After taking aim at sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, Missouri’s U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is turning her sights on a new target: Jefferson City, Mo.
The Democratic lawmaker said in a press call on Tuesday that her staff is working to create an advocacy organization to help victims of sexual harassment in Missouri’s capital after a spate of scandals involving interns shook the state legislature.
McCaskill said the idea for the organization came out of a telephone conversation Monday night with Alissa Hembree, the former Capitol intern from the University of Central Missouri who accused state Sen. Paul LeVota of propositioning her.
Hembree called McCaskill’s office and asked to speak with her, “and of course I said sure,” said McCaskill, who experienced harassment herself an an intern at the legislature 40 years ago.
“We talked about what was a good thing that could come out of this,” the senator said.
She said her office will strategize with Hembree about how to begin an advocacy group that could give young interns who feel they are being sexually harassed in Missouri somewhere safe to turn for support and information.
In an interview on Tuesday, Hembree said she reached out to McCaskill because she looks up to the senator as an advocate for women. “I thought she would be a really great person to have on our side,” Hembree said.
“This issue has a lot of momentum right now,” she added, “and I think this is a great opportunity to unite a strong network of professionals who can offer support (to interns facing harassment), because you feel extremely isolated in that situation.”
I’ve always really wanted to work in advocacy, and this has really deepened that desire.
Alissa Hembree, former Missouri Capitol intern
The idea is still in the preliminary stages, McCaskill said, but the goal is to enable interns to have confidential discussions with experts to understand their options: Should they file a Title IX complaint? Talk to a lawyer? Make a report to the House or Senate?
“It’s a little bit like what we’re doing in the military, where every victim gets a confidential adviser to help them make a decision on how to go forward,” McCaskill said. “That way, you leave more control in the hands of the young lady or young man who feels they’re being victimized, and give them a chance to get good information without having to go public.”
The senator said she’s “depressed and sad” that so little has changed in Jefferson City since she was sexually harassed as an intern in 1974.
It depresses me. I’m bitterly disappointed that the climate (in Jefferson City) hasn’t changed since 1974.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
In her upcoming memoir, “Plenty Ladylike,” McCaskill recounts her “unsettling initiation” into politics as an intern for then-Rep. Sue Shear, a Democrat from Clayton, Mo.
“There were inappropriate things said to me and inappropriate behaviors that made me very uneasy,” McCaskill wrote. At one point, a pair of male legislators and an aide cornered her on a elevator and tried to entice her back to their offices for drinks.
McCaskill says she coped at the time by trying to avoid situations that made her uncomfortable, but there really wasn’t anyone for her to talk to about it.
“And it was sad for me to hear that same refrain from this young woman (Hembree): that there was no one for her to talk to,” McCaskill said.
“There are literally thousands and thousands of young women living with this around the country who are afraid to come forward because they don’t know what the consequences will be,” McCaskill said. “You’re afraid you’ll be marginalized in the workplace, you’re afraid you’ll jeopardize your future in some way, you’re afraid you won’t be taken seriously. There’s a long list of worries.”
She added that there should be more training for interns in Jefferson City to help them understand their rights.
Hembree accused LeVota of pressuring her for sex after a lobbyist event at Gumbo Bottoms near the Missouri Capitol on Jan. 26.
LeVota, a Democrat from Independence, Mo., resigned on July 24 after a University of Central Missouri-authorized investigation found “a preponderance of the evidence” to substantiate Hembree’s story that LeVota solicited her for sex while she was working for him, a violation of her civil rights.
Another intern who worked for LeVota years earlier also has described being harassed by him in an interview with the Kansas City Star.
LeVota still denies any inappropriate behavior.
The uproar over the accusations against him came just weeks after then-speaker of the Missouri House, Republican John Diehl, stepped down in the midst of a sexting scandal with an intern.
Concerns over a culture of sexual harassment in the Capitol were so serious that Central Missouri and Missouri Southern State University pulled all their students out of internship programs in Jefferson City this spring.
McCaskill praised Hembree on Tuesday for being proactive in the wake of her own ordeal.
“I’m very proud of her,” she said.
To Hembree, McCaskill’s vocal support has been a huge boost after a rough few weeks.
“It was fantastic because I really look up to her and I always have,” Hembree said, “so to have someone who I consider to be one of my heroes say she was proud of me was really inspiring.”