December 14, 2017

Beware of ‘one-size-fits-all’ punishment over sexual harassment

Courtesy Photo

Diane Denish

Across the country, everyone is talking about sexual harassment. A man tosses and turns as memories of past behavior roil his mind. Women examine their pasts, re-examining advances, furtive comments and wonder if they should have said something.

New Mexico is no exception. Take, for example, an opinion piece recently authored by consultant Heather Brewer. Hers was a well-written piece expressing dismay there has not been a larger and more enthusiastic “hurrah” after a gubernatorial candidate called for Michael Padilla to drop out of the race for lieutenant governor.

Heather wonders why more people are not cheering Padilla’s demise rather than remaining silent and endorsing that view.

Here’s one probable reason. The silence may be a strong but quiet note of disagreement and questions. That disagreement in no way means we are not fully committed to the evolving commitment to end, once and for all, inexcusable treatment of women.

Beyond the question of getting caught up in mob mentality, it may be that voters don’t see the value in continuing to vilify Padilla given his victims’ complaints were litigated, a determination was made, or case settled. The information has been public for years, and has been used against Padilla in his political races—twice. It appears Padilla learned from the singular experience because in the 12 years since the allegations—including his productive term in the Legislature—no other complaints have been lodged.

Armed with the information voters decided in his favor—twice. His is a unique New Mexico story. One that involves a series of foster homes, working diligently to escape poverty, succeeding in business, community dedication and fighting for funding for kids and prevention of food shaming. That story mattered more to his constituents. Ah, yes, the voters!

As Diane Dimond asked in a recent Albuquerque Journal column, does the continued vilification of someone who has changed or learned from their mistakes make us guilty of the same shaming to which Heather refers in her piece? How does drumming him out of the Lt. Governor race (or as some suggest, the Senate) help the not-so-famous, economically fragile victims of harassment and assault—or those families who have benefited from his work?

I applaud any and every woman who has come forward with a complaint—regardless of when it happened—including those who engaged in the complaint process against Senator Padilla.

Some accusers have resources, privilege and networks to go public while others clearly don’t. Regardless, all complaints should be taken seriously, listened to and investigated. At the same time, we should stand firmly in the belief that in our judicial system, the accused should also get due process or their day in court.

To Brewer’s most important point—I agree that we should focus on the future—but that means offering concrete solutions beyond “showing them the door,” rushing to judgment or one-size-fits-all punishment. I believe it means seizing this as an opportunity for change by educating men and women about the differences between bad judgment or behavior, workplace disagreements, hostile work environment, sexual harassment and sexual assault. It means speaking up and it means listening. It means understanding that workplace power or political power in large part allow for harassment to go unreported. It means recognizing gender and generational differences and talking about harmful impacts of harassment, inappropriate behavior, assault and even false accusations. It means recognizing how the rules have changed. It means working hard to elect more women to the seats of power. It means accepting resolution, real apology or improved behavior. It is an opportunity to have that conversation and act without sacrificing the good for the perfect.

(Like Brewer, I am a supporter and donor to Michelle Lujan Grisham. Similarly, like the voters in his district, I weighed the good vs. the bad and supported Michael Padilla for Lt. Governor until he withdrew.)

Diane Denish is a former Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico.