Suburban state Senate district north of Denver becomes #MeToo battleground

The two women vying for Senate District 24 embody two different approaches for how to handle allegations of sexual harassment

Rep. Faith Winter, left, and Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik. (Photos by John Herrick)

On Nov. 7, 2017, state Rep. Faith Winter made a phone call that would change not only her life, but also the course of the upcoming legislative session.

From her office at the state Capitol, she dialed a public radio reporter to say that one of her Democratic colleagues sexually harassed her at a party the year prior. Winter had kept the incident private until she learned that other women had accused the same lawmaker, state Rep. Steve Lebsock, of harassment since that night at the bar. Though she was determined to make her allegation public, she told The Colorado Independent in a recent interview, the decision to do so wasn’t easy.

“I was very worried I was not going to be believed.”

Winter also knew her allegation could jeopardize her bid this November to unseat Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, a Republican from Thornton. As it turned out during the session, Martinez Humenik would go on to file a harassment complaint of her own and defend her party’s refusal to oust its own members accused of misconduct.

By the time the session ended in May, the two state lawmakers vying for state Senate District 24 had come to embody their parties’ starkly different approaches to handling allegations of sexual harassment.

And as the November election nears, the contest for the suburban district north of Denver has become perhaps the most closely watched legislative race in Colorado.

Unaffiliated voters make up the largest chunk of the rolls here, about 40 percent, followed by Democrats, 32 percent, and Republicans, 27 percent. In 2014, Martinez Humenik won by just 1.8 percentage points. And since then, the number of new Democratic voters in the district has swelled three times faster than new Republicans. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won here by about five percentage points.

With hopes for a blue wave this midterm election, Democrats want to unseat Martinez Humenik, and in doing so, regain control over the state Senate, where Republicans hold a one-seat majority.

They also hope to secure a spot for Winter in rewriting how Colorado’s legislature handles workplace harassment.

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Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik after a candidate forum on Oct. 6. (Photo by John Herrick)

Martinez Humenik, a 61-year-old substitute teacher and former member of the Thornton City Council, is conservative in her voting record but moderate in her messaging.

She supported repealing a state law passed in 2013 that requires criminal background checks to purchase firearms. And she has backed legislation that would allow people to carry a handgun in a concealed manner without a permit. She also has voted to give parents an income tax credit for enrolling their children in private schools. The proposed legislation, widely seen as a form of school vouchers, has repeatedly been killed in a Democratic-controlled House committee.

On the campaign trail, in a district that could swing either way, Martinez-Humenik’s message is closer to the middle. 

The daughter of two public school teachers highlights her voting record in support of K-12 public school funding and mental health services in schools. Campaign mailers — most of which she cannot legally coordinate — underscore her votes for bipartisan transportation legislation and energy policy that promotes renewables like wind and solar as well as fossil fuels. One ad shows her standing behind Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, highlighting their support for school funding. And on issues such as establishing a paid family leave insurance program and repealing a law that prevents local governments from setting their own minimum wage, she told The Colorado Independent, “I think we can continue the dialogue.”

Martinez Humenik’s position on how to handle allegations of sexual harassment at the Capitol is similarly nuanced. 

In March, when three Republican lawmakers were facing sexual harassment allegations, she stood by Senate President Kevin Grantham at a press conference when he said some allegations in his chamber could be considered sexual assault, and therefore should be investigated by the police. Democrats derided that stance, saying Republicans were punting on complaints. The press conference came after Grantham dismissed an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against a fellow Republican senator as biased and innacurate. 

During a town hall meeting on March 10, a constituent stood up and told Martinez Humenik her position concerned him — that it appeared there was a double standard between how the Democratic House and the Republican Senate were dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct.

“I wouldn’t say they’re being taken less serious. I had to support what the president decided to do,” she said, referring to Grantham.

Seven months later, she continues defending her party’s position. Some allegations, she said, warrant a police investigation because some rise to criminal offenses.

A key moment for Martinez Humenik and her Republican colleagues came in April when the Senate voted on a resolution that would have expelled Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican accused of grabbing and slapping the buttocks of a former aide multiple times in 2016. She and all but one Senate Republican blocked the measure from passing, arguing the report was unconvincing.

“At the time that we voted, there was no substantiated evidence of any kind to warrant expulsion,” she said. “We were asked to be a jury and a judge even though we weren’t in court. There just was not enough evidence. There was lots of reasonable doubt.”

Despite her record giving fellow Republicans a pass on sexual harassment claims, she has at times opposed her Republican colleagues on the issue.

She and Winter worked on legislation to set standards for how college campuses deal with sexual misconduct, which was killed in a Republican-controlled Senate committee. And, while serving as vice chair on a committee charged with revamping the Capitol’s harassment policy this summer, she joined Democrats in arguing that future investigations into allegations of sexual harassment should be redacted if provided to lawmakers. Other Republicans on the committee wanted names revealed.

She also seemed to take an aggressive posture against harassment when asked about workplace harassment at a candidate forum earlier this month.

“I’ve also come forward with a workplace harassment complaint — on the account of others,” she told the audience. “I do think we really need to speak up for things to happen.”

She was referring to her own complaint against Democratic Sen. Daniel Kagan, of Cherry Hills Village, for using an unmarked women’s bathroom near the Senate floor. Kagan, who an investigation found more likely than not used the bathroom three times, said he did so once by accident when he was sick. 

At the time, Martinez Humenik faced criticism for filing a complaint. Senate Democrats, who were otherwise quick to support victims of harassment, argued the complaint was a frivolous attempt to distract from protests by Democrats, who were publicly condemning Senate leadership for what they said was a failure to hold Republican lawmakers accused of misconduct accountable.  

In an interview with The Independent in March, Martinez Humenik denied any political motivation for her complaint against Kagan, saying she filed it on her own without anyone asking her to, including Senate leadership. Asked in a more recent interview if she even considered the political implications, she said it “had nothing to do with reelection,” and “everything had to do with having someone held accountable” and keeping women safe in Statehouse restrooms.

***

Rep. Faith Winter knocks doors in Westminster. (Photo by John Herrick)

Winter is a 38-year-old national training director for VoteRunLead, a nonprofit that helps women run for office. She’s seeking a seat in the state Senate after having served in the House since 2014.

On a warm Saturday earlier this month, she went door to door in Westminster, knowing that winning in the swing district will mean a persistent ground game.

Most doors never opened. Dogs barked from inside. Winter would scribble a note that said “Sorry I missed you, Faith” on her pamphlets, stick it in the door handle, then head to the next house that a map on her cell phone indicated was the home of a registered voter.

At one door, an older man, visibly weary of her stack of campaign pamphlets, waved his hand as if he didn’t want to talk.

“We’ve been getting stuff every day,” he said through a barely open door. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s overload and it just goes straight into the recycling.”

Winter pressed on, insisting that he take one so that he could contact her. 

“I put my cell phone on it,” she said. “Because that’s me and that’s my integrity… Can I give this to you so you have my cell phone number?” 

“Sure,” he replied, taking a leaflet. 

The “overload,” as the man described the barrage of political advertising flooding his mailbox and television screen, is the result of about a million dollars that outside groups have already spent trying to persuade voters in Senate District 24.

The Senate Majority Fund, an independent expenditure committee backing Republican candidates for office, has poured about $180,000 into mailers supporting Martinez Humenik and another $195,000 into ads opposing Winter. Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, another Republican IEC, has spent $72,000 opposing Winter with TV ads. 

Coloradans for Fairness, an IEC backing Democrats in the state Senate, has spent $220,000 opposing Martinez Humenik and $60,000 supporting Winter.

IECs have virtually no limits on what they can accept or spend.

There are dark money groups, too, that do not have to disclose donors to the Secretary of State, paying for ads on behalf of candidates seeking seats in the Senate. These nonprofits include the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, which backs Republicans, and Colorado Values Project, which backs Democrats.

According to the latest campaign finance contribution reports, Winter’s campaign has raised more than $350,000. Martinez Humenik’s has raised about $100,000. 

Inside Winter’s campaign office in Northglenn, she mounts dozens of political mailers on her walls, both those supporting and attacking her. On one hand they are frustrating, she said. But they’re also a source of encouragement.

“It’s what makes me work hard,” Winter said before a recent outing to knock on doors. “The reason we go talk to voters is because we know what we’re up against.”

She said most voters want to know that she’ll fund education. She tells them that she has in the House and will continue to in the Senate. She also lets them know that she has two kids in the school system, ages seven and nine, and that her mother was a school teacher. She said she can promise them that she will prioritize money for K-12 public schools.

Winter also mentions her support for paid family leave, a key policy priority among Democrats. The plan would essentially use an income tax to cover up to 12 weeks of paid time off per year. The proposal repeatedly has been voted down in the Republican-controlled Senate.

She also brings up her role in helping pass a transportation bill that included money for multi-modal projects and road repairs. The issue is a top priority for residents in the suburbs of Denver where traffic is often at a standstill.  

Winter surrounds herself with Wonder Woman paraphernalia — a fidget on her desk in a committee room, a bumper sticker on her car, and a poster in her campaign office. The superheroine is an image that she, as an outspoken advocate of women most of her career, and a proponent of the #MeToo movement, finds inspiring.

Still, it is not an image she uses on the campaign trail, where she generally doesn’t talk about her complaint against Lebsock who was expelled from the House of Representatives after an investigation ordered by the legislature found he was more likely than not to have harassed Winter and four other women. The day of the vote, Lebsock switched his affiliation from Democrat to Republican and continues to call Winter a liar. A conservative radio talk show host recently discounted her allegations as part of her “corrupt policy.”

To Winter’s relief, no mailers have emerged attacking her for coming forward with her complaint against Lebsock. In fact, she said, the controversy that had been a preoccupation in the bubble of the state Capital seems of little concern when she’s in the district knocking on doors.

“Generally people don’t talk about it,” Winter said. “The only time it’s really come up is with Democratic women who know who I am.”

***

Barbara Paradiso, an expert on violence against women at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, said that even in a year when public awareness about sexual harassment has reached unprecedented heights, it is still a political risk for an office-seeker to come forward with an allegation.

“There’s no money at the end of it. There’s no particular fame. Their veracity is questioned. Their motives are questioned,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to me that there is a tremendous amount of positive reinforcements for taking a stand.”

Paradiso added that “There are so many different ways that you can go about trying to advance your political agenda.

“This seems like a particularly painful choice.”

A special legislative committee charged with making a recommendation on how to address sexual harassment claims at the Statehouse wrapped up its work last week, leaving unresolved the question of who should have authority to mete out discipline.

Both Winter and Martinez Humenik sat on that committee.

Only one will be serving under the Gold Dome come January with the power to influence a resolution.

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