Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Women describe climate of harassment at Mass. State House

Cambridge 06/0514- Fog shrouds the Boston skyline as the State House dome stands out amidst the buildings on Beacon Hill as seen from Cambridge. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki (metro)
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

She was a young lobbyist. He was a lawmaker. She needed his vote on an affordable housing bill.

“You know how to get my vote,” the legislator told the lobbyist.

She knew exactly what he meant. Sickened, she tried to laugh it off. He didn’t miss a beat.

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“If not you, then what about your intern?” she recalled him proposing.

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In the weeks since producer Harvey Weinstein was outed as an alleged rapist, a habitual harasser, and consummate creep, it has become soul-crushingly clear — if it wasn’t before — that sexual harassment is a plague that goes way beyond the glamorous confines of the film industry.

Massachusetts politics is lousy with it. In interviews, a dozen women who have worked in and around the State House over the past two decades described a climate of harassment and sexual misconduct, perpetrated by some of the men who hold a disproportionate share of power in the Commonwealth and who shape its future.

Aides, lobbyists, activists, and legislators told of situations where they were propositioned by men, including lawmakers, who could make or break their careers; where those men pressed up against them, touched their legs, massaged their shoulders, tried to kiss them, grabbed their behinds, chased them around offices, or demanded sex.

For these women, the political scene has been a minefield in which they rely on warnings from others who have learned the hard way which lawmakers they should avoid. There seems to be no escaping the hostile environment, even in the hallowed House chamber, where one woman saw lawmakers gathering around a cellphone to view pornography during formal sessions.

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These incidents are not relics of a distant past. Most date from the early 2000s onward. The meeting in which the legislator offered to trade his vote for sex took place around 2007. The legislators huddled around porn in the chamber more recently than that. Such things still happen, those interviewed said.

Nor is such harassment unique to Massachusetts. Last week, 140 women in California’s State House came forward to denounce the culture of sexual misconduct in Sacramento. Women in Illinois politics launched a similar effort Tuesday. In Rhode Island, a lawmaker said a more senior legislator told her that her bills would go further if she did sexual favors.

It’s a measure of how little has changed in Massachusetts that all of the women here spoke on condition that their names not be used. Even after the revelations of the last few weeks, they remain convinced that speaking publicly about harassment would ruin their careers.

Some of their tormentors have left politics, a couple of them under clouds. Others are still fixtures on Beacon Hill. The women noted, too, that there are also plenty of decent men in state politics — some of whom stepped in to defend them against those who objectified and harassed them.

Tell us your sexual harassment experiences

Politics is like Hollywood in some ways. It is run largely by men, who exert great, and barely checked, power. It is stacked with young women who rely on these men, and the connections they provide, to advance their careers. It is replete with late nights, social gatherings, and alcohol. There is no way to opt out of that system if you want to work in public service, these women said.

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“I chose not to complain because it was not worth the price I was going to have to pay,” said one woman, who still works on Beacon Hill. “You’d lose influence. The place functions on relationships, and if you don’t have relationships with the men who control the place, you can’t get anything done. You put up with it for the greater good.”

So, though she knew some other legislators would have been disgusted by their behavior, she did not report the elected officials gathered around a cellphone in the House chamber to view pornographic images. And she simply walked away when a lawmaker — his hands planted firmly in his pockets — suggested she lean over and kiss his ring. He is still in the Legislature.

Every woman who experienced harassment did the calculations, and the math always came out the same way: It was easier to remain silent.

A young municipal official met with the head of a large nonprofit at a restaurant, where he proceeded to slide into the booth beside her and put his hand on her leg. She needed him on her side for the good of her community, so she just kept moving his hand off her until she could politely end the meeting.

A woman who often meets with legislators was pregnant a couple of years ago and had to put up with lawmakers who seemed obsessed with her body. One joked about her having been “flat on her back” to conceive; another, eyes glued to her breasts, assured her she must be having a boy because girls make pregnant women ugly, “and there was nothing about me that was ugly,” she recalled him saying. He is still in the Legislature.

A young activist was minding her own business at a party function when a congressional aide sidled up to her, forcefully grabbed her behind, and said to her, “If you come home with me tonight, I’ll drive you to the commuter rail in the morning.” She froze.

“I was just a kid,” she recalled of the assault, in the early 2000s. “I was brand new to Massachusetts, I wanted a career in public service, and I was an absolute nobody. And he was a big mover and shaker, he knew everybody in the room. I didn’t know what to do. . . . Would he try to tank my career?” She escaped him, but he continued to call her, including at night, and she felt obligated to talk to him.

A campaign worker’s boss kept trying to kiss her, pressuring her with reminders that others would love to have her job. She learned later that he had done the same thing to other women before she worked with him in 2008 and that he continued harassing women after.

“Politics, like media, is a really competitive environment,” she said. “When you’re very young, you think you’re fortunate to be in that role, and you’re less inclined to rock the boat. If you have to leave a role because your boss is hitting on you, it makes it really challenging to find work.”

A Senate aide and policy specialist was working in the Great Hall at the State House when a member of the House beckoned her over. She thought he wanted to ask her about the bill she’d been working on. “I want to have sex with you,” she recalled him saying to her, utterly out of the blue — except he used a more vulgar term than that. Shocked, the woman just walked away. (The name of this lawmaker, who left office a couple of years ago, came up in several other interviews.)

“I didn’t want to say anything,” she said. “You don’t want to be shut out of conversations where someone is using lewd language or telling a joke because that is where all the decisions are made. You brush it off.”

The women described an impossible choice, between standing up to these men and being considered difficult, or letting the appalling behavior slide, which only allowed it to continue.

As another woman, a veteran of the even-worse 1990s, put it: “You were either labeled as shrill and as someone who can’t take a joke, or you were a traitor to your gender.”

Women have worked around it, protecting each other when they could, offering advice on how to navigate an environment where many view them purely as sexual objects. One aide said a woman legislator advised her to always have a glass of white wine spritzer in her hand at the social events that were vital to her work: “If you’re not drinking, everyone will think you’re a prude, and if you get drunk, everyone will think you’re a slut,” she said the legislator told her.

Word gets around about which legislators and aides to avoid. A woman who headed an advocacy group used to school interns on who was most likely to proposition or assault them, providing photographs of the most frequent offenders before she sent them to the State House. “Never get on an elevator with this rep,” she recalled telling them.

One politician has straight out warned her colleagues to stay away from her young aides in supercharged environments, like the state party conventions, made particularly treacherous for women by open bars and hotel rooms far from home.

But the system feeds itself. As long as the boys’ club prevails, women who want to succeed in politics will be silent about harassment. The Weinstein story finally broke because enough women agreed to make open accusations. There’s no guarantee the dismal news out of Hollywood will change anything here, though.

Tell us your sexual harassment experiences

“I have no idea where this goes,” a lobbyist said. “If we don’t put our faces and names to it, is it going to continue?”

There are some hopeful signs. In a statement, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he was “infuriated and deeply disturbed” to hear that women had described being harassed in the State House.

“While I understand and support their desire to remain anonymous, the fact that victims fear the consequences to their careers of reporting the harassment is as upsetting as the harassment itself,” he said, adding that, since he became speaker in 2009, he has tried to create “a positive work environment for all our members, employees and visitors.”

“To hear that we may have failed is deeply troubling to me,” he said. “To know that, as recent headlines suggest, we are not alone provides no comfort.”

He vowed to investigate any reports of harassment and to discipline offenders.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg sent a statement to say his Senate takes the issue of harassment seriously, giving every employee, from senators to staff, antiharassment training at the start of every legislative session. And, in light of current events, the Senate is planning events to remind members and staff of their rights to protect themselves.

That is all wonderful. But there’s only one sure way to fix this: Elect more women.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.