The Buzz

The facts, faces and hum of local politics with Steve Kraske and Dave Helling

Nixon is forced to confront complaints of workplace hostility

11/08/2013 12:02 PM

11/08/2013 10:45 PM

Gracia Backer spent 18 years playing in one rough sandbox — the Missouri House of Representatives.

To hear women lawmakers of the ’80s and ’90s talk of their experiences would make your toenails curl. The good ol’ boys ruled. Sexual innuendos? Oh yeah, baby. Sexism reigned.

Backer’s survival mode was to shovel the smack right back at ’em. She could be hot-tempered and bullheaded.

But she did more than survive. Backer, a New Bloomfield Democrat, was elected in 1996 as the state’s first woman House majority leader. In the moments after that vote, she told reporters with tears in her eyes how eager she was to call her mother.

So when a thick packet from Backer, now 63, arrived detailing a long list of workplace complaints stemming from her post in state government, a smart reporter pays attention.

Backer’s central contention is that she was fired in March as director of Missouri’s unemployment benefits agency for ringing an alarm about Larry Rebman. He was Backer’s boss as director of Gov. Jay Nixon’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Backer said she was fired 17 days after she sent a formal letter to a top Nixon aide outlining her issues.

And what a list. Backer was ordered to give lousy, and undeserved, job evaluations to three female section chiefs to force them to retire or to justify their potential firing.

Rebman took “demeaning and embarrassing actions” toward his employees. He went on tirades. He ranted and threatened. And, Backer said, 20 other employees could provide examples.

For his part, Rebman told The Associated Press that he never discriminated and that the case “is best left up to the courts.”

Still, when he left, Nixon praised Rebman’s performance and gave him a six-figure job as an administrative law judge. Exactly why Rebman departed was never explained.

Turns out that this is no isolated incident.

Last month, Nixon’s agriculture director, Jon Hagler, stepped down a day after a top official in that agency, Beth Ewers, resigned. She complained that she was tired of working “in an environment of hostility, disrespect, intimidation and fear.” Hagler, she said, was the problem.

Nixon praised Hagler too. We still don’t know the outcome of Ewers’ complaints.

For the governor, now completing his fifth year, these are new red flags. But now House Republicans are investigating.

And they want answers.

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