Debate in Va. House over sex harassment bill devolves into partisan bickering

WASHINGTON — The Virginia House of Delegates is poised to vote on a bill aimed at strengthening sexual harassment protections covering lawmakers, staff, lobbyists and anyone else who encounters lawmakers in their official positions.

But debate on the bill Wednesday devolved into partisan disagreement over whether the bill in question went far enough and how much protection it really offered.

Democratic Del. Vivian Watts of Fairfax County led the push for what she called stronger guidelines.

“My concern is far broader … it is to protect the public as well,” argued Watts.

“I want to make sure that we have no question in saying to the public that we accept that mantle of power day in and day out in our public dealings.”

Under the bill, lawmakers and staff would have to take sexual harassment training every year starting in 2019, with the classes led by the state’s department of human resources.

But Watts argued the bill didn’t do enough to hold lawmakers accountable, and that the training would ultimately be lacking.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Del. Roxann Robinson, disagreed, holding up the training manual at one point during Wednesday’s hearing.

“This is the course, right here!” she said. “And it took me about 45 minutes to read through it and every one of the sections includes what needs to be done if there’s a problem.”

“You’re voting for a bill that’s less stringent,” argued House Minority Leader David Toscano. “This isn’t about a ‘gotcha’ moment. This is about what kind of standards we want to guide us.”

Ultimately the amendments offered up by Watts were defeated on a party-line vote, 50-49.

“We all have the same goal here,” argued House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert. “Such behavior will not be tolerated in this body by any member, by any lobbyist, by any staffer. We all share the same goal.”

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