Some At State House Clearly 'Feel At Risk,' Says Former Mass. State Rep. Ellen Story

Oct 31, 2017

Leaders in the Massachusetts legislature are reviewing their policies toward sexual harassment after a Boston Globe column last week. It detailed claims by a dozen anonymous activists, staffers, lobbyists and legislators.

House Speaker Bob DeLeo ordered his top lawyer to come back with a report by March. And Senate President Stan Rosenberg said a group of female senators met this week with his leadership team.

“They went over our policy, over the procedures, etc., and identified a couple more things we could do to make things even better, around training of interns,” Rosenberg said. “So our policy is working quite well, but we try to be vigilant, and if we see opportunities to improve, we will do that.”

Rosenberg is from Amherst -- as is former state Representative Ellen Story, who retired from the legislature in January after serving in it for almost 25 years.

I met with Story this week, at her home, to discuss the allegations and her own experiences on Beacon Hill. Story said that she herself was never sexually harassed. 

Former state Rep. Ellen Story: The legislature is very hierarchical, and there is a sharp distinction made between legislators and staff. I don't know any women legislators who had ever felt at risk. From reading Yvonne Abraham's article, there clearly were other women there — whether they were staff, or whether they lobbyists — who did feel at risk. But I think there was deference paid to those of us who were elected legislators.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Does it matter how many there were who were sexually harassed, [or] felt like it was a boys’ club, or had worse things happen to them? Or do there need to be names associated with these people?

Well, we would all like to know who the men were. I'm not sure it's so important for us to know who the women were. But certainly, to know who the men were, or are, and it sounds like Speaker DeLeo has just been incensed by this report. This was something he did not know, and he is going to take every measure that he can. We did have one Worcester representative, some years ago, who was behaving quite inappropriately. And he did leave, and there was a lot of consternation about that. He is the worst example that I can think of in my 25 years there. 

The female reps are taking action in wake of the sexual harassment report, and I think it caught a number of them off-guard. Why would it have caught so many of them [off-guard], and completely blindside them?

Because it is a hierarchical system, and the women reps are treated differently than the women staff, or the women lobbyists. So I can say genuinely: yes, I would have people walk down the hall with me and talk about my legs. Or there was one rep years ago, from Worcester, who lamented how I dressed. He said, “Ellen you dress like a librarian!” ’Cause I wore suits. He said, “Why don't you wear fancy dresses?” And that was just funny.

There were a couple of obnoxious ones who would put their arm around me going down the hall. But you know, that didn't scare me. I never felt at risk. I was never in a situation where I didn't want to get in an elevator with someone, or I didn't want someone to be alone with me in my office. Never.

And I think that's true for the majority of women reps, because the men are afraid they would get in trouble for that. That we would go to the speaker and say, “You won't believe what happened to me.” But the lobbyists can't do that, and the staff certainly can't do that.

So I think it's not surprising that the women legislators were surprised at this. There is a caucus of women legislators, and I'm sure it is going into action right now. And there's the commission against discrimination of women. I'm sure that they are collaborating and working on this — but this was a surprise.

There are protections in many workplaces, and policies that we all sign every year to renew anti-sexual harassment policies. I assume that there are at the State House as well, but those don't apply to certain members.

No, and in fact, much of what goes on in the State House — we make laws for other people. But the things that we do in the State House, you couldn't do in real life, like fire someone with no cause, just because he or she — a staff member —did something that irritated you. Or you wanted to hire somebody else. You can't do that in real life.

But that does occasionally go on in the State House. So there are behaviors that happen in the State House — that you feel you're fairly special. 

Does this affect everybody in the state? I know it's happening to staffers; it's happening to lobbyists; it may be happening to some legislators in the State House. How does this speak to people in Amherst, people in Worcester, people in Brattleboro?

Oh, I think it's very unfortunate. There are people who already disrespect government, and think all politicians are crooks, and this just furthers that stereotype. Not only are they crooks, but they're lechers, and they are predators going after people that they have authority over. And it's just one more damning fact about the political world, which makes me very sad.

There certainly are some jerks in politics, but there are many fine people, with great integrity, who are very smart, and very dedicated and committed. And that gets lost when there is an exciting story like this which is making the headlines.