Apparently, Roseburg Sen. Jeff Kruse has a hard time listening.
When a female lawmaker complained he had touched her breast, her thigh, hugged her and kissed her cheek, the Legislature’s top lawyer and human resources administrator sat Kruse down and told him to stop. Other colleagues told him to his face that his actions were inappropriate or witnessed his behavior and chastised him. Yet Kruse kept on touching.
Now, after a month of these controversies and others surrounding the veteran Republican lawmaker, even some of his once-loyal constituents and his local newspaper are asking him to step down.
This time, Kruse should listen.
Sen. Kruse should resign his seat. Kruse owes that to the people of Roseburg, who — because of his bad behavior — have lost their voice in the Oregon Senate. President Peter Courtney wisely stripped Kruse of his committee positions last month as punishment for his flagrant disregard of state laws against smoking in his Capitol office and the allegations of his repeated, unwanted touching. Without those committee roles, Kruse is unable to introduce or shape legislation — and he’s not up for re-election until 2020.
Kruse has yet to apologize or demonstrate that he understands that he’s made his colleagues in Salem feel humiliated and uncomfortable. When he has commented on the allegations, Kruse had played dumb or spouted old-school lines that these women are just being overly-sensitive and misunderstood his good intentions.
No, Sen. Kruse, society is finally — and thankfully — moving forward, even if slowly. There are rules about behavior that lawmakers and others in powerful positions must play by.
But that’s not what Kruse is used to. When asked about his 2016 meeting with the legislative lawyer and human resources administrator about his behavior, Kruse told The Oregonian/OregonLive reporter Fedor Zarkhin that he could have followed their directions better.
“I probably forgot a lot,” he told Zarkhin, “I just go back to my normal stuff.”
That’s not acceptable. And, it’s not an answer that’s likely to make women who work at the Legislature feel particularly safe, which is a right they have in their workplace.
Unfortunately, Kruse seems to think this episode is a joke. During the interview with Zarkhin in his rural home, Kruse pointed to the TV where a professional baseball player jokingly attempted to kiss his coach. “That was sexual harassment, by the way,” he told Zarkhin.
This isn’t a joke. Since Kruse can’t acknowledge that others don’t appreciate his touching and change his behavior, he should clear the way for someone who can take this important role more seriously.
In fact, Kruse didn’t have far to look for an example of how to better handle these accusations. Around the same time as Kruse’s behavior came to light, state Rep. David Gomberg also acknowledged two informal complaints had been lodged against him for using inappropriate humor, invading people’s space and hugging.
The Democrat, who represents the central Oregon coast, responded within hours to the allegations saying that he planned “serious and immediate” steps to address his behavior. He told The Oregonian/OregonLive reporter Gordon Friedman that Oregonians should “expect model behavior from elected officials,” and added that to anyone who “I may have offended or made the least bit uncomfortable, I am fully and sincerely sorry.”
Only time will tell if Gomberg and others learn from this experience and the high-profile cases playing out nationally in political, entertainment and media circles. Oregon’s Legislative leaders promise more sexual harassment training and a review of the legislature’s complaint process. That work is well-timed.
But Kruse had a chance. Twice. And by ignoring the earlier complaints and associated warnings he undermined the chance he had to acknowledge his mistakes privately, make adjustments and keep his job. He chose to continue playing by his own rules.
Touching, he told Zarkhin, is a normal aspect of collegial interactions at work. He continued that he wouldn’t resign because he’s not guilty and “I still have work to do.”
So do the elected officials in the Capitol who have wasted time in recent years carefully choosing how they navigate the halls and where they sit to avoid unwanted contact. Please vacate your seat, Senator, and make room for someone who will respect their colleagues and can actually get the work done.