Women in N.M. politics say problems widespread, not new

Bipartisan group to create policy on how to deal with complaints of harassment, sexual misconduct

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She was new to New Mexico and had just landed a job with a political campaign. Later that day, the man who had hired Heather Brewer gave her call, asking if she would come to his home to have sex with him.

Brewer refused. She went to work the next day and laid down the law, telling the man he’d better not try anything like that again.

“And he didn’t, at least not with me,” Brewer said in an interview last week. “I think he was embarrassed. Not because he’d done anything bad, but because he’d been rejected.”

Still, the incident left her feeling isolated. “I was single, I was new to the state,” she said. “I mean, who was I going to report this to?”

Why not go straight to the top and tell the candidate?

“He was the candidate,” Brewer said. She declined to name the man but said he lost that race and no longer is in public office.

Brewer, who now is a political consultant for Democrats, talked about subsequent incidents involving men kissing her on the mouth during business meetings and various inappropriate sexual comments.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, in an interview Friday, said she’s also been subjected to sexual harassment.

“You cannot be a woman of a certain age involved in politics here and not have experienced things like that,” she said. “That’s the unfortunate reality.”

At a time when allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault have been grabbing headlines across the nation – crumbling the careers of several powerful men, from movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to TV journalist Charlie Rose to Rep. John Conyers of Michigan – several women in New Mexico politics have been speaking up about their own experiences with harassment, groping and unwanted advances.

Their stories are different, but one message from every woman who discussed the issue is the same: The problem is common and widespread.

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, last month called attention to sexual harassment in the Roundhouse by publicly calling for an overhaul of the current legislative policy, which she said is weak.

“During my five years as a state representative, I have personally experienced harassment in the Roundhouse,” Fajardo wrote. “I have also witnessed instances of harassment where colleagues and lobbyists have been subject to repeated profane comments and innuendo. I heard stories of sickening quid pro quo propositions where legislators offered political support in exchange for sexual favors. Tolerating this behavior is seen as the price of doing business in the Roundhouse, especially for women.

“The instances I am describing were not one-time misunderstandings, awkward compliments, or attempts at humor gone awry,” Fajardo continued. “... The incidents I cite rose to a different level; they were deliberate, often serial, offensive actions intended to intimidate, humiliate or coerce.”

Fajardo, like Brewer and other women interviewed last week, didn’t name any perpetrators. And she didn’t go into detail about her personal experiences. But legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle apparently took her seriously.

In a joint statement days later, top lawmakers announced the formation of a bipartisan work group to come up with a new policy on how to deal with complaints of harassment and sexual misconduct.

Toulouse Oliver – who recently announced that her office would provide sexual harassment awareness training for lobbyists – said she personally experienced inappropriate touching at the Roundhouse and unwanted invitations. It began in 1996, when she was 19 years old and lobbying the Legislature for the Indian Gaming Association.

“I was very young and very naive,” she said. “I didn’t even know who most of the legislators were.”

She knew enough to walk away from such behavior, Toulouse Oliver said, and to refuse invitations for intimate meetings. “Fortunately, I escaped really bad situations.”

The sexual harassment stopped for her as soon as she won her first public office, Bernalillo County clerk, at the age of 30, she said.

But that’s not the case for everyone.

Former two-term Bernalillo County Commissioner Deanna Archuleta, who ran for Albuquerque mayor earlier this year, said she’s seen harassment of women at nearly every place she’s worked.

Once when she was participating in a candidate forum, she said, she accidentally touched the male candidate sitting next to her as she crossed her legs. She apologized to the man, and he responded, “I love when you do that.”

Archuleta said she believes the man was trying to distract her so she wouldn’t perform well at the forum.

Another type of harassment, she said, comes in the form of leering or disparaging comments about her appearance. During campaigns, men have told her that she should lose weight or that she should always wear a dress.

“I’ve heard, ‘Your legs look great,’ “ she said. “... That’s not a compliment. There’s a difference between saying, ‘That’s a great dress’ and ‘Your legs look great in that dress.’ “

It was an unwanted compliment in early 2011 that led to a well-publicized sexual harassment complaint involving Michael Wiener, another Bernalillo County commissioner.

Kelly Smyer, who had worked as an assistant to then-Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham – currently a member of Congress and a candidate for governor – spoke Friday about what she considers sexually harassing behavior by Wiener at the county office.

Smyer’s account of her harassment lines up with descriptions in a report by investigators.

On the first day of her job as Lujan Grisham’s assistant, Smyer said, Wiener came into her office and stood behind her, saying, “Lookin’ good.” Smyer turned around, she said, and asked him to repeat what he’d said.

Again, he said, “Lookin’ good.”

Smyer said she believes the commissioner was commenting on her appearance, though Wiener told investigators and reporters he was talking about the office itself, which recently had been repainted.

Wiener told investigators that “Ms. Smyer is far from the type of person he would be attracted to.”

About a month later, Smyer said, she went into Wiener’s office as he was telling his assistants a dirty pun involving his name. She told him the joke was inappropriate and complained about the incident to Lujan Grisham, who later confronted Wiener.

Wiener told investigators the joke might have been a little crude. But he insisted it wasn’t meant to harass anyone.

A few days later, Smyer overheard Wiener in his office, telling workers another off-color joke. Then he said loudly, “I can’t say that, or Commissioner Lujan Grisham will tell me that I’m creating a hostile work environment.” Wiener and the others laughed.

Smyer told Wiener she didn’t appreciate his mockery of the idea of a hostile work environment.

He fired back, “You’re the one who is creating a hostile work environment. Everything was fine until you got here.”

She’d had enough of his behavior. Smyer filed a complaint with the county manager, who hired an outside company called Strategic Solutions to investigate.

In its 39-page report completed in April 2011, the company said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove Wiener had violated county policy. The report also said it wasn’t clear whether elected officials were covered under the county’s sexual harassment policy.

Smyer, who now works at an Albuquerque law firm, said she continued working there until December 2011.

Wiener was defeated for re-election the following year. He lost the Republican primary after a firestorm of criticism over a photo that appeared on the internet showing him posing with four scantily-clad young women in a red-light district in the Philippines.

Smyer’s former boss, gubernatorial candidate Lujan Grisham, recently has been outspoken about the need to end sexual harassment in the wake of the Weinstein scandal. Last month she said Sen. Michael Padilla, a fellow Democrat, should withdraw from the race for lieutenant governor because of previous allegations that he harassed women when he worked as a supervisor for the City of Albuquerque at a 911 call center.

Former state Rep. Stephanie Maez, D-Albuquerque, said she didn’t experience groping or inappropriate sexual come-ons in the Roundhouse. But she felt there was an “undercurrent” there – and the feeling of “not wanting to be alone with certain people.”

“It’s rooted in the need for power and control,” she said. “And people get away with a lot because they have power.”

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com­. Read his blog at santafen­ewmexican.com/roundho­use_roundup. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.

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