When the #MeToo movement began gathering steam last fall, Maryland state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-District 17) started compiling a mental list of the men who have harassed her since 1995, when she arrived in Annapolis as a state delegate.
“It’s a long list,” she said. “As the days went by I went, ‘Oh yeah, him.’”
One, she said, was Gil Genn, an Annapolis lobbyist who had served with Kagan in the House of Delegates. Kagan said Genn touched her on the stomach at least three times dating back to the mid-1990s. The first time she said nothing. The second time she asked him to stop.
The third time she threatened to call his wife. Genn stopped touching her after that.
Until March 1, when Kagan said Genn touched her buttocks in an Annapolis bar. A security video of the incident is inconclusive, although it shows Genn moving his hand down Kagan’s back.
On March 13, Kagan, 56, called a news conference, where she played the video and called Genn a “serial harasser.” Genn has denied much of Kagan’s account.
“It was the wrong guy choosing the wrong woman at the wrong time,” Kagan said on Sunday, sitting in Hard Times Café in Rockville, one of her favorite spots to chat with constituents. “I would have thought that he might have learned, gotten the message and kept his damn hands to himself.”
Kagan said her experience is not unique, and that penalties for sexual harassers are needed to change the work culture in the Maryland General Assembly.
Kagan said that since she went public, seven other women have approached her with similar stories about Genn. She has also received hundreds of messages of support. She said her seniority in the General Assembly has given her the confidence to speak out without fear of retribution. But the freshman delegate or college intern doesn’t have the same power.
“It’s not that we’ve all been raped or sexually assaulted, but we have in some way been harassed, touched inappropriately or disrespected in some way that made us uncomfortable and vulnerable professionally,” she said.
Del. Ariana Kelly (D-District 16), 41, a member of the House for eight years, said much of the sexual harassment she experienced was in her first term, when she was younger, new to Annapolis and more vulnerable.
She wrote in The Washington Post about a married male colleague who grabbed her buttocks while two other male colleagues watched. She did not report the incident to human resources, but confronted the member directly.
In an interview with Washington Jewish Week, Kelly said she has heard similar stories from other women across the United States that are “heartbreaking.”
“People have said, ‘I gave up on my dream career because the environment was hostile to me,’” she said.
At the heart of the issue, Kelly said, is the fact that older men are still mostly the ones in charge in politics.
“Those sectors where there is a disparity in power dynamics, men have more power,” she said. “And the areas where there are a lot of young people have more harassment.”
In February, the more than 60 female legislators in the General Assembly’s House and Senate who compose the Women’s Caucus released a report calling for reforms addressing workplace culture issues, improving the sexual assault reporting process and expanding sexual assault training for legislators, lobbyists and staff. The report also calls for the Maryland State Ethics Commission to investigate and impose penalties on lobbyists accused of sexual harassment.
Kelly, the president of the Women’s Caucus who helped write the report, introduced a bill to give the ethics commission the authority to investigate complaints from legislators that have accused lobbyists of sexual harassment, and vice versa. The bill also would establish a clear definition of sexual harassment and specify the type of penalties that could occur. The bill currently sits in the House, with the session set to end on April 9.
The measures set out in the bill are desperately needed, said Kagan. And she thinks that fear of stiffer penalties will be the most effective way of preventing, not just prosecuting, sexual harassment.
“When prospective harassers understand that their career and their reputation could be at stake, I would think that they would act more prudently,” she said.