Charges of harassment are cascading through statehouses across the country, leading to investigations, resignations of powerful men and anguish over hostile workplaces for women that for years went unacknowledged. Amid this reckoning, one group of victims has stood apart: political lobbyists.
Part of a frequently disparaged profession, women lobbyists have emerged as especially vulnerable in legislatures and in Congress because, unlike government employees, they often have no avenue to report complaints and receive due process. Lobbyists who have been harassed are essentially powerless in their workplaces, all-dependent on access to mostly male lawmakers for meetings and influence to advance legislation and earn their living.
Ms. Alarid, who has not publicly told her story before, was fearful that in coming forward, lawmakers would shut their doors to her and she would lose clients as a lobbyist in Santa Fe, the New Mexico capital. “My relationships with legislators are so important and valuable to my job,” she said.
Two former New Mexico legislators, Sandra Jeff, a Democrat, and Rod Adair, a Republican, said Ms. Alarid told them of the 2009 encounter shortly after it occurred. Will Steadman, Ms. Alarid’s supervisor at the company she represented, SunCal, a land developer, said he was also told of the episode.
Mr. Garcia, who left office in 2012, denied he had offered to trade a vote for sex or blew a kiss to Ms. Alarid. “I held the institution of the Legislature with too high regard to do anything that would provide any kind of personal gain, financial or otherwise,’’ he said.
Women lobbyists from Arizona to Virginia described statehouse cultures that were throwbacks to male-dominated institutions like 1960s Madison Avenue. Long working days flow into alcohol-fueled socializing with male lawmakers, often bunked in hotels in isolated small towns for the few months of a state legislative session.
Seasoned lobbyists said that smoothly deflecting a lawmaker’s physical advance was a job skill as essential as winning support for a bill.
“When I’ve been cornered up against a wall by a senator who is much larger than me, all I’m thinking is, ‘How do I get out of this with a smile on my face and maintain the relationship?’ ” said Rebecca Johnson, a lobbyist in Washington State.
Text-messaging, ubiquitous between lawmakers and lobbyists, can easily slide into personal and suggestive banter, which women feel pressed to go along with.
Sarah Walker, a lobbyist for criminal justice groups in Minnesota, worked closely with state Representative Tony Cornish, the gatekeeper in the House for policy about her issues. “From the very first time I met with him, he took a very acute interest in me and began texting me regularly, asking me out,” she said.
One text, which Ms. Walker showed The Times, read, “Would it frighten you if I said that I was just interested in good times good wine good food and good sex?”
Mr. Cornish, 66, at first called Ms. Walker’s charges “damned lies” in the Minnesota media. But last month, he reached an agreement with her to resign from office, apologize and pay her legal fees, avoiding a lawsuit. Mr. Cornish did not respond to a request for comment.
Female lawmakers often act as witnesses to harassment. Last year, Representative Kelly Fajardo, a Republican in New Mexico, was out with a young woman lobbyist when the lobbyist got a text on her phone from an older, powerful legislator.
“The text said, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this bill, my wife’s not here, come up to my hotel room,’ ” Ms. Fajardo said. “She didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to do. It’s bothered me ever since.”
A Symbiotic Relationship
The lobbying profession is built on developing trust with lawmakers, often after office hours. Almost all lobbyists routinely throw fund-raisers for lawmakers and direct contributions from political action committees. A close relationship develops, built on money and familiarity. Like any workplace, there are consensual sexual relationships, sometimes extramarital. Some women lobbyists pointed out that there are women in the field who have learned to manipulate men given to flirtation, when it suits their interest.
Thomas K. Norment Jr., the majority leader of the Virginia Senate, admitted to an affair in 2013 with a lobbyist whose firm pushed 63 bills that advanced to the Senate floor. He did not abstain on any of the votes. The relationship was reviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, but no charges were filed.
Though dozens of lawmakers in some 20 states have been accused of sexual harassment since last year, including by fellow legislators, staff members and lobbyists, many of the lobbyists have asked to remain anonymous for fear of ending their careers.
In interviews, women lobbyists said there was a power imbalance between legislator and lobbyist, and they were usually at the losing end.
Elise Higgins, who lobbied for Planned Parenthood in Kansas from 2014 until earlier this year, said that she endured frequent hugs from male lawmakers — “a hello hug, a thank-you hug, a goodbye hug” — and comments about her body.
During a meeting with a lawmaker to discuss a bill, he ended the conversation with a remark on her appearance. “You’re a pretty girl,” he said approvingly.
“I remember being intensely annoyed,” said Ms. Higgins, who declined to name the lawmaker. At the same time, “I always was deferential to legislators. I needed to be in good relationships with them in order to do my job. I couldn’t afford to lose a vote.”
No Place to Report
For many women lobbyists on the receiving end of inappropriate comments and advances, reporting the offenses has rarely been a consideration. Nicole Grant, a former lobbyist for an electricians’ union in Washington State from 2009 to 2015, recalled leaving a meeting with a group of lawmakers and lobbyists at the state Capitol. She recalled that as she walked out of the room, Representative Jim Jacks wrapped his arm around her lower back. Then his hand reached for her rear end and gave it a squeeze.
Shocked and distraught, Ms. Grant fled outside, but didn’t dare report the incident.
“I’m representing people just like me,” said Ms. Grant, 39, a journeyman electrician. “I’m just really focused on delivering for them. You don’t let anything get in the way. Some guy grabs you, it’s like, eye on the prize.”
The legislator, Mr. Jacks, resigned in 2011 after a female legislative staff member accused him of sexual misconduct. He blamed alcoholism for his departure. Mr. Jacks did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Walker, 40, described years of harassment by Mr. Cornish, the Minnesota legislator, including repeated propositions for sex. She never lodged a formal complaint, she said, because she feared losing access to Mr. Cornish.
“There was no possibility of me passing bills without interacting with him,” she said. Mr. Cornish, a former police officer, once pushed her against a wall and tried to kiss her, Ms. Walker said, and another time stood up and told her he had an erection.
Samantha Spawn, a lobbyist for NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota, said she was sexually assaulted earlier this year by a statehouse staff member whom she had considered a friendly acquaintance. After a party at the end of the legislative session in Pierre, the staff member convinced her to let him stay in her hotel room, saying he was too drunk to leave. She reluctantly agreed and went to bed fully clothed, but he physically overcame her and raped her, she said.
After the allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein broke in October, Ms. Spawn decided to speak about her assault in the media. She has not named her assailant.
“There’s no mechanism in the statehouse that I’m aware of for lobbyists to report harassment or assault, other than going to legislative leadership,” she said. “But they’re Republican men. No one in South Dakota is going to have sympathy for the NARAL lobbyist.”
Work Outside the Capitol
In states like Wisconsin, lobbyists are forbidden from spending money on lawmakers. That tamps down on evening socializing and extravagant dinners that can feel transactional.
“We can’t even give a legislator a pen in Wisconsin,” said Amy Bliss, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Housing Alliance in Madison. “So we certainly can’t buy them a drink.”
But in most other states, the rules are far looser, if they exist at all.
When Marilyn Rodriguez was 25 and a new lobbyist in Arizona, she found herself unable to get Representative Don Shooter, a powerful committee chairman, to pay attention to an issue in his office. He recommended they go for a drink to discuss the matter, Ms. Rodriquez said. Once at the restaurant, “He reached over and gripped my knee,” Ms. Rodriguez, who was shocked, recalled. For the next two years, she avoided speaking to him, which made her less effective at her job. “Every time I saw him I felt ashamed,” she said.
Mr. Shooter, 65, has been suspended from his committee chairmanship and is being investigated by the Arizona House after nine women, including Ms. Rodriguez and three female lawmakers, complained of harassment. Mr. Shooter did not respond to a request for comment.
Some women who spend time in statehouses say their only recourse is to confide in their own bosses, if they have them. Kady McFadden, the deputy director of the Sierra Club in Illinois, said she had endured lawmakers putting their hands up her skirt, running their fingers through her hair and giving it a flirtatious tug. She tells her supervisor every time something happens.
Ms. McFadden, who is not a registered lobbyist but runs the chapter’s political work, said the harassment was a symptom of a system that devalued women at every turn.
“As important as it is to change the culture of sexual harassment, at the end of the day, this is about so much more,” she said. “Men are leading our state governments, men are leading our corporations, men are leading our media organizations. This is about the ability of women and particularly women of color to be in leadership positions and be able to do their jobs.”