In January, as the #MeToo movement burned at the state Capitol, Colorado Democrats made a big statement: The creation a new commission to examine and improve the party’s policies on gender equity and workplace harassment.
The move put the Democrats in front of a major controversy and made the party appear responsive to women and men who came forward to describe experiences involving sexual harassment and crimes.
But now — with the state Democratic Party once again embroiled in problems involving one of its own — it appears little came from the effort so far.
The commission lost one of its leaders not long after it began work, missed a proposed deadline in June and scrapped plans for a public report. Instead, the party produced a one-page document provided to The Colorado Sun that defines sexual harassment but offers few details about how to address it.
Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll, who did not return numerous messages seeking comment, issued a statement that the party has conducted a survey about the problem and developed training for candidates and county parties. In coming months, she said, the Gender Equity and Workplace Safety Commission plans to update the employee handbook and draft a code of conduct for volunteers and campaigns for leadership approval.
State Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat who helps lead the commission, said the effort has taken longer than expected and called it a “work in progress.”
“No one is going to come out with a document that says we solved sexual harassment, this is society-changing thing,” he said.
Melton controversy puts party’s role back in spotlight
The scrutiny of the Democratic Party’s response comes as its leaders face fresh criticism for their handling of a controversy surrounding state Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, after reports surfaced about two separate domestic violence cases against him from 1999 and 2008.
Carroll and Democratic legislative leaders urged Melton to resign, but top black Democrats and other allies came to his defense, saying party officials had rushed to judgment. Either way, the once-safe lawmaker now faces a credible Republican challenge in the November election.
The controversy even spilled into the gubernatorial debate Wednesday, where Democratic candidate Jared Polis declined to call on Melton to resign but made clear he wouldn’t endorse him. Polis also appeared to suggest there is more information that is unknown about the situation.
“He was convicted and he served his term. As a person of faith, I believe in redemption,” Polis said in the debate, referring to the deferred sentence Melton received in the first case and the dismissed charges in the second.
“I also believe in consequences. The problem I’ve had with Jovan is he wasn’t open with the voters and I’m not sure that he’s being entirely open now in coming to terms with the past,” he continued. “So yes, he should look himself in the mirror, consider resigning or coming clean, but ultimately these decisions are up to the voters.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton has called on Melton to resign and urged Polis to take the same position.
The question about how to handle Melton’s case became an issue in recent days for other Democratic officials, too.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper stopped short of calling for Melton to resign, and so did Rep. Faith Winter, a state Senate candidate whose sexual harassment complaint led to the expulsion earlier this year of state Rep. Steve Lebsock, an elected Democrat. Democratic congressional candidate Jason Crow, who is endorsed by Melton, is also being attacked by his Republican rival for not calling on him to resign.
The controversy and the party’s reaction consumed Democrats on Facebook, where a discussion that included state Rep. Joe Salazar did not end well. The lawmaker former candidate for state attorney general told a party activist and sexual assault survivor that he needed to “back the F up, dude.”
Salazar, who is a civil rights attorney, came to Melton’s defense and criticized Democratic Party leaders.
“I think that these blanket approaches of asking people to resign based on charges and sentences years and years back … I think this sets a bad precedent,” Salazar said in an interview. “And it may result in a disparate impact on communities of color.”
As for the Facebook conversation, Salazar said, “it went about as well as any of these conversations go at this point.” He said the conversation was led “mainly by emotion” when he wanted to talk about the broader policy of criminal justice.
Democratic commission didn’t meet initial expectations
JoyAnn Ruscha, a party activist who was one of the co-leaders of the party’s #MeToo commission, expressed disappointment in how the party handled the internal review. She hoped to take more aggressive steps to require training and impose consequences for candidates and staff who violated party principles.
But Carroll asked her to step down about two months after the commission formed because she wouldn’t pledge to remain a Democrat in the future.
Ruscha told The Sun that the move came after she informed party leaders that she would drop her Democratic affiliation later in the year in order to work on a nonpartisan project. She is a registered Democrat now.
She then passed her work to another party volunteer, who didn’t take the post.
Ruscha said more needs to be done to prevent sexual harassment and misconduct in the campaign world because of the high-stakes, competitive nature. “Sadly,” she said, “it’s extremely common — it’s almost expected (on campaigns).”
The Republican Party has made clear to its candidates that it does not tolerate harassment, but it did not form a similar commission, suggesting the Democratic effort was in general for “only public relations purposes.”
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