Amid Calls For Resignations, The Texas Legislature Braces For A Sexual Harassment Reckoning

The national conversation on sexual harassment and assault has made its way to the Texas Capitol.

By Jill AmentDecember 8, 2017 7:34 am|

The content of this story may not be appropriate for younger listeners.

Annie’s List, the group that works to elect women Democrats in Texas, is now calling for the resignations of two powerful Democrats – Senator Borris Miles of Houston and Senator Carlos Uresti of San Antonio.

The news comes after the Daily Beast published a story that will likely have major implications for Texas politics.

In our roundtable, we get three takes on this breaking news from the Daily Beast reporter Olivia Messer, State Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), and Professor Joanna Grossman, the Southern Methodist University Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and the Law.

Olivia Messer reported on sexual harassment at the Texas Capitol back in 2013. This time around, she reveals more stories from women who are breaking their silence.

“This intern told me that while she was working in the Legislature, she was drinking during the last week of session, out with some friends who were her fellow interns,” Messer says. “And at some point State Senator Borris Miles pulled up in some kind of a carriage and had a lot of money with him, handed some to an intern, and then turned to this intern who I spoke to for my story and essentially propositioned her.”

Messer says her source was shaken, fearful, and confused. “[Miles said] ‘Bitch, do you want to f*ck with me tonight?’”

Messer says the intern immediately called the legislator she worked for and his chief of staff. She says they picked her up and were concerned.

“Then she left,” Messer says. “She is no longer working at the Capitol. She didn’t believe she would ever have to see him again. For her, it was something that she just never wanted to talk about. She didn’t want to have to think about it again.”

Messer says a former political consultant is coming forward with an allegation against Senator Carlos Uresti. “She was walking up a staircase in the Capitol and she says that she ran into Senator Uresti, who was at the time a representative I believe, and he said, ‘Are you wearing a thong under that dress to match your polka dots?’” The woman says it was explicitly a come on or sexually inappropriate comment.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia says the Legislature needs to develop harassment policies that are enforceable and hold people accountable. “I think the bigger issue is, what is it that we do at the Capitol to make sure that we provide an environment for any individual who feels like they have been harassed or been discriminated against or abused or bullied to have an avenue and a path for justice, while protecting the equal protection and due process of all the parties,” she says.

Sens. Borris Miles and Carlos Uresti have each issued statements denying the anonymous allegations against them.

SMU Law Professor Joanna Grossman says, “The fact is, the reason some allegations remain anonymous is because people do not feel comfortable. There is a real risk of retaliation.” She says women bear a tremendous burden in coming forward, which is why so few of them choose to do so.

Grossman says it’s unlikely that the allegations described in Messer’s reporting are isolated incidents. “We’ve been studying sexual harassment for a long time and we’ve known that this stuff is going on,” she says. “It’s just this moment where all of a sudden the public is realizing that it’s going on.”

Garcia says that for women to report harassment, the Capitol will have to change the environment. “You’re not going to make a complaint if you know that nothing’s going to happen,” she says.

That’s why she says the Texas Legislature needs to pass legislation similar to what Senator Amy Klobuchar passed in the U.S. Senate.

Still, Garcia has not joined Annie’s List in calling for Miles and Uresti to resign. “Certainly if this is investigated and there is some truth to any part of this – because the reports are horrific – obviously I’ll join them in doing that,” she says.

Messer says that reporting these stories has been a nerve-wracking process. “These are not the only officials that I am looking into allegations about inside the Texas Capitol,” she says. “These are not the only allegations that I plan to publish and even against these two men, more women have come forward since yesterday. So they are very difficult allegations to hear and to report on. I want to be thorough and absolutely certain that the information is credible before we publish things, but it’s disturbing content. And these women who come forward are afraid.”

Garcia agrees that these reports are difficult to hear. “I don’t think I’ve talked to any woman since these stories erupted that hasn’t recounted a story,” she says. “It takes a lot to come forward, and it takes a lot for reporters like Olivia to listen to this, because it’s very emotional. I think there’s a lot of feeling among a lot of women that enough is enough and they’re just tired of it.”

Grossman says that to fix the system, legislatures will need to audit the culture of the Capitol and take a look at power dynamics. “That has to be done by someone independent,” she says. “This is not a job for an internal committee.”

 

Written by Jen Rice.

Statement by State Sen. Borris L. Miles

I have had the privilege of representing the constituents of District 146 and Senate District 13 for over 10 years.

Because I’ve shown myself to be an effective voice of the people, I have made powerful enemies who will go to any length to destroy and disrupt my service.  I will not continue to address anonymous accusations that attack my personal and professional character as an effective lawmaker.

Sexual harassment is a serious offense and I plan to join my colleagues in the Senate in developing policy that allows all people due process and assurances they may work effectively in a fair and safe environment.

The people expect me to do my best and I will continue to fight for them until they decide otherwise. I will not be deterred.

Statement by State Sen. Carlos Uresti

I respect the work of Annie’s List, and the good work that they do in electing progressive women to elected positions in this state.  Unfortunately, the request by Patsy Woods Martin, its Executive Director, is based solely on an un-sourced article from the Daily Beast.  While the story ends that the people being interviewed for this story “asked not to be named,” such un-sourced accusations, without specific information as to time, place or alleged accuser, prevents me from being able to defend myself from completely unfounded innuendo.  For example, the one specific incident referenced in the Daily Beast for which a specific date was given, accused me of having being seen with a young woman on the first night of the start of the 83rd Legislative Session.  The first day of that session took place on January 8, 2013.  While the Daily Beast reporter was correct that I had been seen that night with a beautiful woman; that woman was my beautiful wife, Lleanna, with whom I had exchanged marital vows in June of 2012.  We then sent the Daily Beast the photograph from that night of my wife Lleanna and I together celebrating the beginning of her first legislative session as my wife.  This photograph has long been proudly placed on her Facebook Page for almost five years.

To its credit, the Daily Beast since has posted the following UPDATE to its story:

UPDATE: After publication, Senator Uresti’s office provided Facebook posts showing he was with his wife at an Austin dinner on the night in question. His spokesperson could not confirm whether Uresti or his wife attended the session opening party at which the alleged incident occurred but said they were together the entire night.

I know that sexual harassment has no place in the Capitol or in any other workplace.  I believe the recent media exposure of improper conduct in the workplace with respect to media executives, news personalities and Washington politicians is both proper and constructive.  In this vein, I will be joining my colleagues to implement a comprehensive sexual harassment policy and trainings in the Texas Senate as soon as possible.

I look forward to continue to prepare for trial beginning on January 4, 2018, and to continuing my proud service to the constituents and children of Senate District 19 in the coming years