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Toxic Statehouse Culture Goes Beyond 'Inappropriate Behavior,' Women Say

Ohio Senate
State Sen. Charleta Tavares wrote an open letter about sexual harassment in the Statehouse and the need for changes.

Two Republican state lawmakers and a Democratic Senate staffer have resigned in the last month – all over what’s been termed “inappropriate behavior.”

Though the allegations have ranged in severity, the trend highlights a male-dominated culture at the Statehouse that many legislators and staffers say attracts or encourages harassment and abuse, and which makes women uncomfortable or afraid. 

Back in the 1980s, Mary Anne Sharkey left a job as a reporter at the Dayton Journal Herald to become a Statehouse reporter. She says she quickly discovered there was a “good old boy” culture throughout the Capitol.

“When I first came there, the press room was really more like a locker room,” Sharkey said. “There were nude photos hanging on the walls above reporters’ cubicles. There was a box full of Playboys and Penthouses and the whole place was a bit of a culture shock for me because even though I came from a newsroom, I had never felt anything quite like that.”

Sharkey was one of only a handful of female reporters who were blazing their way through what had been a man’s world.

“There were very few women in the legislature at the time and there were very few women reporters at the time,” she says. “So we would always joke that these were married men who came to Columbus to get away from their wives.”

Sharkey knew the male reporters hung out at bars across the street from the Statehouse, where she didn’t feel welcome. She says a hint of sex was everywhere.

“Oh it was extremely blatant. Very blatant,” Sharkey says. “I used to always joke about where’s the runway for the aides because they would have all of these young, beautiful aides working for these legislators who would go over there and meet them at the bar at night, and some of them were known to use the hotel rooms at the Neil House.”

It's important to note not all male legislators or reporters engaged in bad behavior. Sharkey says she saw the culture beginning to change in the 1990s, around the time she went from being a reporter to working for Republican Gov. Bob Taft.

State Sen. Charleta Tavares was working at the Statehouse back in those days too, first as a legislative aide. In 1994, she was elected as a Democratic state representative from Columbus and became the first ever African-American woman to hold a leadership role in the legislature.

Now a state senator Tavares says the Statehouse is still a male-dominated culture. Last week, she wrote an open letter on sexual harassment, saying what current leaders have done is not enough to change attitudes and behavior.

“It spoke to coming together as women to insure we have a culture of safety here in the general assembly, that we are going to protect the women within our organization and that we are going to make sure anybody who comes into the facilities, that they are safe as well,” Tavares explains.

Tavares says while the more than 30 women who signed her letter are Democrats, her effort is not partisan. In fact, she asked Republican women in the legislature to sign onto her letter as well.

“We opened it to all women,” Tavares says. “We had some Republican staff that initially added their name and then later took their name off.”

She says she’s not sure why the Republicans removed their names. At this point, none of the 10 Republican women representatives or the three Republican women senators or their staffers have signed onto the letter.

The Statehouse’s problems go beyond the culture, though, into the way problems are identified and dealt with.

Both Tavares and Sharkey say they don’t like the way the term “inappropriate behavior” is now being used as a catch-all phrase. “Inappropriate behavior” was used to describe the sexual harassment and predatory behavior of former Republican Sen. Cliff Hite, for which he admitted and apologized.

“Inappropriate behavior” was used to describe the off-color comment Republican Rep. Mike Henne admitted making, plus whatever led to the resignation of Senate Democrat chief of staff Michael Premo.

Most recently, “inappropriate behavior” described the actions of former Republican Rep. Wes Goodman in his office with another man. For that, House speaker Cliff Rosenberger asked Goodman to resign.

Following Hite's resignation, all Ohio state senators and their staffs will be required to receive sexual harassment training.

Sharkey says it’s important for the public to know if the behavior being sanctioned crossed the line from insulting to intimidating or worse.

“Clearly the line is drawn when someone either physically attacks somebody or physically harasses someone to the point where they feel like they have to leave their job, or they feel like their job is threatened,” Sharkey says. “There’s a big difference between making an inappropriate joke or inappropriate comment and actually acting on it.”

Tavares says she thinks leaders handling these situations need to provide information to protect the public, but she says they also need to make sure not to reveal too much.

“You don’t want so much detail given out so you can pinpoint who that individual was,” Tavares says.

That’s something she says happened in at least one of these recent cases.

Women in the Statehouse are outnumbered in both the legislature and the press corps that covers lawmakers. But there is one place where they outnumber men – there are more women legislative aides and staffers.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.