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Analysis: Sexual harassment policies draw legislative focus

February 24, 2019

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As they work on policies to combat sexual harassment, Louisiana state lawmakers are grappling with questions of what’s appropriate in a state where people regularly greet each other with hugs and kisses and where strangers often call each other “honey.”

Lawmakers on a task force reviewing compliance with a newly passed anti-harassment law and working on another round of legislation found themselves dissecting their own actions and questioning whether they need to change behavior.

“It’s certainly an eye-opening discussion for me, but I’m trying to learn. I think everybody’s trying to learn,” said Sen. Rick Ward, a Port Allen Republican, as task force members last week discussed how to define appropriate and inappropriate conduct.

The issue is a thorny one that female legislators pushed to the forefront last year amid the national #MeToo movement. Louisiana has seen two high-ranking government officials exit their jobs this term because of sexual harassment allegations.

Tom Schedler resigned in May as secretary of state after being accused of sexual harassment in an employee’s lawsuit. Johnny Anderson, a former top aide to Gov. John Bel Edwards, left his position in November 2017 amid claims he sexually harassed a woman in the governor’s office. Schedler and Anderson denied the allegations, which were resolved with taxpayer-financed settlements.

Amid the high-profile claims, lawmakers passed Louisiana’s first government-wide policy against sexual harassment, which took effect in January. The law requires agencies to enact policies that include a process for handling complaints, a ban against retaliation when someone files a complaint and mandatory annual prevention training. Agency heads will have to compile annual reports starting in February 2020, documenting the number of sexual harassment complaints received over the prior year and the number that resulted in disciplinary action.

Before passage of the new law, female lawmakers had been talking more openly about disrespectful behavior in the Legislature. They objected when a male lawmaker brought a birthday cake shaped like a body in a bikini to a committee hearing and when another male lawmaker made jokes about strippers’ age and weight during a debate. They’ve complained about the tone of discussions.

Lawmakers on the task force, both male and female, said they will be tracking whether agencies are following the new anti-sexual harassment requirements, looking for gaps in the law and searching for ways to strengthen policies.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, the New Orleans Democrat whose legislation created the task force and who is chairing it, said she wants to establish “the gold standard.”

But lawmakers also acknowledged the discussions are complex.

Sen. Gerald Long, a Winnfield Republican, offered an example to a state government lawyer who specializes in employment law issues.

“If I walk on the Senate floor and I see (Sen.) Beth Mizell, I’m going to hug her in a respectful, appropriate way. Now if I hug her three times in one week, have I?” he trailed off, wondering if that could be seen as improper.

Mark Falcon, special counsel for the Division of Administration, said whether the hug was appropriate involved whether Mizell deemed it acceptable or had objections.

“It’s the participant’s perspective,” Falcon said.

Long replied: “It’s awfully hard sometimes to navigate.”

Mizell, who suggested she didn’t object to the hugs, noted different interpretations of behavior can be cultural.

“When I’ve been in conferences with legislators from around the country, they can’t believe that other colleagues would call one another ‘honey’ or whatever, and that most of the Southern legislators are fine with that or that we do hug as a greeting,” said Mizell, a Franklinton Republican.

Peterson offered a simple test, saying the conduct should stop “once the person is made aware that the behavior is offensive to the person.”

Ward said he’s tried to become more mindful of how other people see his actions.

“You have to look at it from the other person’s perspective and really get a feel for how that other person wants to interact on a daily basis,” he said. “I know there are some people, I walk up to them, they want a hug. There’s other people that clearly want me to shake their hand.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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