Local Columnists

Steve Kraske: Don’t hold your breath over big changes for women in Jefferson City

House Speaker John Diehl ultimately resigned from the Missouri General Assembly after admitting exchanging sexually charged texts with an intern.
House Speaker John Diehl ultimately resigned from the Missouri General Assembly after admitting exchanging sexually charged texts with an intern. The Associated Press

One night at a Jefferson City bar, then-Rep. Paul LeVota approached intern Casey Millburg with a question: How much would LeVota have to pay Millburg to date one of his aides?

To hear Millburg tell it, LeVota wouldn’t leave it alone. He kept asking, and soon a small crowd gathered. Millburg grew increasingly uncomfortable, even felt threatened, and went into overdrive trying to find a way to extract herself from the group.

“Someone might say this was good fun,” she said. “It was none of that.”

That was in 2010.

In the mid-1980s, then-Missouri Rep. Claire McCaskill stood on the House dais, seeking help with a bill from legendary speaker Bob Griffin. To get that help, Griffin joked that McCaskill had to perform a sex act.

Griffin would surely say he was just messing around. So would LeVota. Harmless yuks to offset the grind of legislative work.

The point here is that issues with how women are treated date back as long as women have served in the halls of power in Jeff City. The question now is how much of a difference will the latest blowup over how LeVota allegedly treated two of his interns — prompting his Friday resignation aside his continued denial — make in the years to come?

Surely we’ve arrived at a turning point, you might say.

But given the building’s treacherous history, maybe not.

As evidenced by some of The Star’s recent stories, more interns are feeling empowered to speak out, and that’s a good sign. But the problem continues to boil down to a culture that is so deeply entrenched that you wonder sometimes if atomic weapons could change it.

For lawmakers, Jeff City is a world of free booze, four-course dinners, trips to Augusta, prestige and more power than they’ve ever experienced before. It’s fortified by something else that’s troubled Capitol observers for years: unlimited lobbyist gifts and unlimited campaign donations in a city that’s far from home and far from prying eyes.

It’s all intertwined. The culture breeds trouble — not for every lawmaker, but for enough that many, many women operating in that building don’t like the way it feels and don’t like the choices they are forced to make to get by every day.

Consider the Capitol one big grab bag of trouble. A committee is looking at ways to make life better, but already questions are rising about whether the new policies go far enough. Will laws be changed to truly protect interns and lobbyists from sexual harassment?

Look out below! Lawmakers themselves are designing the new rules.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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