Culture of sexism pervades Capitol
Insiders say harassment has long been rampant
Accusations of sexual harassment, misconduct and inappropriate behavior have rocked the Arizona Legislature since November, when seven women publicly accused Rep. Don Shooter of inappropriate behavior and crass comments.
It’s not just a Shooter issue.
The accusations against him are emblematic of a deeper cultural problem at the Capitol, according to dozens of women and men who work in the corridors of the state House and Senate.
Lobbyists promote bills and highstakes budget issues for their clients. They say they often are beholden to whims of elected officials and have endured lewd remarks and sexual advances. Elected officials say they, too, have faced harassment or sexist treatment.
Over the past two months, The Arizona Republic interviewed more than 40 women and men — including lobbyists, lawmakers and policy advisers — about their experiences working at the Legislature, which opens its 2018 session on Monday.
The interviews ranged from 20 minutes to well over an hour and occurred by phone, in person and via text messages. The interviews elicited anger, tears or dispassionate frustration with what has long been the status quo.
From those interviews, a portrait emerged of a coarse, male-dominated and often sexist culture that permeates the intense workdays and the social gatherings that define a legislative session.
Nearly all of the women and men interviewed by The
Republic recounted experiences of inappropriate behavior by lawmakers, and sometimes lobbyists. Some said they were on the receiving end of that treatment earlier in their career but over time learned to set clear boundaries with lawmakers, refusing to socialize and drink with them after hours.
Because their livelihood depends on access to lawmakers to broker deals, most lobbyists were reluctant to speak on the record about their experiences. Lawmakers similarly declined to talk about their peers’ behavior or provide their names for publication, citing the need to work with their colleagues to pass legislation.
The stories they told, independently of each other, showed an often unhealthy workplace — one where women and men are conditioned to try to capitalize on the physical appearances of women to advance a cause.
“Certain male lobbyists do hire young women to go into the lion’s den, if you will,” said Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix. “I think in a lot of ways, we have been stuck in time.”
One experienced male lobbyist said he employs that tactic when the merits of a policy or budget decision don’t sway particular male lawmakers.
“Sometimes, they have to use all of their assets,” said the male lobbyist, who has worked at the Legislature since the 1990s. “I know that sounds disgusting.”
“... A lot of these gentlemen (lawmakers) love it: They get to hang out with a beautiful woman, they got a free meal — and they love the free meals — free drinks.”
A female lobbyist said the culture at the Capitol has changed for the worse with the frequent churn of elected officials due to term limits, coupled with some lawmakers who enjoy wielding the power and social privilege that come with holding public office.
“I don’t know if it’s our times, or new people coming in, but more and more, it’s getting to be that the end justifies the means,” she said.
Leaders in both chambers have vowed to enforce a “zero-tolerance” policy, and all lawmakers are required to attend mandatory training as the Legislature convenes this week.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said, “I’ve always felt that Arizona is very progressive when it comes to the equality of the sexes in our political system. The vast majority of members I interact with are treating this (sexual harassment) very seriously.”
Shooter, a powerful Republican figure at the statehouse from Yuma, remains a primary focus of an investigation by the Arizona House of Representatives. He has denied some accusations and refused to comment on others.
Lawmakers and lobbyists who have alleged misconduct, as well as those interviewed for this story, said a lack of clear rules in the past allowed leadership and other legislators to sweep problems under the rug.
Some have little faith the culture will change.
The lobbyist-lawmaker power dynamic
Often, stories of harassment or inappropriate behavior come from lobbyists, many of whom spend long hours trying to sway lawmakers on policy and budget items that affect their clients.
Stacy Pearson, a consultant who has worked in state politics for more than a decade, said the lawmaker-lobbyist power dynamic creates a situation where women can be exploited.
Powerful legislators who chair committees can block bills if they don’t receive the attention they seek. It’s common for lobbyists to try to win lawmakers’ votes with long lunches, pricey dinners and cocktail hours that can stretch well past happy hour.
Pearson said because lobbyists “deal in confidences for a living,” those who report misconduct could lose the favor or trust of key lawmakers. Women do the math and see the potential effect on their livelihood, so they remain silent, she said.
“That’s how it goes on for a decade, two decades,” Pearson said. “It is the perfect recipe for victimization, really.”
At the same time, lobbyists also complain that some male lawmakers won’t take women seriously.
“Pretty much every female lobbyist, if they’re being honest, will tell you there are certain male legislators they can’t talk to because they won’t seem to believe any information if it comes from a female,” one female lobbyist said.
“So you have to ask a man in your office, ‘Can you go to talk to Rep. So-and-So?’ Because he needs to hear it from a man.”
The Legislature also is unlike most traditional work environments.
Lawmakers from rural Arizona take up temporary residence in the Valley, and, unencumbered by family and other commitments, socialize with lobbyists in restaurants and even at the Capitol, where alcohol is sometimes freely poured in legislators’ offices.
There are no prohibitions on lawmakers’ use of alcohol at the Capitol.
Throw in the absence of consistently enforced rules of conduct, and the Legislature is prone to an anythinggoes atmosphere, said one woman with years of lobbying experience.
“The hours, the amount of time, the intensity of the issues, the need to find allies, create friends and attract foes, all of those dynamics contribute to a different culture than you’re going to find most other places,” she said.
Another longtime female lobbyist said it’s not uncommon to lose a legislative battle to younger female lobbyists who dress in short dresses, low-cut tops or platform high heels to try to win votes. Others interviewed told similar stories.
Around the Capitol, these women sometimes are referred to as “fluffers,” a term used in the adult-entertainment industry. In this setting, it means women who get lawmakers in a jovial mood before talking business.
“I don’t want to lose because I didn’t wear a miniskirt,” the female lobbyist said. “I’ve had that happen, and (to lawmakers) I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, just because she showed you her boobs doesn’t mean you have to hold my bills,’ “she said.
“That happens — absolutely, it happens.” Another female lobbyist recalled a lawmaker’s remark about her high heels.
As she sat in the office of a male lawmaker, he told her that her pumps reminded him of handles, and could be useful as grips during a certain sexual position, she recalled.
The encounter was mortifying, she said.
She complained to a close friend within days. That friend verified their conversation.
“She told me about how disgusted she was that someone would even say that,” the friend confirmed to
The lobbyist did not complain to leaders at the Legislature. Doing so, she figured, would hurt her career. She already had come to accept that sort of behavior as an occupational hazard.
“It’s a dismissive attitude towards women, and particularly young women,” she said.
When she first arrived at the Capitol, she said she showed up to public hearings and private meetings with lawmakers armed with reams of information to argue for or against legislation.
When her intellect didn’t sway opinions, she said she changed her approach. “We all use the things at our disposal, within reason,” she said.
She said she would try to persuade some lawmakers with comments such as, “Oh, let’s just go get a beer and be fun. You love this bill, right?
“And all of the sudden, they do,” she said. “I know it’s kind of hypocritical to be playing both sides of it.”
Here for a client, not a crusade
A male lobbyist, the one who sometimes asks female colleagues to charm lawmakers, said he notices certain male legislators stand uncomfortably close to attractive women at the Capitol.
“When they talk to me, there’s a good three feet in between us,” he said. “When they talk to some of these ladies, there isn’t five inches. But (the women) need to get their job done, so they’re going to take that opportunity to get their message out. It’s creepy.”
At times, he says, he “fears” for some female lobbyists — especially those who pull long nights out drinking alongside certain lawmakers.
Another male lobbyist said he does not send in young women to meet with lawmakers alone.
“Politics is a unique environment,” he said. “You have people who have a position that they can use, and if they happen to be a little less than scrupulous about it, there’s not really much recourse.”
In that environment, the elected officials hold all the power, he said, adding, “The person sitting across that desk largely dictates how that relationship goes. You have to balance what that person is asking of you versus your client and your personal comfort level.” Lobbyists know they are there for a job, he said. “At the end of the day, their first priority is to make money to feed their families, not to help clean up whatever it is that’s going on down there,” the male lobbyist said.
“Their clients pay them to get things done. They don’t pay them to go on a crusade.”
Taking action to set boundaries
Not everyone has witnessed inappropriate behavior. Several people interviewed by The Republic said they have made a point to avoid lawmakers who are notoriously vulgar, and they avoid after-hours events.
Instead, they focus their lobbying efforts on members and legislative staffers who have reputations for professionally tackling complex policy issues.
Rep. Regina Cobb, a dentist and Republican from Kingman, said she hasn’t seen behavior at the Capitol that is any different than what she would see in the dental industry.
Generally, she said, women are treated “equally, on the same footing” as men.
During her first year at the Legislature, she said “someone touched me inappropriately one day, and I gave an elbow to the chest.” She declined to say who it was, adding, “It wasn’t super-inappropriate ... but inappropriate enough.”
She added, “I’ve been able to handle any kind of inappropriate comments without issues.”
One female lobbyist with more than a decade of experience said there is a “network” of female lobbyists at the Capitol who band together in dealing with male legislators who are known to make women uncomfortable. For example, she said, if she sees another lobbyist is trapped, she will join the conversation.
There are also avoidance strategies, she said. Multiple lobbyists told The Republic they try to skip meetings with the handful of male lawmakers who have reputations for inappropriate behavior. Other lobbyists avoid socializing at happy hours altogether.
Another female lobbyist, who has worked in the profession for about a decade, said to succeed at the state Capitol, people must be able to appeal to 90 personalities in the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as their assistants and staffers.
She said that environment can be tough for young professionals to navigate. That’s why she deliberately sets boundaries for her relationships with elected officials.
“I don’t socialize with lawmakers down there,” she said. “I don’t have late nights with them. I just don’t create environments that could lead to interactions that I don’t want to have, or quite frankly, don’t want to have to manage through.”
She said she uses her kids as excuses to be unavailable for cocktails and dinner.
“In my experience, regardless of how emotionally mature someone may be, if they have too many cocktails, those rules change,” she said.
Lawmakers also decry ‘patriarchy’
While lobbyists often are the target of more egregious behavior, elected officials said they also have faced harassment or sexist treatment.
The swirl of sexual-misconduct accusations at the Legislature began after Rep. Michele Ugenti-Rita, RScottsdale, said in October that she has been harassed by several male colleagues over the years and faced retaliation for reporting it.
She said Shooter was one of her harassers, alleging he made comments about her breasts and, once, at a conference, knocked on the door of her hotel room late at night holding a six-pack of beer. She said it wasn’t the only unwanted advance.
Shooter has denied the accusations. He responded by accusing Ugenti-Rita of having an inappropriate relationship with a legislative staff member and making a comment about masturbation in a public hearing.
The House has hired an outside investigator to review both sets of accusations, along with multiple other complaints against Shooter.
But the claims against Shooter are just part of the inappropriate treatment that female lawmakers say they have experienced. House Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said she has received unwanted advances from colleagues. She declined to name them.
Other female lawmakers said mistreatment has come in the form of inappropriate comments or belittling behavior.
Alston, who first joined the Legislature in 1977, recalled a time early in her tenure when a male lawmaker, mistaking her for a page, ordered her to get him a cup of coffee and pick up some papers that had been copied. She said the lawmaker in question later apologized.
She said she hasn’t seen much improvement in the decades since, even though Arizona has the highest percentage of female legislators of any state in the nation, with 15 of 30 senators and 22 of 60 representatives.
During last year’s legislative session, Alston said, it was common for male members to quickly leave the House floor and go to the members’ lounge when younger, recently elected female representatives spoke.
“The lounge would be full,” Alston said. “It was upsetting to me that so many of the folks chose to leave the floor and not listen.”
Rep. Athena Salman, who is 28 and was elected in 2016, said the Legislature’s sexist atmosphere was immediately apparent to her.
In her first week, she said, Shooter told her she “would be a nice view to look at.” Then she noticed other male lawmakers roll their eyes and audibly sigh when she spoke.
“It’s just so in-your-face at the Legislature,” said Salman, D-Tempe. “If there’s any lesson that comes out of this, it’s that women aren’t being respected in a variety of ways.”
Shooter declined to respond to the allegation when it originally was made in November.
Will the culture change?
The House didn’t have a written harassment policy until late October. The Senate has had a policy since 2005, but it had not been widely circulated in years.
Mesnard, the House speaker, has perhaps been most outspoken on the issue, encouraging anyone with complaints to come forward as he launched that chamber’s investigation.
He noted that complaints of harassment have shaken institutions across the country, from Hollywood to the media to the U.S. Congress.
Traditionally, women have have been highly visible in Arizona politics, Mesnard said.
But some lobbyists and lawmakers interviewed for this article are skeptical that any change to the sexist culture will last, especially when Mesnard is no longer speaker. He is running for state Senate and will leave the House next year.
A female lobbyist said in spite of the investigation, she sees little support for people speaking out publicly about harassment.
Some legislators have brushed off the accusations against Shooter in her presence, without prompting, she said.
“It seems now, more than ever, this is a culture that not only looks the other way but condones the harassment of women, and the sexual harassment of women,” she said.
A male lobbyist agreed that there seems to be little support for people reporting misconduct. Even with the ongoing investigation into Shooter and Ugenti-Rita, he said, “I’ve met with legislators even today, and there are jokes about what’s going on.”
He said he has heard colleagues and lawmakers make obscene and “degrading” remarks about women for years. But, he said, few people would risk complaining to leadership unless behaviors get into the criminal realm.
“If you say, ‘Hey, you’re talking about somebody’s mother, or somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s sister,’ I’m the bad guy now, and my client’s bill is in trouble because I stood up,” he said.
Asked about the culture at the Capitol, another female lobbyist vividly recalled an encounter with a former Republican lawmaker who is no longer at the Capitol but still holds public office.
For weeks, her employer tried to get a meeting with him. Finally, the lawmaker relented and she crammed into his small office alongside her boss, another lobbyist who was in her 70s at the time.
After the meeting, the two women sat in a car outside the Capitol complex. She recalled telling her boss, “You know what I did today? I’m not proud of it, but I wore a short skirt.”
Her boss replied, “Honey, so did I.”