Littwin: Hancock needs to learn where inappropriate ends and sexual harassment begins
March 1, 2018
So, now it's the mayor. The #MeToo movement has made the short — if somewhat bumpy — journey from the state Capitol to City Hall, where Mayor Michael Hancock admits to having sent what he calls "inappropriate" texts to a member of his security detail in 2012.
There are several unanswered questions here. But the first, and most important, is whether the texts rise to the level of misconduct that should force Hancock to resign. It's that serious. And it's that important. Just ask anyone over at the Legislature, where today the House will vote whether to expel Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock over a series of allegations of sexual harassment. It would be the first such expulsion since 1915 when, I'm told, they didn't even have hashtags.
I'm sure you know the Hancock story by now. Six years ago, Hancock sent the offending texts to Denver police detective Leslie Branch-Wise. He told her, in various messages, she looked "sexy," she looked "fine," she made it "hard on a brotha to keep it correct every day." He asked her — and if you're wondering what lines you should never cross, here's a solid line for you — if she had taken a pole dancing class.
Let's get one thing straight. These texts are not simply "inappropriate." What makes them "inappropriate" is that they constitute sexual harassment. This is, as Paul Ryan said in another context, the textbook definition.
Hancock was the boss. As Branch-Wise told Denver7, "If you are down here and the boss is up here and he's showering you with these inappropriate texts and sayings and making you feel uncomfortable, who do you tell if he's at the top? It's crushing."
Hancock has explained that he had a casual relationship with his security detail, with whom he often engaged in what might be called banter. And it was pointed out to me by Hancock defenders that there are no allegations of sexual contact and also that we haven't seen the texts in context — meaning we don't know how Branch-Wise might have responded to them.
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The lack of physical contact matters. But I don't need to see her replies. What we know, without any more context, is that she was put in a position where she might reasonably believe that she either had to play along with the banter or call out her boss and possibly lose her job. And let's just say that banter is rarely described as "crushing."
Hancock agreed that the texts were "too familiar, too casual," as he told The Denver Post. "And for that I accept responsibility, and I apologize."
Asked whether the texts constituted flirting, he said he couldn't be sure without the full context but that after reading them, "I was disappointed in myself."
There's a lot of disappointment going around. And it's messier than that. In 2012, when Hancock was sending his texts, Branch-Wise had accused one of the mayor's aides, Wayne McDonald, of sexual harassment. Hancock fired McDonald, who had been a close friend, for "serious allegations of misconduct," and then it got really ugly.
Branch-Wise won a $75,000 settlement. McDonald sued Hancock and Branch-Wise for defamation and wrongful firing and received a $200,000 settlement from the city. In McDonald's court filings, the Post reported, he said, "Members of the security detail and I and Mayor Hancock regularly discussed sexual subjects during work."
And this story can't be told in full without mentioning that in the last days of the 2011 mayoral campaign, there had been bombshell accusations that Hancock had used a prostitution service.
So, should Hancock resign?
It's not an easy question to answer. The accusations began with an anonymous letter sent to various media outlets in order to smear Hancock, who is running for his third term in 2019. But this one accusation, which Denver7 followed up on, turned out be true.
For guidance, we can look at the Legislature, where there have been five lawmakers accused. I called for Lebsock to resign, as did his party leaders and Gov. John Hickenlooper. He faces five accusers and 11 different allegations. The people I talk to at the statehouse were, let's say, not surprised by the allegations.
Lebsock's defense, meanwhile, rests on a claim of a party-wide conspiracy against him because his main accuser, Rep. Faith Winter, is running for a critical Senate seat, and Democrats needed to defend her. In other words, he was an innocent fall guy. Lebsock may have passed a narrowly fashioned lie-detector test, but his defense definitely does not pass the smell test.
Meanwhile, on the Senate side, President Steve Grantham basically dismissed an investigation looking into the charge by a legislative aide that Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner had repeatedly slapped and grabbed her buttocks. The investigators found it was "more likely than not" that the charge was true. Baumgardner and Grantham accused the investigation of being "flawed" and "biased."
As the Senate leader, Grantham didn't say what was inaccurate, what was flawed, how the report was biased or even whether he believed Baumgardner was a serial ass-grabber. Baumgardner voluntarily resigned one of his committee chairmanships, and said he was going to sensitivity training and said that was that. Meanwhile, another accusation was brought against Baumgardner.
Which brings us back to Hancock. I'm not ready to call for his resignation. There's no allegation of physical contact and, to this point, there is only the one charge, six years old, that he harassed anyone. But that doesn't mean this should be over. First, Hancock has to concede that what he did was, in fact, sexual harassment. If he doesn't understand that, he doesn't understand the issue. And that's unacceptable.
And then there's the even more critical point — whether or not this was a one-off. If more charges come forward and we learn this is how Hancock runs his office, then the question answers itself. The movement is not going away. And new lines are being drawn every day.
Mike Littwin typically runs Sundays in The Aspen Times.
A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com
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