SALEM — Amid mounting pressure to vacate his Senate seat in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, state Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, plans to avoid the state capitol building until he is scheduled to appear in about two weeks before a Senate panel on conduct.
Senate Republicans said Wednesday, Feb. 7, they decided to accept Kruse's offer to stay away from the state capitol building in the coming weeks after discussing the results of an outside investigation into Kruse's behavior, which was made public Tuesday, Feb. 6.
The Senate Republican caucus on Wednesday condemned the behavior but stopped short of calling for Kruse's resignation. "The behavior alleged in the report, if true, is obviously not acceptable to the Senate Republican caucus," the statement said.
Kruse was formally accused of unwanted touching by two female senators — Sens. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton — last fall. He could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
According to the report on Kruse's behavior, prepared by an outside attorney and funded by the Legislature, other women working in the capitol also reported that Kruse subjected them to unwanted touching and hugging. The investigator described a pattern of inappropriate behavior that "escalated" even after Kruse was warned to stop touching women at work.
Among other behaviors, women reported that Kruse would touch heads with them, or give them prolonged hugs, or whisper in their ears. One lobbyist reported that Kruse groped her behind at an event at the governor's office in September, a year and a half after he was initially warned to stop touching women at work, according to the report.
Gelser told reporters on Wednesday that she objected to the suggestion in the Republicans' statement that the allegations she and other women made may not be true. "To have a caucus response that says 'if true,' when you have a series of substantiated findings by an independent investigator who found substantial evidence that these things were true and corroborated sends a terrible message to women and men in any workplace that may want to speak up," Gelser said.
She said that the independent investigator — attorney Dian Rubanoff of Lake Oswego firm Peck, Rubanoff & Hatfield — did a "thorough" investigation and fact-finding, and the job of the Senate Committee on Conduct was to determine "what the sanction should be."
"Building into this idea that this is somehow political games or a political process demeans the victims who waited to be able to speak up until somebody opened the door for them to do that," Gelser said. "This issue is too important to turn into a political issue. It is not a partisan issue, it's a workplace issue."
Gelser initially reported her concerns about touching by Kruse to legislative employee services privately in 2016. In her complaint, she said Kruse had subjected her to years of unwanted touching.
Several of Kruse's colleagues on both sides of the aisle, as well as the governor, have called for his resignation. One member of the Senate Republican Caucus, Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend, called for Kruse's resignation in remarks Wednesday, and asked Kruse in a statement to not "force the Senate to have a Conduct Committee process and make the victims share these personally painful incidents publicly."
State Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, who represents part of Kruse's Senate district in the House of Representatives, said in a public statement Wednesday that Kruse should resign. "It's clear after reading the investigative report that Sen. Kruse can no longer be an effective leader for his district, and for rural Oregon," Hayden said. "The people of his district, and Roseburg, a community we both represent, are being shortchanged. Moreover, women in our Capitol — lawmakers, advocates and the visiting public — need to know that the elected leaders in our state will not tolerate an environment where their safety is at risk."
State Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, added her voice Thursday to the chorus of calls for Kruse to step down, saying the issue "transcends party allegiance."
"The problem is a cultural and systemic one, and our response must be one that supports the brave women who came forward and put their own careers and reputations at risk—or worse, risked disbelief and denial," Salinas said. "But belief alone is not enough. We — Oregonians, leaders, moms, daughters, sisters, fathers, brothers, sons, neighbors — must call for action. We cannot deny resolution, either to the brave souls who spoke out or to those who have yet to claim their voice."
Senate President Peter Courtney stripped Kruse of his committee assignments in October. Kruse's office door was also removed because he continued to smoke in the building after warnings that it violated state rules. The actions were taken in response to what Courtney said was Kruse's failure to modify his behavior around women and his continued violation of clean air rules.
Re-evaluating its process
Kruse's power to help formulate public policies is weaker due to his prior removal from committees. Now that he is avoiding the Capitol, he will also not participate in votes for or against legislation on the floor of the Senate for those two weeks, which make up a substantial part of the short, up-to-35-day session that began Monday.
Two Republican members of the conduct committee, Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, and Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, recused themselves from the caucus discussion of the report. The committee is chaired by Democratic Senator Mark Hass, of Beaverton. The fourth member is Sen. James Manning, Jr. D-Eugene.
The Conduct Committee meeting is scheduled for Feb. 22.
Gelser and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, D-Portland, have said the Legislature ought to re-evaluate its process for handling sexual harassment complaints. "I think that we have a lot to learn from this," Gelser said. "Our process needs to be better."
Capital Bureau reporter Paris Achen contributed to this story.
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