators over a period of years. Republican Jeff Kruse resigned his Senate seat last February after an investigation revealed allegations of groping, verbal sexual harassment, and unwanted physical contact from more than 10 women employed in just about every role at the state capitol. A lobbyist said he cupped her bottom during a photo op. Two law students who did unpaid internships in his office said he touched their thighs and breasts, called them diminutive and sexualizing names, and put his face against theirs while talking to them. A staffer said Kruse would give her unwanted backrubs, pull her close to him by her waist, and once knelt in front of her with his face close to her lap.

State Sen. Sara Gelser
State Sen. Sara Gelser Oregon State Legislature

The report, which was issued after an investigation prompted by official complaints filed against Kruse by two female legislators, found “substantial evidence of unlawful practices of discrimination based on sex” in the Oregon Legislative Assembly. It covers allegations against multiple legislators, offering a comprehensive, damning look at a system that studiously shrugged off complaints of sexual misconduct, relegated such reports to bureaucratic purgatory, and failed to protect alleged victims from retaliation. But Kruse’s case stands out for both its severity and the story it tells about how power doesn’t necessarily provide insulation against sexual harassment. After hearing state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward’s account of Kruse’s “unprofessional and inappropriate” touching, Betsy Imholt, the Senate president’s chief of staff, told the investigator that she became concerned. “If she can’t get him to back off, I don’t know how anybody can,” Imholt said, according to the report. “Because she’s a senator, she’s a peer, he respects her, she’s a doctor. She had [a] very direct conversation with him. And no change.”

Kruse admitted to an investigator that “he did not do anything to change his behavior [in 2016] because he did not know which females in the workplace had complained about him, and he did not want to stop hugging and touching all of them.” But he later defended himself in a Facebook post. “Interestingly I was not actually accused of things of a sexual nature, just inappropriate things like hugs, which have gone on in the Legislature for the whole twenty plus years I have served,” he wrote, dismissing the allegations against him as “scripted and designed to a specific end, in my opinion for the potential political gain of a few.”

In the case of one legislator harassing another, a relative lack of power differential doesn’t mean the person enduring the harassment has a clear path to retribution. One representative—who said Kruse pulled her by the waist, put his forehead on her, and grabbed her hands while they spoke—said she had to accept that “that’s just how the conversation was going to happen” if she wanted to discuss legislation with Kruse. “She did not tell him she was uncomfortable because he was an ally on policy issues that were important to her and she did not want to alienate him,” the report states. If she hoped to be effective in the Legislature, she couldn’t afford to make enemies in her peer group.

The report suggests that such fears are not unfounded. State Sen. Sara Gelser, one of the other legislators who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Kruse, said she knows a male senator who refused to talk business with a lobbyist because he classified her as one of the 130-or-so “crybabies” or “whiners” who signed a letter condemning the Capitol’s environment of sexual harassment. Gelser also told investigators that after Kruse resigned, a male senator told her that he didn’t know why she was mad—that he would love to be sexually harassed and would thank any woman who touched him in an inappropriate manner.

Gelser also told investigators about a conversation she had with Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, who allegedly told Gelser that Republicans were less likely to take action on her complaint because she’s not “very likable.” “The way this has unfolded, you’ve made it all about yourself,” Kotek said, according to Gelser. Kotek refuted the account, but Gelser said legislative leadership has told her there’s a perception “that I am unlikable, that I’m disliked, that I’m unfriendly, grandstanding, media hungry,” which makes her case less sympathetic. Gelser’s inability to be a likable victim, she believes, may have contributed to the fact that more than a year elapsed between her complaint and Kruse’s resignation. It’s a crude irony that behaviors others may have interpreted as grandstanding—repeatedly confronting legislative leadership about her complaint, talking to the press, collecting stories of other women allegedly harassed by Kruse—were probably necessary to get anyone to pay attention to the problem in the first place.

Oregon state Sen. Jeff Kruse
Oregon state Sen. Jeff Kruse Oregon State Legislature/Twitter

In the past, the public didn’t hear much about elected officials who were sexually harassed. That’s partly because women haven’t held political office in great numbers until very recently, and partly because women who have served as elected officials knew their careers would suffer if they spoke out, while their tormentors would evade any meaningful consequences. But in recent years, led by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and others, female lawmakers have begun speaking openly about their gendered mistreatment at the hands of their male peers. Legislative bodies function like too many other workplaces, it turns out, with people in power subjecting others to unwanted sexual remarks and touching, knowing their targets will have a narrow, treacherous path for seeking recourse.

Unlike other workplaces, though, legislative bodies can’t simply fire elected officials who’ve contributed to an unsafe work environment. Voters elect—and come very close to electing—alleged molesters all the time. Sometimes, they even elect dead people. When a legislator is accused of sexual or physical abuse, legislative bodies can commission investigations or call for the alleged perpetrator’s resignation, but there’s no human resources director or legal department to convince anyone with firing power that his bad behavior is causing a company more risk than his work is worth.

In Pennsylvania, that lack of accountability forced a female legislator to work alongside her fellow Republican representative, an ex-boyfriend she accused of physical abuse, for years. (He says the allegations are untrue, but still had to give up his guns to comply with a restraining order a judge issued against him.) It wasn’t until another woman accused him of rape and retaliation with revenge porn, and a state investigation found the allegations credible, that he declined to seek re-election. He left at the end of his term, with his lifelong taxpayer-funded health benefits and pension intact.