U.S. News

Chorus of sexual harassment allegations spreads among U.S. statehouses

(Reuters) - Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton on Thursday urged a state lawmaker accused of sexual harassment to step down, the latest fallout from a growing chorus of harassment allegations gripping U.S. statehouses.

Minnesota state Senator Dan Schoen faced growing pressure to resign Thursday after local media reported allegations he made unwanted sexual advances toward women. Schoen could not be reached Thursday, but denied inappropriate contact in a statement to local media.

“Women are far too familiar with harassment and it must stop,” Minnesota state Representative Erin Maye Quade said in a statement Thursday. “As a candidate, I experienced it with Sen. Schoen, as a legislator, I’ve experienced it by multiple members of the majority and reported it.”

Since allegations of harassment and assault surfaced against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, a revived “MeToo” social media campaign has galvanized women to speak out about instances of sexual harassment by lawmakers at a number of state capitols. Weinstein has denied the claims first reported by the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine.

California’s Senate last month hired a law firm to investigate after female legislators, staff and lobbyists in a letter called out a culture of harassment.

In Kentucky, Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover stepped down on Sunday from his leadership post after reports he had settled a sex harassment claim with a woman on his staff. Hoover’s office did not respond to request for comment but he has told the Courier-Journal he engaged in consensual banter.

“Most women I’ve talked to feel like they’ve had some experience of sexual harassment,” Illinois Democratic State Senator Heather Steans said on Wednesday, the day that state legislature began sexual harassment training in the wake of an October open letter similar to California’s calling out pervasive harassment.

“Every industry has its own version of the casting couch. Illinois politics is no exception,” the Illinois letter said.

Steans on Thursday announced the formation of a new women’s caucus to focus on harassment and other women’s issues.

“There’s a lot of anger coming forward, that this just has to stop, she said.

While sexual harassment allegations in state politics are not new, the concerted public pushback by women could lead to more efforts to strengthen statehouse harassment protections, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

About 37 state legislatures in 2016 had formal policies for legislative employees on sexual harassment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But experts said they varied in effectiveness and enforcement.

Reporting by Chris Kenning; editing by Ben Klayman and Clive McKeef