Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, is sharing her own story of being bullied in the state Legislature as she calls for harassment investigations within the Capitol to be handled by third parties, instead of internally.
“Harassment of any kind has to stop,” Wilson told the Empire by phone on Thursday.
Wilson first shared her story with Anchorage political blogger Jeff Landfield, then confirmed the account in an interview with the Empire.
In 2016, Wilson complained to leaders of the Senate’s Republican-led majority after an incident involving Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak during the Legislature’s extended special session in the Bill Ray Center.
Stoltze, according to Wilson’s account, was furious when an item he had put into the budget was removed by members of the House of Representatives. Wilson was, and remains, a member of the House Finance Committee.
“He went off the handle. He was screaming, yelling, and calling me bad names. It was very inappropriate behavior,” Wilson told Landfield.
The encounter was witnessed by approximately 20 people, and one witness to the encounter told Landfield that Stoltze was repeatedly yelling, “F****ing c**t!”
Wilson confirmed her account to the Empire, and the Empire also contacted one of the witnesses, who also confirmed the incident.
Wilson said that after she informally complained about the incident, she was told simply that she should avoid Stoltze. Wilson said she did not file a formal complaint and does not consider the incident to be sexual harassment.
“I couldn’t believe that anybody in a leadership position would tell someone they should stay away from the perpetrator rather than the other way around,” Wilson told the Empire.
Stoltze spoke to the Empire on Wednesday evening. He said he was upset and angry with Wilson, but he did not swear at her. He said he was swearing about her to Lynn Gattis, who at the time was the representative from greater Wasilla and shared an office in the Bill Ray Center with Wilson.
Wilson was not present, Stoltze said.
Stoltze said he was angry because Wilson had bragged about removing Stoltze’s goal from the budget, and she knew it would harm his district.
“The story has been embellished quite a bit and misdirected. It wasn’t this whole one-sided event,” he said.
He said he isn’t using that as an excuse, but as a framework for understanding what happened.
“I have no excuse for using — even though it wasn’t to her — to referring to another person with a derogatory term,” he said, “even though I felt my district had been maliciously attacked for petty reasons.”
At the time of Stoltze’s encounter with Wilson, Charlie Huggins, a Republican senator from Wasilla, was the Senate’s Rules Chairman. He is now a candidate for governor and did not return a call from the Empire regarding the incident.
Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, was the Senate President in 2016. Through the Senate Majority spokesman, he said the issue is a personnel matter, and he cannot discuss it.
While Gattis she declined speak on the record about the 2016 incident, she offered her thoughts about Wilson’s call for a different way to address harassment complaints.
“I think that staff need a safe place that they can go to either get help or get someone to intervene without getting fired,” said Gattis, who is a candidate for lieutenant governor.
Stoltze told the Empire he feels he would have benefited if the Legislature had a third-party system when the 2016 incident happened.
“I probably would have benefited if there had been a discussion about it, and it would have been cleared up when people had things fresh on their mind,” he said.
Skiff Lobaugh, the human resources director for the Legislative Affairs Agency, does not discuss individual cases of harassment in the Legislature, and he declined to comment on Wilson’s particular case when asked by the Empire.
Federal law has specific boundaries for what makes harassment illegal, rather than just extraordinarily unpleasant.
Under the guidelines used by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment has to be either “pervasive,” consisting of multiple incidents, or “severe,” as in a single case of physical assault. The harassment also has to be against a class of people protected by law. As the EEOC states, illegal harassment is “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”
Anyone shouting over a legislative dispute might be rude, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing something illegal. The Legislature regularly fails to take public action against lawmakers whose conduct is unpleasant but not illegal.
It also fails to openly discuss problem behaviors, something illustrated by the Empire’s attempts to report this story.
Current lawmakers said they were reluctant to talk on the record about such issues because they might need an offensive lawmaker’s votes. Past lawmakers said they didn’t want to burn bridges if they ever wanted to return to government service. Current Legislative staff said they feared they might be fired. Past legislative staff said they didn’t want to destroy their opportunity to be rehired.
“If they say anything about their boss, then their boss would fire them,” Gattis said of the problem facing staffers.
If fired, “no one would hire them,” she added.
The problems of harassment in the Legislature are worse than those in private business because lawmakers are elected, not hired or fired, and can only be removed by a recall vote of their constituents or (in extraordinarily rare cases) by an expulsion vote of their fellow lawmakers.
In a report released earlier this year about an incident regarding Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla (no relation or association to Tammie Wilson), Lobaugh wrote: “In that climate there is extra pressure on employees to refrain from reporting or objecting to conduct they may perceive as appropriate.”
Since 2000, according to Legislative statistics released by LAA, there have been 22 investigations into harassment by legislative staff or lawmakers. Only the investigation involving Sen. David Wilson has been released to the public. The others remain confidential.
Wilson is sharing her story now as she objects to the way the Alaska House of Representatives’ coalition majority handles a harassment case involving former Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue. She said she feels the majority’s handling of that incident was similar to the way the Senate majority handled her complaint.
She has objected to harassment training mandated by Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, who is the current House Rules chairwoman.
A LeDoux staffer told the Empire Wednesday that LeDoux was unavailable to answer questions about Wilson’s incident.
“Hopefully by telling my story, others will now know they’re not alone in what may have happened to them,” Wilson said. “Juneau’s got to change.”
• Contact reporter James Brooks at email@example.com or call 523-2258.