Josh Kurtz: Annapolis Mad Men

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By: Josh Kurtz

“The boys are back in town”
       --Thin Lizzy

For women – especially for younger women – Annapolis from mid-January to mid-April can be a treacherous place.

All too often, State Circle and environs become a breeding ground for sexual harassment.

Talk to women legislators and lobbyists and advocates and staffers and interns – and I interviewed a dozen – and they all have a story to tell. About the delegate who isn’t allowed to have female interns anymore because he was getting a little too “hands-on.” About the senior lawmaker who cut a woman lobbyist off with a “Not now, honey” when she began to speak during a five-person meeting in his office – while he was squeezing her leg. About the legislators who won’t meet your eyes because their gaze is fixed a little lower. About the lawmakers who insist on greeting you with kisses or whose “friendly” hugs always last uncomfortably long.

It makes it hard for women to do their jobs – and requires a great degree of daily strategic planning beyond just getting up to speed on critical issues or coping with a hectic schedule.

“I’m very conscious of how I dress during session,” one lawmaker says. “Nothing too tight, too short, too low. I want to make sure my colleagues listen to what I say and aren’t paying attention to anything else.”

And several women in Annapolis describe their days as a kind of slalom, moving through the halls of the legislative buildings with a keen eye on whom to avoid – particularly in one-on-one situations.

One lobbyist, who started in Annapolis as a 19-year-old intern, recounts the unwanted advances of a lawmaker. “The hardest thing was, back then, I didn’t know who to go to or what to do about it,” she recalls. “Now that I’m more established, I’m less likely to take bullshit.”

Once every four years, early in a legislative term, the Department of Legislative Services puts on a sensitivity training session on issues like sexual harassment for lawmakers, with the curriculum occasionally provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Four years ago, the NCSL representative couldn’t make it, so the training was provided by Sandy Brantley, an assistant attorney general in the AG’s legislative office.

Lori Masters, the human resources director for Legislative Services, said that this year’s session has not been set yet but will be soon.

Sexual harassment happens in every profession and in every workplace. Unfortunately, it’s as old as humanity itself. But every workplace dynamic is different; in the Maryland General Assembly, 70 percent of the members – and almost all of the top leaders – are men. A certain kind of culture builds up over a very long time.

“It’s straight out of the ‘Mad Men’ era,” says a woman lawmaker.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is 48, published a book called “Off the Sidelines.” Mostly, it was a call to arms to women to get involved in politics, or at the very least, in the issues they care most about.

But the book caused a sensation, because Gillibrand accused several of her male congressional colleagues, without naming names, of sexual harassment. Gillibrand’s descriptions of what she endures on a day-to-day basis sound only too familiar to women in Annapolis.

“When you’re a woman under 40, most people assume you’re a staffer and not a legislator, and they’re more likely to grab your ass,” one state lawmaker says. Then, referring to the woman with the greatest power in the legislature, 67-year-old House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh (D), this legislator observes: “Nobody is going to grab Maggie McIntosh’s ass, because they’re not stupid. They want to get ahead.”

Another lobbyist looks to Capitol Hill and sees parallels between what happens in Annapolis and the political undoing of former Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), whose career ended after he sent lewd texts, with photographs, to women. Both places, this woman says, share “a culture of privilege,” where lawmakers think they can get away with just about anything.

“I completely understand [Weiner’s] psyche, because delegates in Maryland feel so entitled and privileged, that it would be the best thing in a woman’s life to sleep with them,” she says.

Sometimes, sexual harassment in Annapolis is masked as chivalry: A male lawmaker talking about wanting to protect “my beautiful lady intern” from predators. Another warning his colleagues to keep their hands – and minds – off his hot young staffer.

“It’s always someone else who’s the lecherous one,” a woman lawmaker says.

Other times, what’s meant to sound like a compliment is also a form of harassment. One veteran of the State House scene is notorious for telling women he can’t concentrate at meetings or hearings or Annapolis social events when they’re around. Then there was the time when the late Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) caught flak in 2006 for telling a comely staffer at a Board of Public Works meeting to walk by him again.

One former head of a statewide advocacy group says she saw crude sexual innuendo in everyday sexism, recalling the time someone suggested it was “the wrong time of the month for me” when she was angry.

And sometimes just idle chatter causes discomfort – like when a lawmaker, almost off-handedly, talks openly about the sexual demands his wife places on him.

Many women fret that this isn’t just a generational thing. The number of male lawmakers who came of age in the “Mad Men” era is dwindling. But even those who grew up after the rise of the feminist movement, who may regard themselves as what was known in the early 1980’s as “gentle men for gender justice,” can be part of the problem, women believe, because they’re aspiring to hold the kind of power that their older colleagues possess.

“You act like the people you want to be like when you grow up,” a female legislator says.

One woman who has worked in Annapolis for nine years says women are hesitant to call any male legislators out for their behavior because they’ve been elected to four-year terms and in some cases are politically bulletproof. So everybody knows these men aren’t going anywhere.

What’s more, this woman says, “If you say, ‘I’m uncomfortable with you kissing me in public,’ or ‘Please take your hand off my ass,’ or ‘I’m not going to be alone in a room with you,’ or ‘I don’t want to talk to you if you have a hand on my leg’ – you’ll never get another meeting” when you need it. “There are drastic repercussions for actions like that.”

One female legislator says complaining about a colleague’s behavior isn’t just going to antagonize that individual – the hostility could spread to the members of his subcommittee, or his delegation, or his political allies, or his friends.

“The risks to relationships – it’s just not worth it,” she says. “You work with the hand you’re dealt and women in Annapolis are dealt a crappier hand…It is not helpful to me to have people think I’m complaining about the culture.”

A state Capitol is not an ordinary work environment, where it may be easier to call out the misbehavior of a colleague or seek redress.

“There’s never any repercussions,” laments a former State House lobbyist. “People in Annapolis keep reincarnating. There’s doesn’t ever seem to be anyone who’s penalized.”

A year ago, then-state Sen. Richard Colburn (R) was in the headlines after his wife, in divorce papers, accused him of having a sexual relationship with a young staffer. He wound up losing his seat after being defeated in the GOP primary last year.

Several lobbyists say they have relied on more senior State House insiders to guide them and warn them about men to avoid, and that there is an informal “buddy” system that women can occasionally call upon to avoid meeting one-on-one with male lawmakers who have unsavory reputations.

State Sen. Nancy King (D) last year put together a small group of senior women legislators who served as mentors to their younger colleagues, and hopes to expand that informal system in this session – with legislative staffers also becoming involved. One of her goals, she says, is to make sexual harassment one of the topics of discussion.

But one female lobbyist, ruefully, doubts that the problem is ever going to go away.

“You either accept it or you don’t,” she says, “and if you can’t cope with it, you ought to go work someplace else.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.