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What sexual harassment claims tell us about trust in the Alaska Capitol

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 16, 2017
  • Published December 16, 2017

Alaska state Capitol. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Trust. That's the most important word in the story about what the House majority coalition would do in the case of former Rep. Dean Westlake, accused of sexual harassment by one named and six anonymous women who worked as aides at the Alaska Capitol.

The context for that word in the Anchorage Daily News story by Julia O'Malley and Nathaniel Herz, published before Westlake's resignation on Friday, was a quote from House Majority Leader Chris Tuck about problems with the system of investigating harassment complaints: "Women don't trust it."

True enough. That's why women often don't formally complain of harassment or worse.

But the issue of trust goes deeper than a flawed system for complaints.

Trust is fundamental to decency and respect in any workplace. A legislative aide needs to know she can trust her boss — or any legislator. She needs to know that those who hold the power of office and the power of employment will not abuse that power, will keep those relationships clean and forthright, will treat her with respect and awareness of where she draws her lines.

It's not rote. What's offensive to one woman is not offensive to another, and what's acceptable can change with the level of trust and respect established in any work environment. For that matter, the same applies to what's offensive or uncomfortable to men, for women can be harassers and abusers of power too, although in this case we're talking about men. Either way, with that respect and goodwill — not power-tripping and harassment — men and women will figure it out.

This doesn't have to be complicated. When in doubt, gentlemen, keep your mouth shut. When in doubt, keep your hands to yourself. A woman will generally let you know if she wants to be hugged or not. If not, then don't. Know the difference between a friendly hug and something else. Be a gentleman, not a jerk.

If you are a legislator, you're an elected representative of the people of Alaska. That job description alone should suffice to prevent harassment. Like it or not, you're held to a high standard of behavior. Alaskans have a right to expect that you'll run an office where women can work without harassment, and feel safe and respected, as a given. These are the standards that should be reality, not just talk. Violate those standards and you betray the trust of the women you harass, your colleagues and your constituents. Violate those standards and you create a workplace that can range from uncomfortable to toxic, forcing women to arrive at the office with their guard up, with energy devoted to wariness rather than work, with a sense that loveliness will draw a leer rather than a smile. And that is a shame.

That's what Rep. Westlake created around himself, to an extent that seven women have spoken of sexual harassment. The one woman who decided to give her name did so partly out of frustration with Westlake's continuing behavior — although Westlake did not harass her again after a warning from House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, he apparently continued his behavior with other women. Now he's out, and that's justice.

But clearly, lawmakers have work to do. They need to take a hard look at how much they've tolerated — or perpetrated – sexual harassment. There's mandatory training for lawmakers and aides ahead; Rep. Tuck has spoken of independent investigators for sexual harassment complaints. And Alaska women have joined the rest of the nation and much of the world in saying not just "MeToo" but "NoMore."

There's another way to change the landscape. Men in the Legislature — elected members and everyone else who works there — need to set an example and a standard that says simply that men here don't harass women, and that those who do won't be able to take shelter in power, party or boys-will-be-boys tolerance. Instead, they'll have the contempt of their colleagues, and short, unhappy careers should they cling to office.

Again, this shouldn't be that difficult. How would you like any of the women you love to be treated — wife, mother, daughter, sister, girlfriend? With dignity and decency. That's what any woman deserves. Around good men, she can take that for granted. Act accordingly, gentlemen. Be trustworthy.

BOTTOM LINE: Good men don't harass women. That should be a written and unwritten rule of the Legislature.

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