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Colorado Has A History Of Women In Politics — And A Harassment Problem


Nearly 40 percent of state lawmakers in Colorado are women. It's among the highest rates of female political representation around the country. In the U.S. Congress, for example, fewer than 20 percent of lawmakers are women. And Colorado has a long history of women serving in powerful political positions.

So when reporter Bente Birkeland of member station KUNC went asking around the Colorado Statehouse about sexual harassment, she wasn't expecting to find much of a story. Instead, her reporting has uncovered multiple instances of harassment of interns, staffers, even fellow lawmakers. And Bente joins us now. Welcome.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SUAREZ: What did you find out in your reporting that began to lead you to conclude that the Colorado Statehouse wasn't different than many other organizations when it came to this issue?

BIRKELAND: Overall, I thought, you know, we have a pretty good system here. I'm just going to ask around 'cause I should do my due diligence. And when I started talking to people about the general culture, a lot of things came up. People talked about specifically a Democratic lawmaker, Representative Steve Loebsack - he's also running for state treasurer - about intimidating behavior, harassing, vulgar language.

A Democratic fellow lawmaker claims that Representative Loebsack said sexually vulgar words to her and tried to get her to leave a party with him. Another lawmaker then said he intervened and helped out in that situation. And she's since filed a formal complaint. Aides and interns talk about their buttocks being grabbed when they set a piece of paper on someone's desk, lingering hugs, crude language. And so it was a lot more widespread than I imagined.

SUAREZ: And after your initial reporting came out, what's happened to Steve Loebsack?

BIRKELAND: Eleven people have now come forward. Five of them have publicly voiced concerns. And we do have two formal complaints against Representative Loebsack. Top Democrats, including the speaker of the House and the governor, have called for his resignation. Loebsack has said he won't step down or resign because he's done nothing wrong.

A Democratic colleague has drafted a bill to oust him from the Legislature. That takes a two-thirds vote. And that could happen when lawmakers return to the Capitol on January 10. We have another formal complaint filed against another Democrat from his former roommate. And then two Republican senators are facing formal complaints. So far, no one has called for them to resign.

SUAREZ: Right at this moment we're seeing a lot of activism encouraging women to run for office to correct the substantial gender imbalance in national politics. But Colorado is a state that's already gone down this road a long way. It's much closer to parity than almost anywhere else. How is it that this widespread sexual harassment has been tolerated, well, pretty much until your reporting?

BIRKELAND: We still have the same power dynamics in play as other statehouses across the country and Congress. Lobbyists, they're worried about their careers. They want to build relationships with lawmakers. And so a lot is at stake regarding coming forward. And then a lot of the young aides and interns are sometimes in the Capitol for a very temporary basis. And they've told me they just brush off concerns 'cause they're trying to make a good impression, make contacts, move up in their careers. One person told me she just closes her eyes and waits for it to be over when something uncomfortable happens.

Another problem for a lot of people is that these complaints do go through legislative leaders. And people find that problematic because leaders are ultimately there to protect their caucus and to protect their party's majority. And people don't feel comfortable legislative leaders knowing that they're filing a complaint against a member.

SUAREZ: So, Bente, you're still working this story.

BIRKELAND: Yes, we're working on this issue. And there's other incidences I haven't been able to corroborate yet and report on, but I don't think this is the end of it.

SUAREZ: That's reporter Bente Birkeland of member station KUNC. Thanks for talking to us.

BIRKELAND: My pleasure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.