Amid all the talk about the misbehavior so obviously plaguing Jefferson City, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill contends that the real issue is that little has changed.
She was an intern in the Missouri capital 41 years ago. “I am bitterly disappointed that the climate has not changed significantly since 1974,’’ the senator said, recalling her own experiences with off-color jokes and unsolicited sexual comments.
And McCaskill remembers the self-doubt of what she should do. “I wanted to be an intern, and I wanted to learn,” she told reporters in a Tuesday conference call. “I was afraid if I told the university they’d decide they didn’t want to do the intern program anymore. So I just tried to handle it myself.”
That backdrop is why McCaskill is suggesting that a special advocacy organization be set up to simply give interns a non-threatening source to talk to, where they could get constructive information about how to handle a situation, file a formal complaint and even hire a lawyer.
She says she got the idea after an evening chat with Alissa Hembree, the former college intern whose accusations of sexual harassment led to last week’s resignation of state Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence.
The LeVota case was the second such incident in less than three months. During the last week of the legislative session in May, Missouri House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, was forced to step down amid publicity over his sexually charged text messages with a college-age intern.
Hembree had approached McCaskill as a result of the senator’s work to address sexual assault on college campuses and in the military. Hembree also told McCaskill that she was grateful for the senator’s public comments of support soon after the controversy broke over the allegations against LeVota.
“We’re going to put our heads together. She’s going to work with some of my staff, to see if we can come up with some way to form an organization that could help address some of the shortfalls that are obvious from these situations,” McCaskill said.
The aim would be to help “young women or young men who feel that they’re being sexually harassed as part of their work as interns in this state, whether as interns in government or interns in any other position. That there would be some kind of organization that they could turn to.”
McCaskill emphasized that in Hembree's case, "I'm really proud of her" because of the intern's willingness to go public.
Victims often fear consequences of going public
Young people in such positions face a dilemma, McCaskill said, in that they’d like to resolve such matters – especially in the early stages -- without them turning into public scandals.
There’s real fear among such victims, she said. That “you will be marginalized in the workplace, that you’ll jeopardize your future in some way, in terms of someone blacklisting you. That you won’t be taken seriously.
“There’s a long list of worries that go through a young woman’s mind,” the senator said.
She recalled her own self-doubt as a young woman legislator in the 1980s. “If I complain about these off-color jokes and inappropriate comments, then all of the sudden I worry I won’t be as effective as a legislator.”
As an intern and a legislator, McCaskill said, “I just tried to avoid situations that were making me uncomfortable. But there really wasn’t anybody I could talk to about it.”
As she talked to Hembree, McCaskill observed, “It was sad for me to hear this same refrain from this young woman, that she didn’t feel like there was anyone she could talk to.”
McCaskill emphasized that she supported the plans of legislative leaders to conduct training sessions to highlight the correct behavior for legislators and interns.
But referring to lawmakers, she added dryly that it was sad that “they would need a class to know that this kind of conduct is not appropriate.”
Governor renews call for ethics reform
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, also a Democrat, appears to be relaunching his longstanding bid for stricter state ethics laws governing public officials.
Among other things, Nixon said Tuesday that he wants to restore the state’s campaign donation limits, curb lobbyists’ gifts to public officials and require a waiting period before legislators can become lobbyists.
Nixon contends that the loose climate contributed to the antics that forced Diehl and LeVota out of office.
Some legislative critics contend that Nixon’s proposals would do little to curb sexual misconduct.
But McCaskill, speaking in general, asserted that the state’s weak ethics laws feed the inappropriate atmosphere in Jefferson City.
“In some ways, that’s what hasn’t changed,” she said. “The culture of free dinners, of committee hearings in restaurants with free liquor … The one thing that is not going to change is that there is an insular feel of the place. When you’re there, you don’t feel like you’re as accountable.”
Tell us what you know
What does this plan by Sen. McCaskill mean to you? Please respond through our Public Insight Network. St. Louis Public Radio uses this journalism tool to help us solicit knowledge and insight from people who become sources through the Network. Click here to share.