Leadership Matters. That’s Why Peter Courtney Must Step Down.

#TimesUp. Democrats in the biggest county in Oregon passed a resolution asking the state’s Democratic Senate President to step down. Here’s why.

I am sitting next to a reporter trying not to have a panic attack, preparing to make my case. I’m bringing a resolution before the Multnomah County Democrats to call for Oregon’s most powerful Democrat – Senate President Peter Courtney – to step down.

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 am a lifelong Democrat, and was a mildly involved activist who turned into a desperate full-time activist, a second full-time job.

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 concerning Peter Courtney, Oregon’s Senate President, failing to act on accusations of sexual harassment committed by others at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, which were compiled in a report issued by the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). Leadership matters.

I, like most women, have stories. My first experience with sexual harassment in the workplace happened at 13. I was a restaurant hostess. My manager dropped a pencil and demanded I pick it up. I told him “no,” but he insisted, and since I was young, I did as I was told. As I bent down 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 in Salem  alone will continue the circle of silence that surrounds women’s rights. #TimesUp

My resolution was based on a resolution from the Washington County Democrats calling for our elected Oregon House and Senate leaders to step down from their leadership roles because of the BOLI report. I put the resolution on social media to a group of activists , and there was support for this resolution online, so I decided to move forward.

I was also given advice from former DPO Chair Jeanne Atkins to call legislators and get their input to find out what they are doing in response to this resolution. 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 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 Dembrow, 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 own staff, 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 goodbyee 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. How many women, including interns, have been affected because of Courtney’s leadership? In his previous job as president of Western Oregon University, harassment also went unaddressed: Two women were paid off (using taxpayer money) and dozens more have come forward.  And, 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 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?

Behind the scenes, things were happening. People were being pressured to take their names off of this resolution.

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. 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. Look at the precedent Trump has set. Words matter. And if we don’t hold our elected officials accountable to a higher standard, then 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 me, we, as a society, need to stop looking the other way, when women are systematically silenced and  victimized 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.

End note: this resolution passed with overwhelming support from the Multnomah County Democrats. I am proud to be a member of this group. Versions of the resolution have passed in two other Oregon counties, and it is on the agenda for other county parties. For change to happen in Salem, Peter Courtney needs to step down.  

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