Sioux City Senator Rick Bertrand talked a big game in criticizing former Majority Leader Bill Dix’s handling of sexual harassment in the Iowa Senate, but it turns out Bertrand was part of the problem. That’s what was revealed in yesterday’s in-depth Des Moines Register article about the culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol.
The investigation unearthed new details about Bertrand’s personal behavior in the Senate, most notably that he made a sexual overture about the top Republican staffer’s wife.
“He one night said it was bath night at his apartment, was it okay if he invited my wife?” Ed Failor Jr. is quoted in the Register in describing Bertrand. The story also mentions that Bertrand said “inappropriate things about women,” though it doesn’t offer more specifics.
That’s a rather intriguing development in the years-long saga around sexual harassment in the Iowa Senate considering Bertrand very publicly denounced Dix and called on him to resign. In July of 2017, Bertrand called for Dix’s head over the Kirsten Anderson lawsuit.
“After learning the facts of this lawsuit, and reading the shocking testimony of the current caucus staff, I believe it’s time for Senator Dix to step aside as majority leader and allow the Senate Republican caucus a start fresh,” Bertrand said when a jury awarded $2.2 million in damages to the fired staffer. “That lack of judgement has consequences.”
That judgement came about due to Anderson’s firing after complaining of the toxic work environment in the Senate. During the trial, staffers testified about lewd behavior and comments by senators and fellow staff, past and present. It now turns out that Bertrand was acting in sexually inappropriate manners, as well.
It all puts Bertrand’s moralizing in a new light. Just how shocking was the staff’s testimony to Bertrand if he himself had been slinging lewd jokes around the office? Or was this more a case of the senator seeing an opportunity to strike back at a leader who he disagreed with on other issues? Bertrand’s rebuke of Dix was a very notable break in the ranks among Republicans, at the time signaling that perhaps there were some senators who weren’t willing to put up with people who allowed that behavior. Instead, it seems Bertrand was just taking advantage of the situation to settle some scores with Dix.
For his part, Bertrand cops to his actions in the Register article, explaining that he sees himself as a “foul-mouthed Irish Catholic” who often was working long hours and that there was alcohol at many legislative social events.
“Sometimes it’s not what you think you’re saying, it’s how it’s being heard,” Bertrand said in the Register. “It makes people uncomfortable and I’m more aware of that now. I really think this is a positive thing.”
Explanations aren’t excuses, though. Only a handful of senators were named for sexual harassment. Bertrand was one of those few. There were plenty of other senators and staffers who spent long nights in the Statehouse and at the bars that didn’t make their coworkers feel uncomfortable. And considering the massive amount of votes that Bertrand missed lately, it’s not like he’s been working that hard up at the Senate, anyway.
And there’s also a difference between salty language and disrespectful language. Dropping f-bombs in the workplace and suggesting having sex with your staffer’s wife don’t go hand-in-hand. It takes a separate mentality altogether to believe that that’s okay, one Bertrand now says he’s working on.
But it’s that extra taste of hypocrisy that may sour other voters for good on Bertrand. Not every voter out there thinks that sexual harassment is as big an issue as it’s made out to be. There’s still some work for advocates to do on that front. However, those are exactly the kind of voters who don’t like what they see as candidates for public office “politicizing” the issue.
The question for voters isn’t just whether they want a “foul-mouthed Irish Catholic” who insists that he’s learned his lesson back in office; it’s whether they want a grand-standing fraud rewarded for being on both sides of a disgraceful situation.
Bertrand, a two-term incumbent, faces a difficult reelection race in three weeks, one that he only recently jumped back into after making a dramatic decision to leave right after Dix’s resignation in March. Jackie Smith, a former educator and county supervisor, has put together a strong campaign with a large volunteer base to challenge Bertrand. Having a woman on the ballot up against someone who’s acted like Bertrand has probably won’t be lost on too many voters.
by Pat Rynard