DENVER – One of the abiding principles in politics is leaving nothing to chance. If you have the votes, you vote. If you don’t, you don’t.
Add that to the list of things blown up by the #MeToo movement on Friday in Denver. When Colorado’s all-female House Democratic leadership moved to expel one of their own caucus, Rep. Steve Lebsock, for sexual harassment that morning, as Speaker Crisanta Duran confirmed to me, “We didn’t know if we had any Republican votes. We didn’t know if we had all the Democrats. But we did know it was the right thing to do.”
Expelling a member takes a two-thirds vote, or 44 of the 65 members of the Colorado House. If all the Democrats (minus the accused) voted yes, they needed nine Republicans.
Seven hours of emotional debate later, Lebsock was expelled in a landslide, 52-9. He was the first member of the Colorado General Assembly to be expelled in over a hundred years, and the second to be removed for sexual harassment from a state legislature this year.
It was a remarkable bipartisan accomplishment by the Colorado legislature and for the culture change movement that is #MeToo and #TimesUp. And it was a statement than even in the age of Trump, human decency can overcome tribalism and party loyalty.
Cartoons on President Donald Trump
When the House convened at 9 a.m. with the vote count far from certain, expectations were that Lebsock would keep his seat by a thin margin. And then that all changed.
Duran told me, “I asked Faith (Rep. Winter) to speak first after the resolution was moved. I think that set the tone.”
Winter was the first of Lebsock’s accusers to go public with her own name. Bente Birkeland, a longtime Capitol reporter for NPR affiliate KUNC, broke the story of multiple women accusing him of a pattern of crude sexual propositions and misconduct. As Winter recounted on the floor,
“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. …Today is not about sex – it is about power. Sexual harassment is about power and the power that that this individual wielded over others.
Without this vote we will tell women that their experiences and voices don’t matter. We will tell our aides, our interns, our lobbyists, our fellow representatives and yes, you will be telling me, that our voices don’t matter. We will continue to tell each other in whispers who to avoid to keep each other safe.
Without this vote today we are sending a message to any future victim of harassment or assault that their experience and their voice is less important than those of us with power. Our time in this building is temporary, our time with power is temporary, and I ask you today to use your vote and your voice and yes your power to send a signal that we are truly creating a democracy where everyone is welcomed.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the entire chamber after that. Lebsock had up to two-and-a-half hours to speak and defend himself. He didn’t – he spoke very little, mostly attacking the independent investigator who found the claims credible and disputing the timeline of events. Despite some dissonant complaints about process, not one of his colleagues spoke directly on his behalf.
Instead, numerous legislators from both parties took to the floor to recount their own #MeToo experiences, to read letters from the other victims and to decry Lebsock’s repeated attempts at retaliation, including a 28-page manifesto going after his accusers in deeply grotesque and personal terms. Two male legislators said they had been wearing bulletproof vests out of fear of what he might do.
Which brings home the true point of #MeToo: Harassment is about power. It is about instilling fear. It about the ability of the Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps and the Steve Lebsocks of the world to bully and abuse women and everyone around them.
It took women in power themselves at the Colorado State Capitol to say: We’re done. #TimesUp.
And there needs to be in more of this in halls of Congress, in Hollywood (thank you, Frances McDormand) and in state capitals across the country.