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Sen. Gelser wants changes in wake of Kruse resignation over groping allegations

State Sen. Sara Gelser speaks to KATU News at the Capitol in Salem, Oregon on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018 not long after Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, announced he was resigning. (KATU Photo)

State Sen. Sara Gelser said Thursday, not long after her colleague Sen. Jeff Kruse resigned after Gelser and other women accused him of harassment, that she wants changes on how harassment is handled at the Capitol.

Kruse announced he was stepping down after an independent investigation found that he had engaged in a pattern of inappropriate behavior and after the governor and other lawmakers called on him to step aside.

“I am surprised that there was not a chorus of bipartisan call for his resignation way back last fall,” Gelser told KATU during an interview at the Capitol after Kruse announced he was resigning.

Gelser was one of two Democratic senators who filed official complaints against Republican Kruse in November. Those actions opened the doors for other female staffers and a young lobbyist to come forward.

In his resignation letter to Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, Kruse said he would step down March 15, which leaves him in office through this year’s short legislative session. It’s not soon enough for Gelser.

“I am pleased that there’s a resignation. I’m disappointed that it’s not immediate. I want to know how we’re keeping women safe for the next five weeks,” she said. “And I want to know how we’re going to move forward.”

Sen. Ginny Burdick witnessed some of the alleged incidents, even stepping in to confront Kruse in Gelser’s defense on the Senate floor.

“When the report came in, it was devastating, and so I wish it had happened sooner. But it was the right thing to do, and I’m glad it’s done,” Burdick said.

Kruse still denies the allegations; although, the independent investigator found a number of other complaints against him from lower-level state Capitol staffers and interns.

“I wish I could’ve gone back and pushed harder, sooner,” said Gelser. “But that’s who I’m worried about, and I want those women to know I believe them and the majority of people in this building believe them. It is an anomaly that anyone would suggest that they’re not telling the truth.”

She emphasized that those women were the ones who did the hard work by stepping forward.

Gelser said it shouldn’t be up to the victims to call out harassment, no matter where it happens.

“It’s not about those of us that have the privilege to be able to show our faces and use our names, it is the hotel workers and the restaurant workers and the interns and the legislative assistants that can’t afford to speak up,” she said. “We have to make space for them to speak up, and we have to make it so they don’t have to because nobody ever puts a hand on them in the first place.”

Gelser said work needs to be done on policies and personnel rules at the Capitol, especially because she said the Senate was aware of the harassment toward the law interns and the lobbyist for months.

“We have no tools to respond to that,” she said. “We need to create the rules so that when we know that there is a risk to anyone – man or woman – and there is persistent and severe harassment, we need ways to more immediately address that (with due process).

“When we know someone is in danger, we need to be able to protect them.”

Watch KATU's full interview with Sen. Gelser:

Senate President Peter Courtney echoed that sentiment during a separate interview with KATU News at the Capitol.

“This discussion about this workplace has to go on,” he said. “We have to have a safe workplace. We have to have it understood that certain kinds of conducts are not permitted.”

Courtney said it’s been agony for the women who came forward and hopes this is the beginning of some healing.

In a statement, Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters thanked Kruse for his 22 years of service but also said, “We must work to provide a safe work environment for all.”

It’s up to Douglas County commissioners to select Kruse’s replacement. They are required to pick a Republican.

Steve Benham reported from Portland.

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