Senator Sara Gelser Speaks Out

About a year ago, Oregon State Senator Sara Gelser came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against former State Senator, Jeff Kruse, eventually leading to his resignation. Gelser was recognized as one of TIME magazine’s 2017 “Silence Breakers”, a story about people who spoke out against similar behavior. The Advocate sat down with Senator Gelser and spoke about her allegations against Kruse, cultures of harassment in the workplace, including the legislature, and the difficulties still faced by those who choose to speak up.

Earlier this year, an independent investigation found that former Senator Kruse engaged in “a longstanding pattern of…unwelcome physical contact toward females in the workplace…and that he stubbornly refused to change that behavior after being warned about it in March 2016.” Kruse denies his behavior was wrong, but in many cases doesn’t deny specific accusations, insisting he is “just a hugger.” He was allowed to remain in the Capitol, alongside people he allegedly harassed, until a resignation date which he negotiated.

Asked about laws protecting women in the workplace, Gelser pointed out the issue of harassment isn’t so narrow.

“It’s not just women,” she said, “any person can be harassed, and there are a lot of types of harassment in addition to sexual harassment…it’s the words we use, it’s the way we address conflict.”

Gelser does have plans to deal with the specific problems -— she intends to introduce a bill in the coming session dealing with the timeframe for investigations of harassment claims. She is also proposing a constitutional amendment to give any public employers with elected officials the power to place those officials on administrative leave if their presence would create a hostile work environment.

“So there are things that can be done,” Gelser said, “But the bigger problem for us in the legislature is that there is a culture of workplace harassment there. I believe that it is widespread.”

She agreed with Speaker Tina Kotek and others who have said they want more tools for the legislature to hold its members accountable, but thinks the core of the problem is the culture which burdens accusers and survivors with moving this process forward.

“What we need to get away from is the argument that it is up to recipients of harassment to report it,” Gelser said, “It’s our first responsibility as workers to not harass other people, and secondly as supervisors and coworkers, to step in and speak up when something happens.”

Outgoing Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian recently filed an aggressive complaint against the Oregon Legislature, accusing them of fostering a hostile work environment. We asked Senator Gelser what she thinks of the process, and whether she believes it is an effective tactic to deal with the issue.

“We have many people in the Capitol that are uncomfortable, they don’t feel safe, they feel like they’re in a hostile workplace,” she said, “and I don’t care who investigates and how we resolve it, we just need to address it head-on.”

Asked what she thinks of the complaint, she disagrees with targeting legislative leadership. “I firmly do not believe that Peter Courtney and Tina Kotek are encouraging an environment of sexual harassment,” Gelser said, “I don’t like the villainization of any of the people in this process. Brad Avakian’s not a bad guy, Tina Kotek and Senator Courtney aren’t bad leaders, this is a difficult issue, cultural change is hard. The harassers are the problem.”

“That said,” she continued, “I don’t think it ended when Jeff Kruse resigned.”

Harassment and speaking out have also taken center stage in national politics this year. The nomination hearings for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh put the issue of believing survivors front and center.

“That was a very hard situation to watch,” said Gelser of the hearings, “It shows how far we have to go. I think for many women, it was a week of national trauma.”

Gelser said she watched the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford with admiration, but that is also “reminded me of what we ask in these public settings in order to address this.”

“I’m an elected official, so I’m used to people being mad at me, that’s kinda what I do every day,” she said, “But if I’m an intern, or if I’m a 24-year-old staffer…I have to go and sit in a hearing in the Oregon legislature, on TV, and have everybody be able to pull down the tape over time and know that they’re going to come and try to destroy my credibility? I mean, that is a huge ask.”

Gelser says she has “a new appreciation” for people who don’t come forward. “As a lawmaker I ask survivors of sexual assault, or child abuse, or elder abuse to come and tell their stories so that we can pass laws, and people are always very nervous about that,” she said, “I understood that intellectually, and I much better understand that now…. if they decide they can’t deal with that disruption in their life, that does not make them a bad person, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, it doesn’t mean they didn’t respect themselves.”

By Ian MacRonald