U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver has one word to describe the atmosphere on Capitol Hill these days: Paranoia.
In the wake of a series of sexual harassment scandals, which have caused members of both parties to resign, Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, said that many male members of Congress have grown fearful about their interactions with female colleagues.
“I think paranoia is a good word,” Cleaver said Monday in an interview with The Star. “And yes, I have seen a lot of members of Congress expressing fear over doing anything and a number of members will not even get on an elevator now with a woman unless there’s another person on the elevator.”
Cleaver said that he’s not as paranoid as other members, but he recalled that he underwent a temporary panic after he complimented U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat who has been his friend for years, on her shoes.
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“I stopped for a minute, ‘Oh Lord, is that sexual harassment?’ And so I immediately turned to her — she’s an attorney and a former ranking member on the Committee on Ethics… I said, ‘Linda, I just realized we can’t make compliments.’ And she said, ‘That’s crazy. You can compliment my shoes.’”
In recent weeks, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat; U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican; and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, have all announced their resignations in the face of allegations of inappropriate behavior.
On top of that, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, has said he won’t seek re-election in 2018 amid a host of sexual harassment allegations. Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama’s special election was largely blamed on allegations from numerous women of sexual misconduct.
And in the Kansas City suburbs, Democratic candidate Andrea Ramsey dropped out of the race in Kansas’ 3rd congressional district after The Star asked her about allegations in a lawsuit that she sexually harassed a male subordinate in the mid-2000s.
Cleaver, 73, has served in Congress since 2005 after previously serving two terms as Kansas City’s mayor and multiple terms on the city council. He said he has not seen “an atmosphere… as toxic in my 40 years in public service” as the current atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
“The fear around here is that the only thing necessary is that there’s an allegation… The allegation will get front page coverage,” Cleaver said.
Concerns about sexual harassment should not prevent men from interacting with women at the office, said Wendy Doyle, the president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation, a Kansas City-based nonprofit.
“Really to just conduct ourselves appropriately with manners is all anyone’s asking,” Doyle said. “We shouldn’t be fearful about conducting business.”
The foundation, which previously advised Missouri lawmakers on reforms to prevent sexual harassment in Jefferson City, will issue recommendations to the Kansas Legislature later this month after a series of stories by The Star and other outlets raised concerns about the treatment of women in the statehouse.
She said her advice to Cleaver and other members of Congress would be similar: “Just be polite and professional and let’s get work done.”
Kelly McCambridge, a Lee’s Summit attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases, said the notion that physical proximity to a woman would result in a sexual harassment allegation is insulting, when told about Cleaver’s claim that some men on Capitol Hill won’t share an elevator with a woman.
She said that if members of Congress are avoiding female staffers and interns it will hurt their ability to move up in the world of politics. “I can’t even imagine how that would limit your ability to network,” she said.
Cleaver weighed in on a number of other issues during his conversation with The Star, including concerns that President Donald Trump will retaliate against special counsel Robert Mueller as the former FBI director’s investigation into Russia’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 election continues.
Cleaver complained about a “coordinated effort to discredit the special counsel and the investigation” in recent weeks as Mueller’s investigation has faced scrutiny and criticism from congressional Republicans.
“I think they are going to lead the president into making another big mistake like the one he made when he fired FBI Director (James) Comey,” Cleaver said.
He noted that congressional Republicans praised Mueller’s appointment earlier this year, but that criticism of Mueller has ramped up in recent weeks after the indictment of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and a guilty plea from Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
“Donald Trump continues to say ‘I’m going to receive a letter and be exonerated’ … nobody up here that I know, including a number of former prosecutors, believes that’s the case,” he said.
Cleaver’s main focus in the final weeks of the year is the issue of predatory student loans.
Cleaver and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a freshman Democrat from Washington, sent letters to student loan companies Monday demanding that the industry take steps to reform and ensure that students do not face unreasonable payment schedules within a year of graduating.
“What we are doing to these kids is just unbelievable… We need a system where we give students a lift and not a load,” Cleaver said, noting a recent Wall Street Journal report that roughly 4.6 million Americans are in default on their student loans.
Cleaver said the issue is unlikely to get a hearing before the end of the calendar year, but he is hopeful that Congress will take up the issue when its next session starts in January.
“This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue that both sides recognize is one of the biggest issues facing the country,” he said.