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Steve Kraske: The one thought that shouldn’t get overlooked in the Jefferson City intern mess

After a summer of sexual harassment embarrassment from the Missouri Capitol, there is some good news: House Speaker Todd Richardson is talking about the need for broader ethics reform to crack down on the anything-goes statehouse culture. But there are still things we need to keep in mind regarding this summer’s scandals.
After a summer of sexual harassment embarrassment from the Missouri Capitol, there is some good news: House Speaker Todd Richardson is talking about the need for broader ethics reform to crack down on the anything-goes statehouse culture. But there are still things we need to keep in mind regarding this summer’s scandals. File photo

Another week, another spate of stories about statehouse interns in Missouri.

The bad news: Talk about a dress code was embarrassment No. 491 in this ongoing saga. The better news: The Missouri House is preparing a new intern policy that could involve an ombudsman. That’s a welcome development following a trying year in the annals of young folks seeking real-world government experience in the state Capitol.

More good news: House Speaker Todd Richardson is talking about the need for broader ethics reform to crack down on a wide-open, anything-goes statehouse culture.

In outlining some of the panel’s ideas on KCUR recently, Rep. Kevin Engler, the head of the intern review committee, bristled at reporters who, he said, were painting with too broad a brush when it comes to the scope of the harassment problem.

Not every lawmaker is guilty of such behavior, Engler insisted. Not even close.

He’s undoubtedly correct.

But let’s be clear on a companion point that shouldn’t be overlooked: While not all male lawmakers are culpable, many women — maybe even most who have worked in the building for extended periods — recount issues with harassment.

The problem appears most pronounced with younger women new to the building and to the heady world of Show Me politics.

That sentiment came through with crystal clarity as The Star reported on the harassment crisis this summer. Intern after intern and veteran female staffer after veteran female staffer told us that not only had they experienced problems, but so had many of their friends.

So two things can be true here. Not all lawmakers are guilty, but many, many women recount bad experiences.

That thought should be lost on no one as lawmakers try to patch things up.

Last weekend, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri was in town promoting her new memoir, “Plenty Ladylike.” In an interview at Unity Temple on the Plaza, I asked her about a passage in the book about her own legislative internship in 1974.

“It was the first time I experienced moments of being uncomfortable as a young woman surrounded by lots of men,” she wrote. On an elevator, she recalled two older male lawmakers asking her if she wanted to “party.” They wanted her to drop by an office for drinks.

“I felt trapped,” she writes. “For the rest of the internship, I took the stairs.”

I heard the same stories talking to Capitol women in 2015.

Forty-one years later, nothing’s changed.

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

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