A proposal by state Representative Chris Blazjewski meant to curb Statehouse-related discrimination and sexual harassment is the first serious effort of its kind, but it needs more work to be effective, according to a legislative watchdog.
Blazejewski’s proposal would create an equal employment opportunity office and a special Committee on Professional Conduct, to review claims of harassment and discrimination.
“It is critical that the General Assembly reform its policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment, discriminatory harassment, and related retaliation,” Blazjewski, a Providence Democrat, said in a statement. “The legislature must ensure that all people appearing in its chambers and before its committees – members, staff, and the public – are protected from harassment and have a safe, respectful space to engage in the political process and advocate for their legislation.”
Blazjewski, the deputy whip in House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s leadership team, unveiled his proposal Monday, about two weeks after WPRI-TV reported that a state rep alleges she was harassed by a colleague.
Matiello’s handling of that matter has helped fueled opposition among a group of 21 Democrats who voted against him during a closed Democratic caucus last week. Mattiello has defended his approach, and called the emergence of three-year-old allegations by Rep. Katherine Kazarian (D-East Providence) against Rep. Cale Keable (D-Burrillville) “politically suspect.” (Keable has denied any harassment.)
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, said Blazjewski deserves credit, but that his proposal still needs work.
“Representative Blazejewski has put forward the first serious proposal for how the General Assembly can handle sexual harassment complaints by members,” Marion said. “This is a very real problem that needs to be addressed.”
Marion added: “There is a significant gap in the proposal that must be filled to make it work. If the newly established legislative committee comes to the conclusion that a House member has engaged in sexual harassment, how does the House mete out punishment? The Senate, earlier this year, established rules for expelling members, and the House needs to follow suit. Both chambers also need to contemplate punishment short of expelling a member.”
Blazjewski suggested that the envisioned equal employment opportunity office would be insulated from political influence by giving the head of that office a four-year. But Marion pointed to how that employee would be hired by the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the hiring and spending arm of the General Assembly, which is effectively controlled by the speaker.
“More needs to be done in this proposal to assure that the speaker, or any legislative leader, cannot interfere with an investigation into sexual harassment allegations,” Marion said.
Blazjewski said he plans to pre-file legislation for his proposal, which is based on an approach taken by the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
“In reforming our policies and procedures relating to harassment, we should look to other states in evaluating best practices,” he said. “We should also be open to considering other potential approaches, including referring complaints to the Attorney General’s Office, the Human Rights Commission, or the Ethics Commission, so long as the policy adopted by the legislature achieves the goal of protecting victims and providing for an independent investigatory and review proces. The legislature should address this important issue by listening to victims, members, and the public, and analyzing best practices from across the country.”
Mattiello praised Blazjewski’s approach.
“I have already spoken with Rep. Blazejewski and we are working together on this important issue,” the speaker said in a statement. “I will be meeting with him, as well as my legal counsel Danica Iacoi, in the near future to develop policies and procedures, and we are currently researching best practices conducted in other states. I thank Rep. Blazejewski, who is a thoughtful and reform-minded legislator, for his leadership.”
Asked about the proposal, Kazarian offered this statement: “I am most interested in working on any type of change that would protect people who serve and work in our state legislature from sexual harassment. All legislators deserve to represent their communities and engage in the political process free from harassment and retaliation. I plan to participate in developing a system that functions to protect all who serve.”