DENVER (AP) — Colorado lawmakers started their new legislative session Wednesday amid tension over unresolved sexual misconduct allegations against some of their colleagues, including one case in which a female lawmaker maintains she felt threatened after rejecting the sexual advances of a fellow Democratic lawmaker.
In the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, many Democrats, especially women, wore black — as many actors did at this week’s Golden Globe Awards — to show support for Rep. Faith Winter, who filed a formal complaint against Rep. Steve Lebsock in November. While lawmakers often bring their children to join them for the first day of the session, Winter invited two other women who have accused Lebsock of harassment to join her in the House.
Outside the Capitol, about a dozen protesters greeted arriving lawmakers, lobbyists and aides — holding signs with slogans like “Time’s Up! Step Down Steve.”
Lebsock, who denies the allegations and is running for state treasurer, was present — two days after providing his colleagues copies of a 28-page document defending himself.
He stoically answered, “Here” during roll call. And he stood briefly, then sat back down again, as fellow Democrats gave rousing applause as House Speaker Crisanta Duran declared, “there is no place for harassment, hate speech or discrimination in this chamber.”
The session began under a cloud of tension after harassment complaints were filed last fall against Lebsock, Democratic Rep. Paul Rosenthal and an undisclosed number of other lawmakers. Leaders of both chambers are formally reviewing the Legislature’s workplace harassment policy — as have several statehouses across the country.
In the Republican-controlled Senate, President Kevin Grantham called for “creating a welcoming and respectful workplace environment” and declared that “I don’t think anybody here is of the belief that the status quo is working, or that action shouldn’t be taken.”
The issue virtually overshadowed other priorities laid out Wednesday by Colorado legislative leaders for the 2018 session, including funding roads and schools, addressing the opioid crisis and tackling a superheated housing market that has limited affordable housing options for many state residents.
Winter alleges that Lebsock acted aggressively toward her when she turned down his sexual advances during an end-of-session party in 2016. She said he grabbed her elbow and that she felt threatened.
Duran, also a Democrat, removed Lebsock from a committee chairmanship and called on him to resign after Winter filed her complaint. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and others called on Lebsock to step down. Meanwhile, Democratic state Rep. Matt Gray has said he plans to introduce a resolution to force Lebsock to give up his position.
In response to that possibility, Lebsock placed his document rebutting the allegations in the mailboxes of all state representatives on Monday.
He said House leaders told him on Dec. 14 to not release the confidential complaint Winter filed against him even though his accusers have been allowed to talk publicly. He also said that investigators still have not contacted him.
Lebsock said he has heard that a small number of Democrats and others began a “whisper campaign” to discredit him and hurt his candidacy for state treasurer. He also insinuated the party was lining up behind Winter in her bid to win a state Senate seat this November that could challenge the narrow Republican majority in that chamber.
Previously, Lebsock released the results of polygraph tests he said proves that he is telling the truth. Without admitting misconduct, he also apologized to Winter and two other women who allege harassment, former lobbyist Holly Tarry and former legislative aide Cassie Tanner, for causing them pain.
The national sexual misconduct scandal was unfolding when a number of complaints were filed at Colorado’s statehouse following reports on the Lebsock allegations by Rocky Mountain Community Radio.
State lawmakers are barred under their own rules from discussing even the existence of a complaint under current state legislative procedures.
A harassment complaint against Democratic Rep. Paul Rosenthal was dismissed on Jan. 4. Rosenthal had been accused of harassment by a political activist in 2012. The complaint was dismissed apparently because the alleged incident happened before Rosenthal was elected to his post.
In her opening speech, Duran said a Capitol culture that allows workplace harassment must change.
“Let our actions show that the intolerable will be tolerated no more,” she said.
Republican House Minority Leader Patrick Neville said he welcomed reforms to workplace harassment policy but also insisted that those accused must be provided due process, echoing calls from other GOP leaders.
“I perfectly understand and share a sense of outrage when we hear stories of bad behavior,” he said. “But when accusations appear where the law is made, we must observe due process so that we fairly and objectively handle complaints and workplace issues.”