Staffer abuse victim speaks out
Former aide to Esty cites ‘huge problem’ in Congress
When Anna Kain told her story — the one about how she was abused and threatened as a staffer in U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s office — she knew there might be backlash.
She knew there might be questions, calls for Esty’s resignation and a media firestorm.
But Kain said she did not tell her story for revenge or to finally get the help she never received. She did not tell her story to end the political career of a promising congresswoman and the man who abused her.
And she did not tell her story for the apologies.
Kain, 29, saw the movement she had silently helped start come to a screeching halt — and knew she could not stay quiet.
“The ultimate reason I came forward is because there’s a huge problem on Capitol Hill,” Kain said in an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media. “There was all of this momentum, but then it stalled and not much was actually done. It seemed to me that the only thing that really motivates
lawmakers and keeps the national conversation going is stories like mine being shared.”
Kain is a founding member of Congress Too, a group of former Capitol Hill staffers pushing for sweeping reforms of the way sexual harassment and abuse is handled in legislative offices. Founded in November, on the heels of the Me Too movement in Hollywood and long before Kain ever went public with her story, the group has penned letters to both the House of Representatives and, last week, the Senate, urging them to pass legislation that would do just that.
The November letter garnered more than 1,500 signatures of support from former Capitol Hill staffers, and ultimately the legislation passed in the House. But that was two months ago, and it’s been sitting in the Senate ever since.
So Kain came forward. She told the story of how she was abused for months when Esty’s former Chief of Staff Tony Baker became her boss, about ultimately being punched and threatened with death by Baker, and about how too little was done far too late.
“This isn’t just a statistic about
the prevalence of harassment in congressional offices,” Kain said. “It was my way of saying that this not only really happens, but here’s exactly what happens and how and why this system failed.”
The letter to the Senate, which Kain signed and publicly promoted on her Facebook page after her story was published, closed earlier this week with more than 1,300 additional signatures. In the aftermath of Kain’s story, dozens of people with experiences just like hers reached out, proving what she’d always known — that she’s not the only one.
“Right now I’m interested in focusing on the need for reform of the system that failed me and continues to fail staffers when they need it most,” Kain said. “Congress Too and this letter to the Senate has been one actionable step that I could take both by signing and helping promote it.”
Kain is done rehashing the details of what was or wasn’t done in her office. She has no interest in being the face of the story — and she has no inclination to comment on Esty’s decision not to run for re-election in November. Because for Kain, her part of the story has been told and it’s not about one office and one incident of abuse.
It’s about a culture so pervasive and so ingrained on Capitol
Hill that she, as a 24-year-old in her first professional job, thought that’s what being an adult was supposed to be like. And when she realized it wasn’t, had no idea where to turn.
“I didn’t even know that the Office of Compliance even existed during the entire time that I worked on the Hill,” Kain said. “And I looked numerous times to try when it was really bad in the office, desperately in search of someplace to go and someone to talk with about this. I didn’t find anything. The only thing that seemed evident was the Ethics Committee, and it was really clear to me when I did look them up, it’s not the equivalent of an HR.”
There’s an obvious hierarchy on Capitol Hill — from interns to the most senior level staffers and elected officials — that creates a power dynamic unlike almost any other industry, Kain said.
There’s also a whispered but unwritten rule across all Congressional offices: don’t do anything or bring in any personal business that could reflect poorly on your elected official. And definitely don’t burden that person with cries for help.
It’s the kind of combined power structure and mentality where abuse can thrive, and the reason Kain waited months to tell anyone in her office, and years to tell the public.
“I think a lot of women are inclined to de-escalate,” Kain said. “I just thought, ‘Maybe this is what it’s like to be an adult at work and I just needed to toughen up.’ It just didn’t seem worthy of bringing it up. I think the events of May 5, 2016, were quite literally what scared me into being forced to realize all of that.”
Esty said she only learned of Baker’s abusive relationship with Kain after that alcohol-fueled gathering in May that he organized to celebrate his 10th year of working on Capitol Hill. Baker got drunk and texted or called Kain about 50 times, and he threatened to find her and kill her.
It was obvious from the time she was hired, Kain said, that preventing personal conflicts and offering resources for staffers who’ve experienced workplace harassment and abuse was not a priority in any legislative office, let alone the one where she worked.
“We didn’t even have like a basic harassment training or anything like that,” Kain said. “We had a chemical leak training but not a just general workplace harassment training and what is OK and not OK in the most basic sense . ... It sends a pretty strong signal about what is important and what is worthy of even having a policy for.”
But Kain doesn’t work on Capitol Hill anymore. She’s free to tell her story, and along with the thousands of other former staffers, push for the reform to make available the resources she never had.
“My hope is that two things come of this,” she said. “The first is that it contributes in a meaningful way to the national conversation and gets Congress to do something to fix this problem. The second, is that if after all of this, if even one person, working on the Hill reads my story and recognizes that some of the things sound similar to what they’re going through, and because I shared my story, feel compelled to share theirs, I think that will be a success. I can’t even honestly fathom how much of a difference it would have made if people were talking about this when I worked there.”
Although Esty fired Baker in 2016 after learning about the abuse of Kain, recent revelations about how the congresswoman mishandled the Baker episode ultimately led to calls for her departure.
On April 2, Esty announced she would not seek re-election for a fourth term in Congress.
Anna Kain’s Facebook profile photo.