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Michigan Legislature faces shift in work environment

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Courtesy Michigan.gov
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When it comes to Michigan politics the environment is largely male dominated. It’s something some legislators, reporters and political consultants say have contributed to what they call an unsafe climate for women. 

In March, Ron Weisser, a Michigan GOP leader who is also a University of Michigan Regent -- referred  Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel witches”. During a speech at  the North Oakland Republican Club. 

“The GOP's job now is to soften up those three witches and make sure that when we have good candidates to run against them, that they are ready for the burning at the stake," Weisser said.

That wasn’t the first time, women in Michigan politics have been targets of blatantly sexist remarks from male colleagues. 

Democratic Representative Laurie Pohutsyk of the state’s 19th district, says she was first exposed to what she calls a misogynistic environment at the state house in 2018.

It was  during her orientation a few weeks before she was even sworn in. 

“A state senator looked at me and said, and how often do you go to topless pools in Las Vegas? And like, I just like looked at them," said Pohutsyk. "And I went, I don't and I went up to them after the fact. And I said, What you said was inappropriate, and I don't want to start my political career, letting things like that go.”

Pohutsky is a microbiologist by trade. She says she has spent most of her career in a male dominated field but  wasn’t prepared for the kind of aggressively sexist environment at the capitol. 

“People are much more aggressive, much more open with it, you know, I mean, I was at an orientation before I even officially took office, and a state senator made a comment about my breasts," says Pohutsyk. "So it's definitely been a little jarring.” 

As far as holding people  accountable for their sexist behavior, Pohutsky says she feels that as a legislator she has the power to call it out but the onus shouldn’t have to fall on people like her. 

“My bigger disappointment has been other men knowing that it's happening and allowing it to happen,” Pohutsyk says.

Political consultant Emily Dievendorf says it’s that climate that contributed to what happened to her.. while  working on a gubernatorial campaign in 2010 with T.J Bucholz. 

Bucholz is the CEO of Vanguard Public Affairs. The Lansing-based public relations firm that  focuses on Democrat and left leaning candidates, organizations and issues. 

Dievendorf recounts there were several times Bucholz would call her to his office during work hours, show her photos of his wife in a bikini and ask her if she would be interested in having a threesome. 

“He also proposed to me whether i would be interested in having a threesome with him and other political consultants that were women or other people in politics that were women that was a regular thing,” said Dievendorf.

Dievendorf’s  experiences didn’t happen in a vacuum. 

Since writing about her experience with Bucholz on social media in March , dozens of women have spoken up and shared about being subjected toe similar kinds of harassment from Bucholz over the years. 

“Our male colleagues that say they recognize it as wrong and also toxic are not saying anything stopping it.”

Since Dievendorf and multiple other women brought forward allegations against Bucholz, Vanguard has gone silent and several top-level members have quit the firm. Bucholz has not responded to multiple attempts for comment.

Michigan political reporter, Allison Donahue,  says the culture in Lansing is not centered in believing survivors of sexual assault and harassment. 

In January of 2020, Donahue attempted to interview former Republican state Senator Peter Lucido outside of the Michigan Senate Chamber. He made what she calls a sexually inappropriate comment to her in front of a group of high schoolers.

“He said, quote, you should hang around his boys, you could have a lot of fun with these boys," says Lucido. "Or they could hide a lot of fun with you. And I have all this written down.”

In a statement on Twitter, Lucido apologized to Donahue and called it a misunderstanding.

She says she doesn’t see it that way, but the fact that he does demonstrates the lack of accountability there is for those holding positions of power in Lansing. 

“You can't have a culture where women are accepting poor treatment because they have nowhere to turn,” said Donahue.

After serving out his term, Lucido is now serving as Macomb County’s prosecutor.

For Representative Pohutsky, Dievendorf and Donahue, a step to changing this misogynistic environment is clear, expecting men in power to hold one another accountable for their behavior.