When a former Democratic campaign staffer took her complaint of alleged sexual assault to a party official, she said nothing was done to prevent the man she reported for continuing to work in Kansas politics.
Kelly Schodorf, daughter of former state Sen. Jean Schodorf, said she was assaulted on election night in 2010. She had been working on Raj Goyle’s Congressional campaign for Kansas’ 4th District, which includes Wichita and surrounding areas. Goyle lost to Republican Mike Pompeo, who held the seat until he was nominated CIA director earlier this year.
Staff members were commiserating at the campaign headquarters following Goyle’s loss when Schodorf said she went upstairs to the roof because it was quite. When she got to the top, she realized a Democratic consultant — whom she declined to name — had followed her.
“And he forcefully came onto me,” Schodorf said. “He grabbed my wrists, and he had pinned me against the wall and tried to kiss me.”
Schodorf is one of several women to complain this week of a culture of harassment in politics and a lack of response by legislative and party leaders after The Hill raised the issue in an article that quoted former Democratic Statehouse staffer Abbie Hodgson. Some women have found the complaint system lacking or feared retribution for reporting their harassment. Amid the flurry of complaints, legislators may take a look at their rarely-used sexual harassment policy.
Schodorf said she got loose of the consultant and a friend drove her home. She said the next day, she went to her boss, Scott Poor, a former Republican Party executive director. She said she, Poor and Goyle contacted the Democrats’ then-4th District chairman, John Carmichael, who now represents Wichita in the Kansas House of Representatives.
Schodorf and several other women came forward with their complaints of sexual harassment and assault in Kansas politics this week after The Hillnewspaper raised the issue in an article that quoted former Democratic Statehouse staffer Abbie Hodgson. Schodorf and Hodgson both said leaders failed to respond when they reported their claims.
“I was 20, I think, and I was just really scared to contact the police, but I felt that by reporting this to the party, this wouldn’t happen to other women — that this person wouldn’t be hired in this position in Kansas campaigns any longer,” Schodorf said.
Schodorf said nothing happened after Carmichael was notified, and she said he thanked her for keeping their “little secret.”
“That was really just kind of salt in the wound,” Schodorf said.
Carmichael confirmed he became aware of Schodorf’s alleged assault within a few days of the election and the consultant had been terminated by Goyle’s campaign by that time.
“So I thought that the matter had been resolved to Ms. Schodorf’s satisfaction,” Carmichael said. “This person involved had been fired … by the campaign that had retained him.”
Carmichael said he didn’t realize Schodorf expected any entity other than the Goyle campaign to take action.
“I may have mistakenly thought that this was a matter she did not want shared broadly, and so the person involved having been fired, I did not take further action directly,” Carmichael said.
Asked if he thought it would have been appropriate to notify the party and bar the consultant from employment by future campaigns, Carmichael said assault and harassment cases are difficult because it is important to protect victims’ privacy and ensure an alleged perpetrators’ rights aren’t violated.
“Obviously, now having seen what Kelly has reported in the newspaper about what she expected — had I realized that’s what she wanted done, I would have been happy to do it, but we must have had a misunderstanding in that regard,” Carmichael said. “I’m very sorry if I fell short of her expectations.”
Carmichael confirmed he ran into Schodorf at a Democratic function about three years later but didn’t recall thanking her for keeping their “little secret.”
“It’s not typical of the way I speak, but given all of the circumstances, I would think she would have a better memory than I,” Carmichael said.
He added he knew he had expressed his appreciation for the manner Schodorf handled the situation. He said she could have used the situation for political advantage.
“I think it’s pretty likely that I said words which were intended to be complimentary of her professionalism and the way she handed the circumstances,” Carmichael said. “If I said it the way she recalled, that was absolutely insensitive of me.”
Women step forward
Schodorf said she decided to make her complaint public after reading Hodgson’s account of harassment under the Statehouse dome.
“After reading the article the other day, I knew that this had happened to a lot of women, and a lot of women are afraid to come forward,” Schodorf said. “I felt that I needed to come forward and say what happened to me so that maybe other women would feel more comfortable to come forward also.”
Hodgson worked for Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City Democrat, until last year. She said she raised issues of harassment to him and reported that legislators were using young interns as designated drivers after hours. She and Burroughs mutually agreed she should quit a couple months later, she said.
Hodgson said male legislators touched her inappropriately and made lewd comments to her relatively regularly. One married legislator she didn’t name explicitly asked her to have sex with him, she said.
“What really alarmed me about his comment was when I said no, he told me that no one had ever told him no before,” Hodgson said.
She said she decided to report her concerns because she was afraid other women in more vulnerable positions were likely experiencing the same thing.
“I recognized that I was in a position of power and influence and also that if there was a risk to me and my job that I would be OK,” Hodgson said. “So when I reported them, it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. Looking back, there were certainly repercussions, but I still think it was the right thing to do.”
She said she told Burroughs about her concerns and he didn’t take a strong stance. Burroughs didn’t return requests for comment but told The Hill he and other House Democratic leaders stopped other legislators from using interns as drivers.
Eventually, the intern issue, among other problems, led to a poor working relationship with Burroughs, and Hodgson said she left. She said he mentioned her pressing the intern issue in their final conversation.
Elise Higgins, a former lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, said she too dealt with inappropriate behavior from legislators, including comments about her body and lingering hugs.
The problem, Higgins said, is pervasive in the Kansas Statehouse and across state governments and politics.
“I cannot stress enough what an endemic problem this is in the Kansas Legislature,” Higgins said. “This is not about a couple of bad apples. The experience of being sexually harassed as a woman in the Kansas Capitol is one shared by most of the women that I know from my time as a lobbyist.”
“I think if you talk to nearly any woman in the statehouse, they could all tell you experiences they had with men on both sides of the aisle that made them feel uncomfortable, that were inappropriate and that constitute harassment,” Hodgson said.
Hodgson said victims and those whose witness harassment — men included — should report it.
Higgins said those harassing people needed to stop.
“Commenting on women’s bodies and propositioning women inside or outside of the Statehouse with whom you have an unequal power dynamic is absolutely unacceptable,” Higgins said. “What needs to change in the statehouse is that men need to stop sexually harassing women.”
Higgins said she didn’t think reporting her experiences was the best or most effective option. She said she was aware of Hodgson’s efforts to report and feared retaliation.
Will Lawrence, chief of staff for Democratic Sen. Anthony Hensley, scheduled a meeting with Higgins after she came forward, Higgins said. She said she appreciates the meeting.
Hensley said his office has dealt with complaints over the years. He said those experiencing harassment may be afraid to come forward but he would encourage them to do so.
Senate President Susan Wagle, the highest-ranking female official in the state, said in a statement no one had come to her with a complaint. She didn’t return a phone call requesting an interview.
“As a woman, I know how difficult and oppressive these situations can become,” Wagle said. “I won’t stand for it — period!”
Burroughs incorrectly told The Hill there was no formal process by which people could report their harassment.
Employees may file a complaint with their immediate supervisor, according to Legislative Coordinating Council policies. If someone’s supervisor is part of the problem or doesn’t address the situation adequately, that person can lodge a complaint with Legislative Administrative Services, said LAS director Thomas Day.
Day said in the three years he has overseen the department, he has had only one complaint that may have been sexual harassment.
The LCC guidelines he works under require him to talk to both parties and tell the alleged perpetrator who lodged a complaint against them. He said the person who lodged the one complaint he has seen was hesitant because of possible retribution. He said the procedure could make other would-be complainants nervous.
Changing the system
Since The Hill article, some have called for changes to the way the Legislature addresses sexual harassment. Two Democratic candidates for governor — House Minority Leader Jim Ward and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer — called for a tougher reporting system this week.
“I’m encouraged to see calls for independent processes by which people can report bad behavior, but the onus is fundamentally on the men of the Statehouse to stop sexually harassing women and treat them with respect,” Higgins said.
Ward said House Democrats would get sexual harassment prevention training at their December retreat.
Hodgson said she didn’t believe Ward’s announcement to be sincere.
“There were many occasions which I found his behavior inappropriate or unprofessional,” Hodgson said.
She declined to elaborate. She said hourlong training wouldn’t change those who know they shouldn’t commit harassment. She said tougher punishment would be “fantastic” but didn’t think it would happen.
Ward didn’t return requests for comment.
Legislators may get an opportunity to work on improving the reporting process next week. In a joint statement, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, Majority Leader Don Hineman and Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab said the LCC would “initiate a review process to identify ways we can refine and improve upon our policy and process” during its meeting Monday.