A sea change in the Nevada Senate?

Something extraordinary happened in the closing hours of Nevada’s legislative session. A champion stepped forward on behalf of all the women in the building, legislators, staff, lobbyists and interns alike.

Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford stood on the Senate floor and formally admonished Democratic Senator Mark Manendo for conduct unfitting a senator, entering his comments into the legislative record for anyone and everyone to review in the years to come. It was a remarkable public rebuke of an elected official by a leader of the same party and a resounding show of support for the 30 women who have come forward so far to tell an investigator about Manendo’s transgressions over the past 22 years.

Manendo’s proclivities to harass and insult women who spurned him were not unknown to most people involved in the Legislature. Lobbyists routinely instructed their young female associates to avoid being alone with the senator, and interns were told to keep a safe distance from him during social events. Manendo had been investigated for sexual harassment multiple times, most notably in 2003 and 2009 when serious complaints were filed. He was admonished privately by numerous Democratic leaders over the years and even had a coveted committee chairmanship taken away from him, but it didn’t matter. He continually denied responsibility and never seemed to learn his lesson.

It’s not as if the problem was completely ignored, and yet it felt that way to many women as he got bolder and meaner to those who stood up to him. Once a seasoned female lobbyist was so angry over his treatment of her young intern, she chased him down the hall to confront him, but he avoided her wrath by quickly escaping to the Senate floor where she couldn’t follow. Another year, a group of female legislators and lobbyists joined forces to warn leadership they would publicly expose his harassing behavior if it continued, but nothing ever came of it except a doubling down of revenge from the senator in the form of “no” votes on legislators’ personal bills and a refusal to meet with the lobbyists.

And still the behavior continued.

But when multiple complaints were filed with the Senate majority leader in 2017, he took more aggressive action, hiring an investigator and expanding the scope when dozens of women came forward to recount their experiences with Manendo over the years, establishing a disgraceful pattern of behavior. Towards the end of the session Ford forced Manendo to resign his treasured chairmanship of the Transportation Committee and then took to the Senate floor to publicly rebuke him on the last day of the session, stating more action would be forthcoming once the investigation is complete. Ford also pushed through a change to ethics rules in the Legislature’s waning hours to make it easier for anyone to file a harassment complaint.

Ford justified his unprecedented actions by stating Manendo had clearly “developed a reputation of harassing and intimidating young women at the Legislature and engaging in conduct that makes them uncomfortable” and then reassured the women who had come forward that they had done the right thing. “None of us are beyond reproach, and we must not tolerate sex-based, gender-based or any other type of harassment by members of the Senate. In that regard, no person, whether a legislator, a lobbyist, a member of the staff, intern or anyone else is placed in a position where someone inappropriately exerts control in a way that intimidates, harasses or makes them uncomfortable.”

It was an astonishing moment in legislative history, but in a session that approved the Equal Rights Amendment and protected women’s health care, the harassment and intimidation could not be allowed to continue. Although long overdue, Ford’s actions are definitely a case of better late than never.