After taking aim at sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is turning her sights on a new target: Jefferson City.
The Democratic lawmaker said in a press call 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 Sen. Paul LeVota of propositioning her.
Hembree accused LeVota, an Independence Democrat, of pressuring her for sex after a lobbyist event at Gumbo Bottoms near the Missouri Capitol on Jan. 26. LeVota denies any inappropriate behavior.
LeVota resigned 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.
McCaskill said Tuesday that Hembree called her office and asked to speak with her, “and of course I said sure,” said McCaskill, who experienced harassment herself an an intern in 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 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.”
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 is “depressed and sad” that so little has changed in Jefferson City since she was sexually harassed as an intern in 1974.
In her upcoming memoir, “Plenty Ladylike,” McCaskill recounts her “unsettling initiation” into politics as an intern for Rep. Sue Shear, a Clayton Democrat.
“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.
She added that there should be more training for interns in Jefferson City to help them understand their rights.
The uproar over the accusations against him came just weeks after the 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 took 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.”