If you ever had any questions about why so many women keep silent in the face of sexual harassment or even sexual assault, why some don’t come forward for 40 years and why many never come forward at all, we give the floor to state Rep. Steve Lebsock.
He makes the case so much better than I can.
As you may know, Lebsock, who is also running for state treasurer, was accused by nine women working at the Capitol of sexually harassing them. Once Rep. Faith Winter made her accusation on the record, two other women also came forward publicly.
What may surprise you is that Lebsock, in the face of so many accusations, insists that he is the victim in all this, meaning, of course, that everyone else must be lying.
But if it does surprise you, you may not be a woman. And you’re certainly not Winter, who said this was pretty much what she expected to happen. She knew her motives and credibility would be put in question. She feared retaliation. She feared that her job would become more difficult. Because it was Steve Lebsock. And because she’s seen women facing the same situation so many times before.
And Lebsock has, to this point, successfully lived down to Winter’s expectations. His latest theory is that he has been “caught up” in the #metoo movement, but maybe not in the way you’d ever guess. He means that the movement has arrived in Colorado, and that his accusers must have gotten swept up by it. So, yep, he’s the victim. It’s an interesting, if not remotely credible, defense.
He has also issued the more standard denial. He says he has done nothing wrong, that he never sexually harassed anyone, that he’s being treated unfairly, that he’s being denied due process, that the governor and lieutenant governor have rushed to judgment, that there is some kind of conspiracy against him, that the truth will emerge once he tells his side of the story.
I called him to ask his side. He, uh, didn’t call back.
In Winter’s case, she said Lebsock had harassed her at an end-of-session legislative party in 2016, suggesting several sexual acts they might perform together. Winter said the more she tried to change the subject, the angrier he got, eventually roughly grabbing her elbow.
“I tied to de-escalate the situation,” she said, “but he kept getting angrier and kept moving closer. I’ve never felt so unsafe, not with another person anyway. Whatever I tried, I couldn’t de-escalate the situation. It’s a skill most women have. You invent imaginary boyfriends. You laugh it off. You change the subject.”
If you’re at a party, you signal a friend to come help get you out of the situation, which is what Winter finally had to do.
But before the Capitol press Tuesday, in a moment weird even by Capitol standards, Lebsock tried to change the subject by tearfully recounting how someone has been harassing him on the phone for his alleged harassment, and by saying “I am fearful for my life.” The caller, who may have his own problems, later told The Denver Post that he was, in fact, harassing Lebsock so he’d understand how harassed women feel. How much more absurd can the situation get?
And so, Lebsock has been accused by at least nine women of harassment. And now he has made matters that much worse — and turned the apparent victims who went public into victims all over again — by challenging their stories. Are you still wondering why more women don’t come forward?
The story broke on Friday when KUNC’s Bente Birkeland reported on the harassment accusations. The reaction from Democrats came swiftly. House Speaker Crisanta Duran stripped Lebsock of his committee chairmanship and suggested he resign (and Duran is now being called out for having appointed him in the first place). John Hickenlooper and many of the candidates running to replace Hickenlooper also called for his resignation.
First, Lebsock denied any guilt. Then he said he didn’t remember saying anything untoward to Winter, but that both of them were drinking. Then he wrote a sort-of apology saying he understood that those who charged him felt injured, and he’s extremely sorry for that, but without saying any of it was his fault. He did say the women should make an official report. And when Winter did so, he told 9News’ Marshall Zelinger that he was glad she had filed because now the truth would come out.
What could Lebsock’s version of the truth be?
“I told the truth,” Winter said. “I have two male colleagues who were there at the bar willing to back me up on the record. I sent him an email describing his behavior at the time. I met with the speaker and the majority leader, who left it up to me as to what to do next. I decided not to take any action because Steve said he was remorseful and that he would get counseling. He made the same agreement with leadership. I don’t know what he could say.”
She didn’t make an official complaint last year because, well, see above. Instead, she spent a year avoiding Lebsock before coming forward when she heard more stories about him. That’s what she’d warned Lebsock she would do. And in the Weinstein era and the Roy Moore era, #metoo has given more women a voice. But it doesn’t come free.
In Winter’s view, those who are blaming Duran for not doing something earlier about Lebsock are missing an important, but complicating, point. Duran — who was told about the incident last year when she was majority leader — was faced with the choice between warning others and respecting Winter’s privacy and wishes. But the question of whether Duran should have appointed Lebsock as committee chair this year is a lot easier. Knowing what she knew, she clearly should not have.
Winter says leadership did what it was supposed to do when she came forward and says now of Duran’s critics, “They’re really blaming me, the survivor, for not filing a complaint earlier. And that’s not what we do.”
Here’s what we can do: When people who know Lebsock and know his reputation and also know his accusers and their reputations say they think Lebsock should resign, we can say #metoo.
Photo illustration by The Independent.