The reticence of many to respond strongly against these allegations is likely in part because more senators hold secrets of their own, a political scientist said.
“Bitch, you want to fuck with me tonight?” state Representative Borris Miles allegedly asked a legislative intern in 2013, flashing a wad of cash at her outside a bar in South Austin.
“I can tell you’re wearing a thong, is it polka-dots to match your dress?” state Representative Carlos Uresti allegedly asked a political consultant in the Texas Capitol in 2003.
Both men, Democrats and now state senators, have been accused of multiple instances of sexual harassment and assault at the Capitol, according to a story published last week in the Daily Beast. Miles and Uresti deny the allegations, calling them “anonymous accusations” and “unfounded innuendo.” While the widely circulated reports have fueled outrage and prompted a review of sexual harassment policies at the Texas Legislature, not a single Texas senator has called for Uresti or Miles to resign.
This week, the Observer reached out to all 31 state senators as well as Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who didn’t respond, about the allegations. Of the 15 senators who responded, including Miles and Uresti, all broadly denounced sexual harassment, variously noting that it is “unacceptable,” “a serious and sensitive issue” and “will not be tolerated in the Texas Senate.” However, none called on Miles or Uresti to resign. Seven senators — four Democrats and three Republicans — said the allegations needed to be investigated or reviewed by the Senate. (Read the full responses here.)
No senator referred to Miles or Uresti by name, but five lawmakers — Democrats Kirk Watson of Austin, Judith Zaffirini of Laredo, Jose Rodriguez of El Paso and Sylvia Garcia of Houston and Republican Kel Seliger of Amarillo — specifically condemned the alleged harassment reported by the Daily Beast. Watson, for example, called the allegations “deeply disturbing” and Zaffirini said they were “extremely troubling.”
The only two female Democrats in the Senate — Zaffirini and Garcia — made the strongest statements about their colleagues, stopping just short of calling for Miles and Uresti to resign.
“Anyone engaged in sexual harassment, abuse, discrimination or bullying must be held accountable no matter who they are,” Garcia said. “If the allegations are proven true, there should be a full pursuit of consequences to provide justice, including resignation,” Zaffirini said.
But the anonymity of the allegations has made it easier for Uresti and Miles to shrug the incidents off, and for their colleagues to reserve judgement.
“I am not in a position to be the judge, jury, and executioner of these or any other sexual harassment allegations,” said Rodriguez, who has proposed establishing an independent investigative body to address the allegations.
“The only thing that I can control is how I conduct myself and demand that my staff behave appropriately at all times,” said Senator José Menéndez, a Democrat from San Antonio. “I cannot speak to the policies or practices other offices have.”
Two days after the Observer reached out, Menéndez’s office released a new, more decisive public statement. “Anyone found guilty of harassment, abuse, or assault should be fired or removed from office immediately,” it reads. “It is unacceptable that cases of misconduct have gone unreported by victims we should have been protecting.”
Allegations of sexual harassment in the past couple months have toppled Hollywood executives and top media figures. In Congress, pressure from colleagues led to the resignation of four lawmakers just last week. But in Texas, senators seem more inclined to brush past the accusations against two of their own.
The allegations don’t surprise many Capitol veterans, including lawmakers. Four years ago, the Observer wrote in depth about the Legislature’s “sexist little secret” — a male-dominated culture that openly devalues and denigrates women, but is tolerated as just a fact of life.
The reticence of many Texas legislators to respond forcefully — or in the case of half the senators, at all — to allegations against their colleagues is likely in part because some hold secrets of their own, said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist.
“I’m sure in at least a few cases, senators are not responding based on the logic that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Jones told the Observer. “You run the risk that if you speak out publicly, you’re viewed as a hypocrite, and that emboldens someone you assaulted or harassed in the past to come out and publicly denounce you.”
Sexual harassment policies at the Legislature are also shockingly outdated and ineffective. For example, the Texas Tribune found that very few allegations lead to a formal investigation, much less consequences for the abuser. Until modified earlier this month, the House’s policy recommended that victims confront their abuser. The new policy, adopted by the Texas House Administration Committee, outlines a clearer complaint process and requires lawmakers and staff to take sexual harassment training. But it doesn’t provide specifics on how lawmakers and staff will be held accountable and only notes that “remedial actions will be proportional to the seriousness of the offense.”
The Senate Administration Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss changes to the upper chamber’s sexual harassment policy. Senator Lois Kolkhorst, the committee chair, acknowledged that there are “rumors, innuendos and allegations” against members and staff in both chambers, and told the Observer she will continue to discuss “needed changes” to the Senate policy.
If Uresti and Miles resign, Jones said, it would give Democrats the moral high ground, but if they’re still in office next November, Republicans can use the allegations against Democratic challengers in the general election. “As long as they continue to serve in office, they’re a liability for Texas Democrats.”
Have you experienced sexism or sexual harassment at the Texas Capitol? Contact us:
Naveena Sadasivam, [email protected], (512) 477-0746 x105
Sophie Novack, [email protected], (512) 477-0746 x112
The Observer reached out to all 31 senators for comment on the sexual harassment allegations against Senator Miles and Senator Uresti. You can find Miles’ and Uresti’s response to the Daily Beast allegations here and here.
Here are the questions we sent the other 29 senators:
- Do you believe the allegations against the senators, and the women who made them?
- Should the senators resign in response to these allegations? Should they face other penalties?
- Has the Texas Legislature done enough to address sexual harassment in the past, and is it doing enough in response to these allegations now?
- Anything else I should know?
We’ve highlighted their responses below. You can find the senators’ responses in full here.