Democratic Parties in Seven Oregon Counties Now Asking Senate President Peter Courtney To Step Down

Democrats say Courtney's failed to adequately address allegations of sexual harassment, and that his actions have instead enabled a culture of suppression and indifference when it comes to victims' complaints.

Peter Courtney Health and Wellness Center at Western Oregon University. (Justin Katigbak)

On Monday, the Clatsop County Democratic Party unanimously voted that Peter Courtney should step down from his leadership position, citing his ineffective handling of sexual harassment at the capitol.

Clatsop follows six other county Democratic parties that have passed similar resolutions, including Multnomah, Clackamas, Yamhill, Jackson, Tillamook and Washington. Multnomah County approved its resolution most recently, on April 11, while Marion County will be voting on the same later this month.

Courtney's longtime role as Senate President has made him the most powerful man in Salem. But in recent years, he's been criticized heavily for failing to use that power to act on allegations of sexual harassment.

The resolution approved by the county parties references multiple instances of what it calls "ineffective handling" of harassment allegations: complaints from women at Western Oregon University, where Courtney served as assistant president, saying he'd failed to protect them from harassment despite a decade of complaints; a Bureau of Labor and Industries investigation reported by then-commisioner Brad Avakian, stating that Courtney's leadership allowed former Senator Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg) to get away with multiple instances of harassment; and examples from the same investigation that suggested a discrepancy between Courtney's treatment of men and women within his staff.

"Courtney and others have systematically brushed sexual harassment complaints under the rug," the resolution states. "[He] has also sent a clear message to women in the Capitol: If you speak up for yourself and other women in the building… you will be ostracized and shamed."

Courtney did not respond to WW's requests for comment. He told The Oregonian on Sunday that he has no plans to resign.

The resolution calls for Courtney to step down as Senate President, allowing Senate Pro Tempore Laurie Monnes Anderson to lead the Senate (Clatsop's version of the resolution asks instead that they elect a new President). And they demand an external audit of the current process used in the legislature to respond to sexual harassment and abuse allegations.

The resolution has no power to actually force Courtney's resignation—the parties don't control lawmakers' actions. But it does send a public message.

"It is important that… we do not stand for inaction as a response to sexual harassment," says Ami Fox, one of the authors of the original resolution. "If we are not willing to hold our own elected officials accountable then who are we as a party?"

She's hoping that as more counties sign, the pressure will cause Courtney to pass the torch.

Farrah Chaichi, another resolution author, says she's skeptical that its signing will create tangible outcomes: Courtney's influence runs deep. Still, she adds, "it's important that we even try."

The push for Courtney to resign comes months after the #MeToo movement precipitated a wave of demands for those in power to take account for their actions — and the actions of those around them. (Earlier this year, Senator Bernie Sanders publicly apologized for allegations of harassment and pay disparity during his 2016 campaign, saying that he was not aware of the issues and would do better in the future.)

Meanwhile, Courtney had a difficult legislative session.

In March, Courtney took brief medical leave, which some interpreted as a prelude to his resignation. And in June, a staged walkout by Senate Republicans caused a legislative meltdown, making national news and underscoring Courtney's loss of control in the Capitol.

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