'It's toxic:' #MeToo echoes flow from women decrying the Michigan Legislature's culture

January 21, 2020, 9:41 PM by  Alan Stamm

Time's up for how things have been for as long as some Michigan Legislature veterans remember.

Changes come as cultural shifts often do -- steadily over years until they accelerate with a gush of actions, voices and attention.

Three weeks into 2020, women's complaints of insensitivity and harassment at the Capitol spill out as though a reservoir of resentment overflows. Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, tweets about "the sexism and harassment my female colleagues and I face on a daily basis. ... It's toxic."

Lynell Miller, a Grand Rapids public affairs agency development director who was a legislative aide from 1997-2002 tweets: "It has been nearly 20 years since I worked in the legislature, and apparently nothing has changed. Signed, 'The Bodacious Set of Tatas Who Works for [Larry] DeVuyst.”

The second outpouring in a week comes after Sen. Mallory McMorrow's formal harassment complaint Tuesday against Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township. Six days earlier, a reporter accused him of a sexist remark.

Cue the tempest, Acts I and II.

Both women's callouts trigger support and memories on social media. "To those who reached out to share your own stories, I hear you and am with you," posts McMorrow, a Democrat from Royal Oak.

Update: "My hope was that by coming forward myself, it might empower others to do the same," she tells WDET host Stephen Henderson on Wednesday morning, adding that some women now recount "eerily similar" experiences with the same senator.

Sen. Mallory McMorrow: "It's on us to change this culture." (Photos: Facebook)

The timing overlaps with conversations in workplaces, households, media and courts about the #MeToo movement. It also seems Michigan-specific. Women fill 36 percent of legislative seats, up from 20 percent in 2016. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Atty. Gen. Dana Nessel, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Chief Justice Bridget McCormack command respect, inspiring other women to do the same.

There's also a younger, unelected inspiration -- a 22-year-old newsletter reporter in her first post-college career position. With a Michigan Advance shot heard around the state, Allison Donahue last Wednesday called out Lucido for making her "the punchline of ... 'locker room' talk. Except it wasn't the locker room; it was the Senate chamber."

She earned praise from the governor and salutes from legislators in both parties. "This reporter was able to document conduct that happens all too frequently at the Capitol," Whitmer said Friday at a Saginaw luncheon, calling her "incredibly brave."

Now a potentially risky move by McMorrow, in office only since last January, extends the "enough already" drumbeat.

She reports what's described as a sexist remark and touching by Lucido during a November 2018 orientation for newly elected senators. Her complaint is filed with the Senate Business Office, which already was examining whether the 59-year-old senator misbehaved Jan. 15 by telling Donahue she "could have a lot of fun with these boys [touring the Capitol], or they could have a lot of fun with you." 

In comments to Michigan Advance, McMorrow says: 

"I decided to come forward this week after reading Allison’s report, and specifically hearing the way that she described it. She gave an interview where she said it made her feel small. She immediately snapped back to being 15 years old – and that’s exactly how I felt.

"In that moment, I mean, I felt a bit of responsibility for not having said something sooner. ... It's on us to change this culture and make this a comfortable place for everybody to work." 

In a Tuesday night tweet, the 33-year-old senator thanks the Lansing journalist: "Today I've heard from so many people who have shared their own stories, so thank you Allison for showing we can stand up."

Allison Donahue of Michigan Advance: "The situation made me embarrassed, it made me feel small." 

Also on Twitter, Nessel pays tribute to each whistleblower for bold outspokeness: "Sometimes I think about how much better life would have been for later generations of women if more of us would have had the courage of Mallory McMorrow and Allison Donahue, who put their careers on the line in order to speak out. I know I didn't. I salute you both."

Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, joins the salutes. "There's still that old boys' club feel, and it's time to change it," she tells Jonathan Oosting of Bridge magazine Tuesday. "I'm really in awe of both Allison and Mallory for speaking out like that, because it is so hard when you're young … and facing potential damage to your career."

Lower-profile women who work or worked in Lansing also reflect and cheer. A sampling from Tuesday and earlier:

'Nothing has changed:' I worked there in a different era, and I can safely say nothing has changed since the '90s. I can't tell you how many of my friends were harassed. -- Mary Dettloff, Amherst, Mass.

'Degrading to work here:' The legislature is not a safe space for women, and until there are real consequences for the sexism and misogyny displayed it will continue to feel degrading to work here. -- Molly Korn, aide to Sen. McMorrow 

'An undercurrent:' I wish I could say I'd never heard of anything like this happening. But unfortunately it's a glimpse into an undercurrent of Capitol culture. -- Emily Lawler, MLive reporter

'Unacceptable behavior:' Basic respect and decency should be expected and guaranteed at the State Capitol. Speaking up about harassment and reporting through official channels is critical to end this unacceptable behavior." -- Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit 

(Photo: John Beatler/Michigan Senate)

'It's toxic:' Sen. Lucido's comments to Allison Donahue are a prime example of the sexism and harassment my female colleagues and I face on a daily basis. It isn't a joke and it isn't funny. It's toxic. -- Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, assistant minority floor leader


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