‘I’ve Personally Sacrificed My Entire Career for This’

The debate around sexual-harassment legislation is playing out in the Maryland General Assembly, where reform advocates say leadership is loath to embrace changes.

Confetti falls from the Maryland House of Delegates chamber gallery following the closing of the state's legislative session. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

In Maryland, legislative sessions run 90 days, from January through early April. On the final day of each session—commonly referred to by the Latin term sine die—the capital city of Annapolis lets its hair down. There is dining and dancing and parties galore as aides, lawmakers, and lobbyists celebrate having survived the season.

A few years back, at one sine die soiree hosted by a legislator, a former Annapolis aide (who requested anonymity because she remains involved in Maryland politics) took to the dance floor. “I was dancing a little bit by myself,” she recalled. “All of a sudden I hear, ‘You’re packing a little bit more than I thought back here!’ I turn around, and this legislator is dancing right behind me. I was like, ‘Ooookay. This is a little weird. I know your wife and kids.’ So I tried to subtly move away.” The legislator followed, recalled the ex-aide. And then: “He got aroused.” The young woman made a swift escape, and, she informed me, “I have not spoken to that legislator one-on-one since.”

Stories of lawmakers behaving piggishly are common around Annapolis. Like far too many workplaces, the Maryland General Assembly has a long-standing harassment problem. Aides, interns, lobbyists, members—no one is exempt, although the young and inexperienced have an especially rough time. “It was really, really hard for me during my first terms. I cried quietly to myself a lot,” recalled Ariana Kelly, now in her eighth year in the house of delegates and the chair of the legislature’s women’s caucus. Starting out, Kelly endured not only gross comments but also wandering hands, including one male lawmaker’s grabbing her butt in front of two others. “I had worked in media and the nonprofit world,” Kelly told me, “but I had never worked in an environment that I felt was as hostile to women as the legislature I walked into. It was awful.”

Such close encounters tend to be shared in whispers among the women involved. The state House is a small, insular community, and there’s institutional pressure for any misbehavior to be dealt with in-house, discreetly, so as not to invite outside scrutiny. Lawmakers say violating omerta or otherwise “stepping out of line” can bring retribution in the form of bills derailed or plum assignments denied.

“If you’re not a team player, you’re off the team,” one legislator explained of the prevailing attitude. As applied to harassment, she said, “If you’re not culpable, if you’re not actively participating in the cover up, then you’re part of the problem.”

This dynamic has made life around Annapolis awkward of late, as the “Me Too” movement has infiltrated the state House. Women up and down the political food chain are agitating for reform with increasing ferocity, opening up fault lines in the legislature and leading to all sorts of awkwardness, pushback, and friction among colleagues—at times among the reformers themselves. Such conflict, in turn, has led even more women to speak out and has drawn even more attention to some of the less savory aspects of state House culture. This, reformers say, is precisely what’s needed to bring accountability to a stubbornly closed system unable to police itself.

Some of the credit for Annapolis’s reform push must go to Donald Trump. In November 2016, spurred in part by the outcry over Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes, the women’s caucus formed a special working group to examine harassment in and around the capitol—interviewing victims, researching best practices in other states, and hammering out policy recommendations. Those involved say that the project began slowly, with few members and zero interest from top leadership. But, later, as Me Too caught fire, the issue became impossible to ignore.

Fast forward to this February, when the caucus issued its final report. Based on those recommendations, Kelly rolled out a reform bill that she hopes to get adopted before the session ends next month. One key measure sought: establishment of an independent entity to investigate harassment complaints. (Currently, complaints go through either leadership or the legislature’s HR office.)

But change is hard. And even some folks leading this charge are skeptical that reform legislation will pass any time soon. As they tell it, leadership is too invested in the current system, too accustomed to handling such matters itself (anti-harassment measures are typically set by the legislative policy committee, headed by leaders from both chambers), and loath to embrace changes that would loosen that control. “Everything is self-policing,” said Delegate Angela Angel, who went public with her harassment experiences this month. “Even for us to get this bill out, we have to convince people, some of whom, even if they aren’t necessarily directly perpetrators, have led to this system.”

Kelly, while upbeat about her proposal’s chances in the state House, acknowledged, “The senate president was not as encouraging about its prospects.”

Complicating matters, in January, as the women’s caucus was wrapping up its probe, leadership announced it was forming its own commission to study the problem, with findings to be reported at year’s end. Senior members say the move shows how seriously leadership is taking this problem. Some reformers, however, see it as a way to slow the reform train until after the November elections—perhaps until the Me Too moment fades altogether. “It’s painted like, ‘Oh, because we really care, we really want to address the issue,’” scoffed Angel. But if they seriously want to tackle the problem, she said, “why don’t they address the work already done [by the women’s caucus] as opposed to creating a whole new entity to dilute things?”

Many women around Annapolis speak of state House leadership with a mix of fear and resignation. Presiding officers and senior committee chairmen are portrayed as untouchable and unforgiving of any perceived challenge to their authority. (Multiple calls to the offices of state Senate President Mike Miller and state House Speaker Michael Busch were not returned.)

“When you get down here, one of the very first things you learn is the seniority system,” said Angel. Young legislators are taught that relationships—especially with powerful senior members—are the key to success.

Some new arrivals also receive discreet advice from more senior women on how to avoid awkward encounters with male legislators: don’t wear this, don’t accept drink invitations from this member, don’t be alone with that one. Others are left to figure things out on their own. But the burden is always on the woman to learn “how to navigate the system,” said Angel.

Kelly recalled that, when she would (gently) chide male colleagues for crude comments or behavior, they’d “get defensive” and accuse her of being the problem. “I heard a lot [of] folks say, ‘Delegate Kelly, you need to change the way you act, the way you communicate, the way you express yourself. Clearly you are bringing this behavior out in people.’ It was always about me and what was wrong with me that I allowed myself to be in a situation where I was harassed.”

For black women, said Angel, the equation is even trickier. “You are painted into this ‘angry’ corner. I’m like, ‘Oh, you said something completely out of pocket, yet when I respond, I’m overreacting.” She recalled witnessing a male lawmaker coming on to a female colleague. When the woman called him on it, the man treated her like she was misreading the situation. “He was like, ‘I wasn’t really hitting on you. I’ve got my own [love interest]. You’re taking it the wrong way!’”

Until just the past couple of months, few women would speak about such experiences—or even about the broader need for reform—on the record. In December, Nina Smith, who has held various jobs in Maryland politics over the years, tried to get women in and around the state House to sign a letter to the head of the General Assembly's HR Office saying that, despite anti-harassment measures put in place by leadership, more needed to be done. But Smith couldn’t find any women willing to sign, even among those who had shared their stories with her and urged her to draft it. “I was getting radio silence,” she said. The fear of reprisal was too strong. Eventually, said Smith, “I gave up.” (Two months later, Smith herself went public, telling the women’s caucus about having been harassed by a half-dozen lawmakers during her time in Annapolis.)

Reform advocates told me they expect to suffer professional fallout for speaking out. “It has been heartbreaking and horrible,” said one lawmaker. “I feel like I’ve personally sacrificed my entire career for this.”

Angel said she has a “bill wall” on which she keeps track of legislation she’s championing. “I’m literally looking at it and saying, ‘What is somebody going to kill as a result of me pushing on this?’” (Angel recounted past instances when, after crossing leadership on some issue, her amendments had mysteriously vanished or been delayed for no apparent reason.)

Some of the pushback is less than subtle. Kelly said some male colleagues have been grumbling that, because of the fuss she and other women are making about harassment, the men no longer “feel comfortable” meeting with them or “building the relationships needed to move forward” on issues the women care about.

Then there was the incident with the open letter. The women’s caucus report included stories from anonymous harassment victims, one of whom characterized the legislature as a “frat house.” This juicy bit was picked up by the local media, greatly displeasing some senior members.

“I’m a 56-year-old grandmother. I’m not in a frat house,” said Delegate Kathy Szeliga, who serves as whip for the Republican minority. “I’m very serious about the business of the people. I don’t want my constituents and voters in our state thinking we’re in Annapolis for 90 days having a big party.”

Szeliga and other women in leadership decided to circulate an “open letter to the press” that decried the frat-house depiction as “unfair and inaccurate,” stressed the pro-women aspects of the legislature, and praised leadership’s ongoing efforts to combat harassment. Women in both chambers and both parties were urged to sign. Fifty-seven of the assembly’s 60 women put their names on the letter, which was covered by the Washington Post , ran verbatim on the paper’s website, and, at the behest of state Senate President Miller, was read aloud on the senate floor on February 28.

Some reform advocates felt the letter was a betrayal. “It was devastating,” said Delegate Mary Washington. Washington was one of the three women who’d declined to sign, for fear it would be used to undercut the cause. “In fact that was how it was used,” she told me. “It was read on the Senate floor and was used to say, ‘See, women in leadership believe [the situation] is okay.’”

Nina Smith was so upset that she and two other reformers fired off a statement of protest, which also wound up in the news. “We are disappointed to learn so many legislators had disregarded the stories of current and former staffers,” they wrote. “With this action, many of us have been forced to relive our traumatic experiences.”

Faced with such backlash, Kelly asked that her name be taken off the original letter from lawmakers. She said she’d signed it with the hope of smoothing relations between the “two factions” of women members. “I think most people read the letter and understood you have to find a balance all the time in the legislative process,” she told me. Still, all that anger coming at her “from victims we had been trying to work with and support was really hard,” said Kelly.

But the roiling controversy seems to have fired up reformers. On March 2, a state senator and a former lobbyist became the first Annapolis women to call out their alleged harassers by name. (This has launched its own media sideshow, complete with name-calling and security-camera footage.) Three days later, Angel and two other delegates shared their stories of harassment during the state House Rules Committee hearing on Kelly’s bill.

Meanwhile, Angel says she’s hearing from victims who saw the whole letter kerfuffle as a wake-up call. “They told me, ‘What that letter showed me is that I surely can’t depend on these women to fight for me, so I’m going to fight for me.’” As a legislator, said Angel, this breaks her heart. “But it made me proud that this gave these women the fire to tell their truth. Because the truth of the matter is that no one is going to fight for you like you will.”

At the very least, all the back and forth is keeping the issue in the public eye, which reformers say is vital to effecting real change, whether by legislative or other means.

“Public pressure still may not get you the bill,” said Angel. “But it may get us to a point where we have some really frank and honest conversations. And sometimes that’s progress.”