- Special Projects
The recent resignation of a top Hawaii lawmaker who admitted to repeated sexual harassment only scratches the surface of a much deeper problem at the State Capitol, where the local tendency to “no talk stink” is compounded by fear of retaliation from people in power.
The result — according to more than a dozen current and former lobbyists, staffers and lawmakers interviewed by Civil Beat — is a pervasive culture of silence around issues of sexual harassment.
“I’ve had legislators ask me out to dinner,” says lobbyist Ashley Lukens. “I had an aide for a senator one day look directly at my boobs and told me he liked my dress.”
When she protested, Lukens says he replied, “Oh, you don’t think I know how you get your job done.”
Lukens is one of the few people who will go on the record talking about sexual harassment at the Legislature. She’s suffering from brain cancer and is on medical leave for treatment, so she’s not lobbying this year. If she were, Lukens says she definitely would not be talking publicly about this issue.
“It’s not my enemies that would be telling me to shut up, it would be my allies,” she says.
There’s already a lot of pressure to stay quiet in Hawaii and not rock the boat.
“Because Hawaii is a small place and because everyone has to interact with each other on an ongoing continued basis, I think there’s a strong incentive for people to maintain good relationships with even people who may have sexually harassed them,” says state Sen. Stanley Chang.
Even when people do go public with allegations, they may not be believed — a rape allegation against the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye in the early 1990s had little effect on the popularity of the extremely powerful senator.
The difficulty speaking up is compounded by bad statehouse policies that discourage victims from filing complaints. Lawmakers aren’t planning to change these policies until at least next year, citing the need to do more research about the best way to improve them.
Capitol insiders say former House Speaker Joe Souki’s departure was surprising but his behavior was not. Souki served in the House for more than three decades, and his inappropriate remarks were often purposely overlooked as a relic of a bygone era.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Rep. Richard Creagan said of the ethics complaint against Souki, before quickly adding: “We’re not supposed to talk about this stuff.”
That’s exactly the problem, Lukens says.
“I don’t think Souki is the problem at all,” she says. “I think he’s the symptom of the fact that a known sexist can rise to the top of the House because that’s just not that important.”
Some women who advocate at the Capitol say they rely on whisper networks to figure out which lawmakers to stay away from.
“Women look out for other women and we know who to avoid,” says one lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous because she’s actively trying to get bills passed this year.
She says Souki was someone she knew not to have one-on-one meetings with, knowledge that “came from so many sources that you don’t even know where it originated.”
In some cases, women will ask their male colleagues to join them for meetings or find ways not to go into certain offices. But whispers rarely if ever translate into formal complaints.
“A lot of people feel afraid of being ostracized for speaking out,” the lobbyist continues. “We definitely still have a culture of ‘no talk stink’ in Hawaii and it’s definitely pervasive over at the Legislature.”
She told Civil Beat she wants to help get the word out about this issue but is afraid of retaliation if her name is published: “I just don’t think that I have the institutional power or clout to go on the record about these things. They’d just dismiss me.”
One former advocate describes hearing stories of women who did complain and how they were treated. “If you say anything, if you speak up, if you say your name, you will be ostracized — you will not work again.”
It’s not all bad — some female lobbyists, staffers and legislators told Civil Beat that they have had nothing but respectful experiences at the Capitol.
“It was always very professional and I never had any issues,” says Kathleen Algire, who lobbies for the YWCA. But even so, she’s heard stories about bad behavior and understands why victims don’t come forward.
“When your priorities are on the line and everything is relationship-based it becomes really hard to put the personal first when you know that the impact to your organization or your priorities or the policies that you’re working for could be long-lasting,” she says. “A lot of times you try to make it be less egregious so that you’re like, ‘Well it’s not that bad so I’m not going to say anything and I’m just going to hope that this passes.’”
In a settlement with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, Souki admitted to kissing and touching multiple women inappropriately, although later he said publicly that he never did anything inappropriate to women ever. The ethics commission investigation noted that as the former House speaker, he held uncommon sway over the future of legislation.
But even less powerful legislators and staffers are also a problem. One former lobbyist describes a lawmaker asking her to dinner and professing his love for her, which she says made her feel uncomfortable and awkward.
It “didn’t feel like I was being taken seriously,” she says.
She says she would “just kind of deflect and just kind of keep things on track” and looked for other legislators to talk to.
Lukens says one staffer asked her out and when she refused, he would not allow her to see the legislator for whom he worked. She says she never considered reporting the problems because it was obvious the bills she supported would die.
“There’s a million ways to kill a bill and there’s only one way to pass it and that’s to play ball. We have to constantly make deals with the devil in order to get legislation passed,” she says. “I think for a lot of lobbyists they feel like they can’t complain or everything they put forward at the Leg is dead on arrival.”
Even lawmakers themselves say they’ve been sexually harassed — by one another and by members of the public. One female lawmaker says she experienced it when she was trying to get campaign funding.
“You’re asking for support, you’re asking for their votes. You’re going into their homes, you’re walking on the streets,” she says. “It’s a very vulnerable situation that you’re in. You can’t say much and you’d probably get no sympathy anyway.”
This penchant for silence flummoxes Creagan, who says he’s seen sexual harassment at the Legislature — “not anything too egregious” — but doesn’t know what to do when the people involved ignore it.
“The women they don’t want to complain about it — I don’t quite understand it,” he says. “If the women aren’t coming forward, are we supposed to out them?”
Teaching people what to do when they’re a witness to sexual harassment — also known as bystander training — is something that employers should mandate, says Stefanie Johnson, associate professor of management at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.
Johnson co-wrote a Harvard Business Review article about why people don’t report sexual harassment and how to change that. Among the tips — develop clear systems for reporting misconduct and assess and improve organizational culture.
The key, Johnson says, is to build trust in institutions by taking sexual harassment claims seriously and punishing perpetrators. Make it clear that “if you engage in questionable behavior you’re going to be terminated.”
Getting kicked out of a political party, being forced to resign — that would show bad behavior won’t be tolerated and would serve as a deterrent. It also encourages victims to report their experiences because they’ll know their concerns won’t be dismissed.
That kind of institutional trust is exactly what Rachael Wong felt like was missing when then-Speaker Joe Souki sexually harassed her. Wong has been reluctant to provide details of the misconduct but now says Souki made a “quid pro quo instruction to give him a kiss, then a reference to his genitals.”
Wong is a former Department of Human Services director and the only sexual harassment victim of Souki to come forward publicly. She says that even if the House had better rules, she wouldn’t have reported her experience when he was speaker because she didn’t believe the Legislature would investigate without any blowback.
“There’s a million ways to kill a bill and there’s only one way to pass it and that’s to play ball. We have to constantly make deals with the devil.” — Lobbyist Ashley Lukens
Wong was afraid of jeopardizing her department’s budget request if she said anything at the time. When she finally did, she turned to the state ethics commission, which doesn’t require complainants to reveal their identities.
Wong’s decision to wait came with a cost — at least one other woman who filed a complaint against Souki at the ethics commission says she was harassed after Wong.
“I was complicit in the fact that things happened to other women because I didn’t say anything,” she says.
Wong says the “no make waves” culture in Hawaii runs deep — influenced by local cultures that prioritize not shaming families; intergenerational trauma caused by more than a century of colonialism; and the plantation mindset of staying in line and respecting authority. The state’s one-party politics also limits what voices get heard, along with power imbalances at the Legislature. Even Hawaii’s isolation is a factor, Wong thinks.
“There’s not the checks and balances of someone driving over state lines and saying, ‘What’s going on here?’”
Wong repeatedly says that she’s making these observations out of “deep love for Hawaii.” The fact that she feels the need to say that is another sign of how hard it is to criticize the status quo in the islands.
“I guess my inclination having been born and raised here … is that I’m crossing some invisible etiquette, some line,” she reasons. “We are not supposed to talk stink about certain things.”
She thinks the solution is to create safe spaces for victims to share their stories and is trying to make that happen. One idea is to put up a website with resources for people and “start the dialogue in a safe way where people are not shot down.”
Part of her still worries whether she’ll face retaliation for going public with her complaints.
“Are there repercussions? I don’t know yet,” she says. “Will there be repercussions for my husband or my family? I don’t know yet.”
Johnson from the University of Colorado says culture is a legitimate factor in whether victims feel comfortable filing complaints. She’s not sure what the answer is, other than trying to prevent sexual harassment from happening.
“I don’t have a good solution,” she says. “I think we need to have better reporting procedures, we need to have bystanders who are willing to step up but in all those cases, the person who is harassed always loses something. I think that’s why this is so insidious.”
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.