With sexual harassment in the workplace increasingly in the news, Krishanti Vignarajah, one of the eight Democratic candidates for governor, has released a broad proposal to combat the problem – in state government and throughout Maryland.
Vignarajah’s plan would create a state agency to clamp down on sexual assault and harassment, create incentives to eradicate the problems related to sexual harassment in the workplace, and require applicants for state jobs to declare that they’ve never engaged in sexual harassment.
She noted that sexism and predatory behavior remain ingrained in Maryland politics, citing, among other things, state laws that continue to give parental rights to rapists.
“I want to come in and make it crystal clear that this kind of conduct will not be tolerated,” Vignarajah told Maryland Matters on Monday.
While national headlines have tied industry leaders, Hollywood entertainers and politicians to predatory behavior or worse, the problem is just beginning to be aired in statehouses around the country. A 2015 article in Center Maryland described the particular challenges unique to professional women – including the lawmakers themselves – in Annapolis. The Legislative Women’s Caucus of Maryland has pushed for management reforms in the General Assembly.
“There is a culture of this in Annapolis and that has to change,” Vignarajah said.
In a three-page policy document, Vignarajah, a 37-year-old former policy aide to ex-first lady Michelle Obama, describes herself as a “survivor” of sexual harassment, but declined to provide details in an interview.
“I’m lucky in the sense that I know that there are survivors out there who have been through a lot worse,” she said.
Some of what Vignarjah has proposed is already being done by police, prosecutors, rape crisis centers and other advocacy groups. But in her plan to create an Office of Sexual Harassment and Violence in state government, Vignarajah has proposed setting up a coordinating agency under the aegis of the governor.
The office would offer an anonymous hotline for victims to report sexual assault or harassment and get information and support. It would also oversee government response to assault and harassment charges.
“I really want to increase coordination and empower survivors,” Vignarajah said.
Vignarajah proposes having the state government audit companies for their policies on sexual harassment and offer a gold-standard certificate for successful companies, which the businesses could use to their advantage during the state procurement process. A company with a gold-standard designation would get the same kind of preference that minority- and women-owned businesses do in the state’s procurement process, she said.
Although she could not provide a price tag, Vignarajah said she would provide sufficient funding for law enforcement agencies and crime labs to end the backlog of 3,700 untested rape kits in Maryland.
Vignarajah’s proposal also provides programs for combating sexual harassment and violence in education – from middle school to college.
And she is pushing for the state government to thoroughly vet job candidates, requiring them to fill out forms asserting that they have not been guilty of sexual assault or engaged in harassment — similar to the forms they fill out saying they have not been arrested or convicted of drunk driving, drug use and the like.
Vignarajah also wants voters to sharply question candidates about their own histories and work to disqualify those whose records are less than sterling.
“We do need to start setting the gold standard for who’s going to represent us,” she said.
Even though Vignarajah has referenced the perception of bad behavior in the state legislature, it’s not clear whether she — or any governor — would have the ability to set personnel standards for the General Assembly. It could run afoul of the separation of powers clause in the state constitution.
“Except as otherwise provided by law, an employee in the Judicial, Legislative, or Executive Branch of State government is governed by the laws and personnel policies and procedures applicable in that branch,” state statute reads.
It’s the same principle that helped stymie an ethics proposal from Gov. Larry Hogan (R) earlier this year.
The Legislative Policy Committee sets many of the personnel policies of the General Assembly.