Women leaders speak up about harassment, misogyny in Michigan politics

By: - May 22, 2021 6:48 am

From left to right: Attorney General Dana Nessel, Sen. Erika Geiss, Rep. Laurie Pohutsky and Sen. Rosemary Bayer | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

It’s been a tumultuous year and a half in Lansing.

Aside from the Michigan Capitol being the epicenter of armed protests, threats to officials over COVID-19 orders and the 2020 election, and even being part of an alleged right-wing plot to blow up the building, many leaders and staff have said the culture within the state Capitol also reached a boiling point.

Sexual harassment, gender discrimination and issues of workplace respect have long been prevalent in Michigan politics. But many incidents have been swept under the rug, with only a few reported in the media. Many women haven’t gone public about what they’ve experienced, often due to fears of retribution and damage to their careers. But several women have come forward publicly in the last year and a half with with harassment accusations against powerful figures, including Macomb County Prosecutor Pete Lucido, Democratic consultant T.J. Bucholz and former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

Michigan Advance reporter Laina G. Stebbins this month hosted a video panel with Attorney General Dana Nessel, 52; state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), 50; state Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), 62; and state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), 33 — all of whom have been outspoken on gender issues from their respective elected positions.

The wide-ranging discussion explored how factors like age, race and sexual identity interplay with gender issues. The panelists were asked about their own perspectives about what they have personally experienced and observed. And they talked about what has changed in Michigan politics over the years, what hasn’t, how to facilitate change and more. 

The full video is below.

On harassment and feeling ‘invisible’

A common thread in the leaders’ experiences is feeling ignored, disrespected and not taken seriously by their male colleagues.

“It definitely speaks to the misogyny that is ingrained within the culture of the Legislature,” Geiss said. Particularly when she was serving in the state House, Geiss said she often witnessed poor behavior from male members and a kind of “locker room-type attitude” from the men.

Nessel said she still has difficulty — even as the state’s chief law enforcement officer — being taken as seriously as a man would in her position.

“I have had, whether it was stakeholders in the Democratic Party, whether they were members of the Legislature, people who were incredibly dismissive of me and very much focused on talking to the men in the room,” Nessel said. “Not so much interested in talking to the only woman in the room.

“I’ve had that and felt like I was invisible. I wanted to scream and yell and be like, ‘I’m the attorney general of the state of Michigan. Maybe you should listen to me.’” Nessel said that some people simply wouldn’t make eye contact with her, and only spoke to male members of her staff.

Bayer added that she often feels like she is “disregarded, just ignored, as much as possible” by some of her male colleagues, who she feels sometimes may not even realize they are doing it because the misogyny is so ingrained.

“Even if you’re somebody who comes from a position of some sort of power or authority, it’s hard when there aren’t any other female voices in the room, quite honestly,” Nessel added.

Generational differences in speaking up

Bayer said that among the older generations, the prevailing thought had always been to stay silent about gender dynamic issues in order to succeed and have more opportunities. She said things are changing with younger generations like Pohutsky’s.

“If you want to stay in the meeting — if you want to be invited to a meeting — you don’t talk about it,” Bayer said. “If you talk about it, you’re not going to be in the next day. And that’s all there is to it. And I personally feel that the same thing is true here [in the Legislature].”

Geiss spoke along similar lines. “I’m solidly Gen X,” she said. “We came up in this sort of space of … watching women that either have to navigate the leftovers of the ‘Mad Men’ era, or become like the guys.”

She described those choices as “survival mechanisms” to live in a male-dominated world and male-dominated workplaces.

“But I think that at some point … we’re kind of like, enough of this, and we just push back on it so that we don’t perpetuate it,” Geiss said. “So that the generations coming after us don’t have to deal with the nonsense that we dealt with early in our careers.”

Pohutsky said that she has experienced everything from dismissiveness from her colleagues to outright sexual harassment during her time in office. At one point, she directly confronted a male state representative who was frequently making snide comments about her in front of other members.

“The number of times it took for anyone else to say something to him was, frankly, one of the worst parts to me,” Pohutsky said. “For it to be that blatant and that ongoing and for no one to say anything about it, I think really speaks to the culture that we’re dealing with in Lansing, unfortunately.”

Nessel brought up a major catalyst for recent the reckoning over sexual harassment in Michigan politics: When Advance reporter Allison Donahue penned a first-person narrative in January 2020 about her experience attempting to interview GOP then-state Sen. Peter Lucido (who’s now Macomb County prosecutor), but found herself on the receiving end of inappropriate, suggestive remarks from Lucido in front of a group of school boys.

“When, obviously, one of your colleagues was going through something with a certain former state senator, I actually reached out to [Advance Editor-in-Chief] Susan Demas. And I said, you know, none of this would be happening if you weren’t a supportive boss, right? You encouraged your younger staffer to speak her mind and tell her story, and there was change made as a result of it,” Nessel said.

After Donahue came forward about the incident, state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) also spoke up about the inappropriate comments and unwanted touching she had also received from Lucido as a freshman lawmaker.

Similar accusations were made against Lucido afterward from Melissa Osborn of the Michigan Credit Union League, and most recently from Ingham County Judge Lisa McCormick. Lucido has denied any wrongdoing. However, a March 2020 Senate Business Office investigation found allegations of sexual harassment to be credible. Lucido lost a committee chairmanship and was ordered to undergo workplace training.

“I think sometimes that’s the most that we can do at this point, is to be as good to our staff, frankly, as Susan Demas has been to hers when it comes to these kinds of issues. And that will change things, I think, substantially from a cultural level,” Nessel said.

Dana Nessel
Attorney General Dana Nessel, May 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

A political divide

Many of the women who have been vocal in the last year about gender issues and sexual harassment in Lansing have been Democrats or worked in progressive politics.

“I don’t see, at least in terms of the legislator space in terms of that gender dynamic, there being the same understanding that we might have on our side of the aisle,” Geiss said, regarding her perspective on how seriously her GOP colleagues take these kinds of issues.

Geiss said there tends to be a “lack of sorority solidarity,” and that “the lack of nuance [is] very disappointing” when she speaks to Republican members about gender dynamics, sexual harassment and related topics.

Pohutsky said that extends to policy.

“Two terms in a row now, I’ve introduced the bill to close the loophole in Michigan’s marital rape law. … That’s a bipartisan bill; it’s had over a dozen Republicans on it both times. [But] I’ve consistently had far more difficulty getting my GOP female colleagues to sign onto it, and the conversation that takes place kind of builds on exactly what Sen. Geiss was just talking about,” she said.

“It gets into really, frankly, frustrating conversations around what consent actually is. And I think it’s really just kind of a different symptom of the same problem, which is frustrating and has ramifications in our own workplace, unfortunately.”

Racism as a compounding factor

As the Advance has reported, many of the women who have come forward and asked to comment in recent media stories about sexual harassment in Lansing have been white. 

Geiss said that women of color are often ignored, not just in conversations about sexual harassment, but also around blatant racism in legislative spaces.

“It’s a double silencing effect,” Geiss said. “I think that we need a wholesale change in work culture, and in being able to listen, and also make change, not just listen for the sake of listening or giving hollow apologies, but in actually then changing based on what has been said, meaningfully.

“It’s still a very white male-dominated space [in the Legislature]. And I think with that, especially since many are of a certain generation, there’s a certain mindset that comes with that that just needs to be adjusted,” Geiss continued.

Sen. Erika Geiss | Nick Manes

How to spark change

The widespread culture of misogyny often starts at the top, leaders said. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), for instance, has made numerous gendered remarks, especially about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer since she came into office in 2019.

Those include Shirkey describing Whitmer and some members of the Democratic caucus as “on the batshit crazy spectrum” in fall 2019, referring to Whitmer as “my governor” comparing abortion to slavery and more.

Shirkey was also caught on video in February saying that the GOP-led Legislature “spanked” Whitmer on her COVID-19 orders, and joking that he contemplated inviting her to a “fistfight on the Capitol lawn” over them.

Many Democratic lawmakers have said that little will actually change until leadership starts to take sexual harassment and gender dynamic issues seriously, rather than feed into the problems themselves.

“That probably won’t happen until we have different leadership,” Geiss said. “I think, especially for folks who’ve been around for so long, doing things a certain way … it makes them more resistant to change.”

Pohutsky agreed, and referenced Shirkey directly.

“I’ll just call out the elephant in the room. We’ve had countless — I mean, Laina, even you and I have had countless conversations about Senate Majority Leader Shirkey, and whether or not he’s ever going to change his behavior.

“And time and time again, he’s not. So, you can’t expect him to hold anyone else accountable for similar behavior when he refuses to be held accountable or to change his actions at all. So it does need to start from the top down, but I agree with the Senator. [Shirkey] is not the leader that this is going to change under, unfortunately,” Pohutsky said.

She added that she appreciated the discussion.

“I just want to thank you. I know that you and a lot of the other female journalists in Lansing have been tackling these issues, and just being very thorough and honest about it and I appreciate it,” she said. “I appreciate it. I know for a fact that you all have been a safe place for staff who feel like there’s no real place for them to turn to. So I just appreciate the work that you all are doing on this. It’s really important, and it’s greatly appreciated.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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