Littwin: In a dramatic day at the Capitol, Lebsock’s accusers were believed 52 times over

Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, spoke with reporters in the House chamber about her compliant of sexual harassment on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Photo by John Herrick

It was one of the finest days ever witnessed at the state legislature. It was so moving, so emotional, so powerful that only a self-righteous, self-absorbed vindictive jerk like Steve Lebsock could have ruined it.

And so he did. Or tried to, anyway.

In the hour before the vote to expel the accused serial sexual harasser from the House — the first Colorado state legislator so removed in over a century — Lebsock switched party affiliations, from Democrat to Republican, in order to stick it to the party that wanted him gone.

Since Lebsock was a Republican at the time he was removed, Republicans would presumably get to replace him for the second half of the four-month session. It was the kind of spiteful gesture that showed, more than anything else, why so many of his colleagues were moved to kick him out.

The #MeToo movement is about the victims, about the women whose voices haven’t been heard, about the need for the culture, finally, to change. But in the case of Lebsock, he wanted, from start to finish, to make it about himself.

And so, in Lebsock’s mind, he would be the victim. Which is how he would come to write a 28-page manifesto in which he called his accusers liars and worse. It was, as Rep. Faith Winter, put it, classic “victim blaming.” And it’s how Lebsock would attempt to dismiss the allegations made by Winter as part of a conspiracy by Democratic leadership to help Winter in her upcoming race for a state Senate seat.

There was more. Lebsock threatened lawsuits against accusers, presumably to discourage others from coming forward. He was so threatening, in fact, that two male lawmakers who had spoken out for Winter revealed, incredibly, that they felt the need to wear bullet-proof vests when they came to the Capitol.

The funny part, although not that funny, is that if Lebsock hadn’t written the manifesto, if he hadn’t threatened retaliation, if he hadn’t come up with his absurd conspiracy theory, he probably wouldn’t have been expelled despite his history of harassment. Four other legislators have been accused this session of sexual harassment, and only Lebsock has been expelled.

It was Lebsock’s harassment that led to this point — five accusers who filed official reports and many others, we’re told, who didn’t — but it was his actions after the accusations that made his expulsion possible.

If you watched the House in action Friday, you saw something unusual, even rare. Until Lebsock tried to make it about politics, the daylong session was — for the most part — about everything but politics.

The final vote to expel, by the overwhelming 52-9 count, was nothing like the whip count when the session began. A two-thirds majority is needed to expel, and on Friday morning, no one was sure how the vote would go.

And then the speeches began. Many speakers were in tears. Many told stories that they had never publicly revealed. Voices were raw, fears were revealed. And as the legislators listened, consciences were challenged, minds were changed, and, in the end, the culture was shifted at least for a day.

For most of the day, Lebsock said remarkably little. At the end, his self-serving summation could only have cost him votes. He repeatedly brought up the narrowly fashioned lie detector test he had passed, which didn’t seem to persuade anyone. Over seven hours, not one person who took the House floor spoke in his defense.

What the legislators said, instead, was that the report from the independent investigator made them sick to their stomachs. Some did argue that the investigation was flawed and that Lebsock did not receive due process. Some would accuse Speaker Crisanta Duran of covering up the original accusation, and a few even called for an investigation into the speaker’s actions.

But no one suggested the accusers weren’t telling the truth. They were believed, and that matters. When the legislature was called out as a hostile workplace, no one argued. That matters, too.

The story, told again and again, was of the courage it takes to come forward and the fear that those who are harassed feel at the workplace just getting though the day.

This day began with Winter’s dramatic testimony about the party at which she said she was cornered by Lebsock, who was trying to get her to have sex with him. Listening to her speak, no one could doubt she spoke the truth:

“I said no, five times. Five times. Not once, not twice, five times. I used all the tools women have to say no. I laughed it off, I told him to go home to his girlfriend, I said no directly. Nothing worked. Each time I said no he became angrier, he stood closer, he stood over me.  I felt unsafe. I needed help and I found that help in my friend and colleague from Denver.  I called that friend over, asked him for help because I didn’t know how to get out of the situation …

“But today is not just about me, this is about at least 10 other people. Ten others spoke to a reporter, 5 others filed complaints, 3 went on record with the media … 10 others that have felt their hearts race, felt intimidated and have felt bullied by this individual, 10 others that their place of work was changed forever. Today is not about sex. It is about power. Sexual harassment is about power and the power that this individual wielded over others.”

As the votes were counted, Winter stood with the two other women who had publicly accused Lebsock. In an email to the legislators read during the session, one of the accusers, former legislative aide Cassie Tanner, had written, “A yes vote means you believe me.”

Fifty-two yes votes meant that she was definitely believed. And 52 votes, an overwhelming affirmation, can only give hope that other women, those who dare to come forward, will be believed, too.

Photo of Rep. Faith Winter on Feb. 27 by John Herrick.