If you believe the official record, the Maine Legislature has no problem with sexual harassment.

But common sense would tell you that the official record is missing something. Some of those gaps were filled last week when AFL-CIO lobbyist Sarah Bigney testified about her experience working in the State House, and the kind of conduct that she and other women have had to put up with on a regular basis.

According to a public records request fulfilled late last year, there have only been two complaints of harassment by lawmakers, both House members, in the last decade. But Bigney says that’s way off.

“It is happening here,” she told the Joint Committee on the Rules, which is considering a proposal to toughen the sexual harassment training requirement. She went on to list a wide range of inappropriate behavior she has been subjected to while trying to do her job.

Bigney said that she had been groped by a lawmaker, looked up and down, subjected to daily suggestive comments by a staffer and even told that she would have to trade a kiss for a legislator’s vote. On one occasion, she said she ran home to change her clothes because she had a meeting scheduled that afternoon with a lawmaker who had been staring at her all morning. Other women relayed to Bigney stories about unwanted touching, inappropriate text messages late at night, as well as comments about their appearance, made either directly to them or within their hearing and in the presence of others.

These stories should not come as a surprise. If we have learned anything from the #metoo reckoning of the last six months, it’s that sexual harassment happens everywhere and the State House has the characteristics of an especially high risk environment.


Perpetrators thrive where they are on the right side of a power imbalance. That kind of inequality is built into politics, where people often need help from others more powerful than themselves.

It is difficult to report harassing behavior when doing so could damage your career or hurt the cause for which you advocate. That’s especially tough in a political setting, where personal bias and grudges can turn into career roadblocks. Staff members or lobbyists risk more by speaking out against an inappropriate comment than a legislator would risk making one.

And many of the usual boundaries are indistinct in political work. Whether during a campaign or in the last days of a legislative session, long hours are the norm and work life and social life merge. There is no human resources office. There may not even be a common employer. It’s easy to be confused about where you could even take a complaint against a lawmaker if you wanted to make one.

Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Nate Libby of Lewiston has proposed making annual sexual harassment training mandatory for all members of the Legislature. That would be a good step, but it would also help if everyone who is involved in state government, from elected officials to a citizen advocate in the State House just for a day, was given information about what to do when someone crosses the line.

It’s happening here, and no matter what the record says, we should all stop trying to pretend that it’s not.

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