I Don’t Want Policies, I Want Culture Change

by Heather Brewer

Late last year, New Mexico women began to break their silence and share stories of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. For the first time, women, like me, were speaking out about the seedy side of New Mexico politics–from handsy elected officials to full-on sexual assault. We were finally being heard, and men were being held accountable.  It seemed like things were beginning to change.

Nationally, men from both parties were leaving Congress and key political leadership positions. Time Magazine named the silence-breakers its “Person of the Year.” Time was definitely up.

Or was it?

Despite the feminist high-fives and the #metoo hashtags, real change may still be eluding us in New Mexico.

As stories of the frat-party atmosphere at the New Mexico Legislature broke last year, male legislators responded with surprise that these things were happening. Women legislators said little publicly. But, to their credit, legislators got to work writing a new sexual harassment policy for themselves.  

Down the road in Albuquerque, the Democratic Party of New Mexico did the same, setting up mandatory sexual harassment training for candidates and senior campaign staff.

These actions signaled a shift from the stagnating status quo of sexual-harassment-as-accepted-behavior we had lived with for so long. But is it enough?

I appreciate that the Legislature and the party took action. But I question the impact  these policies will have on actual behavior. Is it possible for the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy to be taken seriously when Sen. Michael Padilla, for whom the City of Albuquerque paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars for creating a sexually hostile workplace, sat on the dais, asked questions and offered input on the policy during the initial hearing?

Further, after the Legislative session wrapped up last month, news broke that five complaints were filed under the new policy, but no probable cause was found to pursue any of the complaints further. Really? No probable cause? I’m incredulous. I’m further incredulous that in the frenzy of a 30-day session these claims could have been given due consideration. Also, has anyone done the math?  With five complaints in 30 days, that’s more than one complaint a week. While it’s good people are feeling comfortable coming forward, I don’t think congratulations are in order for a culture that produces complaints at such an alarming rate.

Additionally, can we take seriously the Democratic party’s bureaucratic call for sexual harassment training when they stayed quiet for too long as one of their own, now former Doña County Commissioner and party official John Vasquez, wracked up complaints and allegations faster almost than the media could keep up with? And what message is sent by allegations that Democratic Party Chair Richard Ellenberg tried to cover up harassment in the party?

We hear what you say, but that doesn’t keep us from seeing what you’re actually doing.

I appreciate that times have changed enough that Ellenberg quickly–if clumsily–apologized for any role he played in ignoring sexual harassment. Even more noteworthy, all of the Democrats in our Congressional delegation, in conjunction with Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and state Rep. Angelica Rubio, spoke with one voice after that situation with the Party. They condemned sexual harassment as anathema to Democratic values, they recognized the power of the silence breakers, and, perhaps most importantly, they called for Vasquez to resign–which he did.

These are positive changes, but let’s not forget there is much more to do.

The fact is sexual harassment policies have been in place at institutions large and small for more than 30 years. They brought some recourse and some change. But those policies didn’t stop Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer or Roy Moore. They appear also not to have slowed down our own commander in chief.

And the policies didn’t protect women from these predators, nor did they make it safe for them to speak out. But, the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, and the news that hundreds of women will be on the ballot seeking public office this year did.

The tidal wave of silence breakers and the disgraced predators left in their powerful wake started something big: Culture change.

Now we are at a pivotal juncture. It is not unlike the harrowing seconds after a kid on the playground stands up to a bully and everyone freezes in silence to see what comes next. Everyone’s eyes dart around looking for a sign, a signal as to how they should respond to this dramatic breach of long-held social norms. And that is the time when culture changes matters far more than policies.

Indeed, businesses in New Mexico, schools, LGBTQ community members, and people with disabilities are watching and waiting to see if their leaders really mean it this time. Will perpetrators actually be held accountable? Can victims finally tell their stories? Will everyone’s voices–even the marginalized–finally be heard?

I’m waiting too. I want to hear more from our delegation, the Legislature and my party. But I don’t want just words, I want action.

I remain optimistic, but I am not naïve. Culture change does not happen overnight. The silence-breakers have done their part. Now, it’s up to community leaders to show us if the changes are going to stick this time–or if the future will leave us with the de ja vous of another #MeToo or Anita Hill moment in 20 years.

Heather Brewer is a New Mexico-based Democratic political consultant. Follow her at @hbstrategiesnm

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