The Multnomah County Democrats (MCD) have passed a resolution calling for state Sen Peter Courtney to step down from his role as senate president, on the basis that Courtney hasn’t done enough to stop sexual harassment occurring at the capitol.
The MCD overwhelmingly approved the resolution at a Thursday evening meeting, after about an hour of heated debate. The resolution referenced recent media reports about Courtney's long track record of sweeping sexual harassment allegations against his colleagues under the rug, as well as a Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) report on sexual harassment in the Oregon Legislature released in January, which was prompted by allegations against former state Sen Jeff Kruse. The document also cited the national movement against sexual abuse.
“Whereas, the national #MeToo movement has brought attention to the pervasive issue of sexual assault and the struggle for survivors to be heard and believed,” the resolution reads . “We call upon President Courtney to step down as President and allow the Senate Pro Tempore [Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson] to lead the senate.”
The MCD doesn’t have the power to actually force Courtney to resign as senate president, but the resolution sends a message that Courtney—who is a Democrat—lacks the support of one of the strongest Democratic constituencies in the state. The resolution doesn’t call for him to step down as a senator altogether, nor be stripped of his committee memberships. It wasn't a decision made lightly.
“People freaked the hell out about this resolution,” said Ami Fox, one of the resolution’s authors and a precinct committee person for MCD, during debate at Thursday’s meeting. “This is something I’m afraid to bring forward.”
Fox told the crowd of about a hundred Democrats that the details of the BOLI report—including the revelation that Courtney was apparently more bothered by Kruse’s habit of smoking in his office than by allegations of sexual harassment—motivated her to craft the resolution.
“This resolution is not about committing sexual harassment,” she said. “This resolution is on failing to act on allegations and issues of sexual harassment at the Capitol, with our state legislators, the people who represent us. When do we call our leadership out? When is our line?”
Not all Democrats were on board. Sen Michael Dembrow, a Democrat who represents parts of Southeast and Northeast Portland, attended the MCD meeting to implore members to vote against the resolution.
He warned members that party in-fighting could jeopardize the success of legislation senate Democrats are hoping to pass this legislative session—including environmental policy, juvenile criminal justice, school funding, and corporate tax reform.
Dembrow also cast doubt on the details in the BOLI investigate, which he called a “very flawed report,” and suggested there was more to the story that those outside of the senate weren’t privy too.
“I’m in a hard position here, because I fully share Amy’s passion on the subject,” Dembrow said. However, I’m here to tell you that, as I look at the resolution, nearly all of the facts that are in the resolution are not facts as they’re presented here.”
Dembrow was candid in speaking about Courtney, noting that while he did not always agree with the senate president, his help had been crucial to passing progressive legislation in the past. He also suggested that the problem in Salem didn’t lie with Courtney, but rather with a weak process for addressing sexual harassment allegations.
“Peter Courtney, I will say, is not a natural person to handle this kind of thing,” he said. “If you know him, he is an odd duck, and he’s a very introverted kind of person. What we came to understand was a lack in our HR processes, and ultimately our HR director is no longer with us.”
“Is [Courtney] the right person to be running an affirmative action program?” Dembrow continued. “God, no. But that’s not what we elected him for.”
While a vocal minority agreed with Dembrow during the debate, a strong majority of those in attendance voted to pass the resolution.
Even if nothing material comes of this resolution, Fox sees its passage as a sign of changing times.
“The circle of silence around these issues is deep,” she said. “It is thick. And it has finally just been broken.”