Leadership matters. Peter Courtney must go.
I am sitting next to a reporter trying not to have a panic attack, preparing to make my case in a room full of Democrats to call for the most powerful Democrat in Oregon to step down as Senate President.
A little history about me: my name is Ami Fox, and I am a Precinct Committee Person (PCP) for House District 42, and a mother of three mixed-race, elementary-age daughters. Two years ago, I didn’t know what a PCP was, or a House District, for that matter. I became intensely involved in politics after grab-them-by-the-pussy was elected president. I, like so many others, watched in horror on election night; not believing what I was seeing as the map continued to turn red, state by state.
I remember the election party at Jenna’s house much the same way I remember the details of 9/11: dream meets nightmare. We had gathered, prepared to toast in celebration, our first woman president. I am a lifelong Democrat, and was a mildly involved activist who turned into a desperate full-time activist, a second full-time job. I was clocking in close to 40 hours a week for political work. I volunteered like my life, like my children’s lives, were at stake, because they were and are. I couldn’t just watch day after day as the freedoms and rights of women and minorities slipped away.
Fast forward three years, I find my outrage growing as I read the news from the Willamette Week concerning Peter Courtney, our Senate President, failing to act on accusations of sexual harassment committed by others. Leadership matters. I read the BOLI report and when I got to page 36 I found that Senator Kruse was reprimanded, not for repeated sexual harassment of Senator Sara Gelser, but for violating smoking laws. To Peter Courtney, smoking was a greater offense than the systematic oppression of women. I can’t be represented by a person like this. I hate bullies and abuse of power.
I, like most women, have stories. My first experience with sexual harassment in the workplace happened when I was thirteen. I was a hostess at a local family restaurant. My manager dropped a pencil at his feet and demanded that I pick it up. I didn’t want to. I told him “no,” but he insisted, and since I was just a young girl, I did as I was told. We were in the front of the restaurant behind the cash register. As I bent down to pick up the pencil, he grabbed my head and jammed it into his crotch, saying “while you are down there….” I said nothing. I endured it. For me, my truth, leaving what is happening at the capitol alone will continue the circle of silence that surrounds women’s rights. #TimeIsUp
Farrah Chaichi from the Washington County Democrats wrote a resolution calling for our elected Oregon House and Senate leaders to step down from their leadership roles because of the BOLI report. I asked her if she minded me taking this to Multnomah County Democrats. She gave me support and encouragement. I put the resolution on social media to a group of activists who have onboarded to the Democratic Party. You may know them in social media circles as the #DemEnter group. There was support for this resolution online, so I decided to move forward.
On the Progressive PCPs of Oregon FaceBook page, I was given advice from former DPO Chair Jeanne Atkins to call legislatures and get their input to find out what they are doing in response to this resolution. So I called and spoke to several senators and representatives, I was asked to take House Speaker Tina Kotek’s name off. I did. I was told about the new policy being written and where they were in the process. Things were happening in response to this report, and I was told not to bring this resolution forward. The fear surrounding it was palpable. I was told that I would destroy the momentum of the long session, destroy the momentum of the supermajority. It gave me pause; I did not want to be the destroyer of the party. I called leaders of the local unions. I was told they had also considered taking a stand concerning this issue and wouldn’t be opposed to the Democratic Party taking this position. I considered this response neutral; not against it, but not taking a stand themselves.
I also learned more about Courtney and his leadership through these phone calls. Everyone who had spent any time at the capitol knew that to oppose Peter Courtney would be a career killer. Crossing him meant that none of your bills would ever see the light of day from committee again. Peter Courtney has been compared to a dictator and he is said to wear that title with pride. Ex-staffers at the capitol confirmed this. Even Senator Michael Demobrow, who came to speak against this resolution at our Central Committee meeting, admitted that Courtney should be the last person in charge of dealing with sexual harassment at the capital.
I called Atkins to get her take on this. She told me straight out that she could not support this resolution, but if I were to bring it, I should add: 1) the historic piece that he did the same thing during his tenure at Western Oregon University, 2) Courtney’s mishandling of sexual harassment with his ownstaff, and 3) the repeated negligence of his duties as leader to address these issues properly. Then, she told me that I would have a compelling argument. The very next day Atkins publicly asked the Senate and Peter Courtney to address these concerns. In an article following the Oregon Senate mandatory sexual harassment training, Peter Courtney was asked if he learned anything. He replied that he now says hello and goodbye to his staff.
Sexual harassment is a crime. There are laws against it. It results in shame, fear, discrimination, and blocking access to positions of power and high paying jobs. The shroud of silence around rape and sexual harassment has been broken only recently. A law is worth nothing if not enforced. I also learned in my conversations with lawmakers at the capitol that the state constitution was written to place each branch of government in charge of policing itself. It was set up this way to protect itself from partisan motivations. The senate has to take care of the improprieties of its own members; but for the last twenty years, no one has addressed these issues.
How many women, including interns, have been affected because of Courtney’s leadership? At the university, two were paid off (in taxpayer money) and dozens more have come forward. In the senate, we have two women on record and at least a dozen more who have filed grievances. TheBOLI report, is 52 pages long — and pretty damning. Clearly, leadership matters. It should be noted that the legislature signed a $1,300,000 settlement agreement with nine women (and labor regulators) who experienced sexual harassment. That’s $1,300,000 of our tax dollars.
This resolution is not about actually committing sexual harassment, but failing to act on accusations of sexual harassment. For years there has been a pattern of covering up sexual harassment. So the question is: do we hold our leadership accountable? When is the time to call out leadership? When is the time to let victims know that their complaints will get a hearing and not be dismissed? It should be remembered that, when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency knowing that he would be impeached, it was not for the Watergate crimes. He was going to be impeached because he had covered up those crimes. Can you even imagine that now? How very far this country has fallen.
I brought this resolution to the Platform and Resolution Committee for a special meeting. They were less than excited. I made sure that the people who signed on to this were there with me. I wasn’t going to go at it alone with a hostile group. The fear that meaningful legislation would not happen this session if this resolution went forward was the reason, I believe, for the hostility — not the love of Peter Courtney. The fear that this would alienate the Multnomah County Democrats from elected officials moving forward was also a concern. I had been told by one lawmaker that they would no longer come to our Celsi celebration, our one and only fundraiser. This resolution could have real consequences.
It was agreed at this meeting that this resolution would come forward together with a second resolution that would address the policies needed to safeguard from this happening again. I agreed to wait a month so this could be written. One of the resolution’s supporters promised to write the second resolution, it was never written. I also knew that there were policies being set in motion in the capitol. Policies that were well researched and specifically designed for Salem’s very unique criterion, and I knew I lacked the expertise to even attempt such a resolution. I forwarded on everything I had learned thus far from Representative Williamson who was heavily involved in writing these new procedures. Everyone was holding their breath hoping that Courtney would voluntarily step down on his own. He had just taken a ten day leave due to stress and there was talk that he wasn’t coming back. He did.
There was a second meeting, just with the head of the Platform committee and a retired education advocate and myself. They wanted to “fix” my resolution and change it to just address policy safeguards and get Courtney’s name off of it. I said under no circumstances would I accept that. The resolution was solid as it was and if they didn’t like it they could vote it down and use their influence to get it voted down. They did. The night of the regularly scheduled Platform meeting I was not in attendance. The Platform group unanimously voted against supporting this resolution with two abstentions. Nevertheless I persisted.
When the email went out announcing the upcoming central committee meeting, the sexual harassment resolution was not in the announcement (this is a big deal because in the bylaws if the announcement does not go out six days in advance, the resolution must pass by 4/5ths instead of a simple majority). I saw the whole thing being torpedoed. I called the communications officer. Our communications officer was new to the process and was unsure what to do. Our chair was out of the country. The communications officer had thought that since resolutions committee had unanimously voted the resolution down that that was the end of it. I escalated to social media. Tagging leadership, pleading for someone to follow the bylaws and send out the notification. Acting Chair Rachelle Dixon heard my plea and responded to the communications officer to send out the email, but it didn’t go out until Saturday, thus not making the six day cut off.
Behind the scenes, things were happening. People were being pressured to take their names off of this resolution. I have my suspicions, but won’t call them out here. One of my trusted progressive activists broke under the pressure and took his name off. It was a stunning blow for me. I was worried that the people who had promised to stand up for women would not show up to the meeting, would not speak in favor of this.
At the meeting I implored the group to find their moral compass. To figure out their line. I asked what will it take for you to speak up against an elected democrat? I also asked how many women does it take to equal one man? 10, 20, 30? Because we all know it is not 1:1. Courtney rules with an iron fist, the circle of fear of opposition that surrounds him is deep. What if Courtney said that anyone caught creating a hostile work environment for women would not be tolerated? He has the power to change things because leadership matters. Look at the precedent Trump has set. Words matter. And if we don’t hold our elected officials accountable to a higher standard than who are we as a party? The circle of silence around these issues is thick. Silence equals consent.
I know we all have different reasons for being engaged politically, my “why” is my daughters. For many it is the environment, air to breathe, water to drink. For others it is because their friends and family are being brutalized due to their skin color. For others it is education. For too long the left has been divided. Believing that they had to prioritize their issue at the expense of everyone else’s issue. We can’t pit ourselves against one another; this is not a zero sum game. It is all important. We need to act on protecting the environment if we want a world humans can survive on right now. We need to fund education because we are in crisis mode right now. We need to end systemic racism so that skin color is not the greatest predictor of being shot by police right now. What if we all link arms and march forward together? What if we, the 99%, learn our true power? What if we stand together and fight?
For me, we, as a society, need to stop looking the other way, saying this isn’t a priority when women are systematically silenced, victimized and viewed as spoils for the white man. Sexual harassment should not be seen as not important enough to burn political capital for. There is such a thing as being on the wrong side of history, and we, as a group, need to make a choice.
Women don’t have equal protection under the constitution in this country. The equal rights amendment is law in Oregon, but it is not national. Women are still paid less and discriminated against. Sex is still used as a weapon of oppression.
Did you know that in 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King had a 23% approval rating? Did you know that Rosa Parks was even less popular? He was challenging the status quo; believing that one day all men would be free, all men would be equal, having a dream. But at the time Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were villains. What about now? Martin Luther King is known as a hero. That is what I am asking our Democratic Party to do, to take a risk, to challenge the status quo, to be the hero of our story. I have a dream that one day all men and women will be equal. I am asking you to support this resolution.
It passed with overwhelming support from the Multnomah County Democrats. I am proud to be a member of this group. Now Peter Courtney needs to step down.
If you want to join the fight contact me at: CourtneyMustGo@protonmail.com