During a break in a late session stretching toward midnight, Enid Mickelsen walked across the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to say hi to a subcommittee chairman. She was new to Congress and eager to make a good impression.
When Mickelsen approached, he lurched forward, kissing her on the lips.
“How are you, honey? Is everything going OK?” she remembers him asking as she stepped back. He smelled like alcohol.
She never answered his questions. Stunned, Mickelsen walked back up the aisle to her seat. There, she said, she confided in another congresswoman. “Oh, yeah,” her colleague responded. “You just can’t get in kissing range of him.”
Mickelsen continues to reflect on the encounter more than 20 years later. She doesn’t fault the representative, who she says “didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.” And she doesn’t see a point to naming the late congressman now when he “isn’t here to say what he meant.”
But she felt confused and uncomfortable. She was certain it was inappropriate. Still, she tried to brush it off. What has stuck with her is a question: Has anything changed culturally, which led to harassment and discrimination big and small, since she joined Congress in 1995?
“I’m not sure it has,” Mickelsen said.
Over the past two months, the national discussion has been overwhelmed by allegations of sexual misconduct roiling Hollywood and Capitol Hill, steamrolling a handful of statehouses and continuing to spread beyond.
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama allegedly had inappropriate relationships with teenage girls while he was a district attorney. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is under investigation for sexually harassing aides. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has been accused of groping several women without consent.
Other prominent men in politics and the entertainment industry have been accused of everything from sending lewd texts to rape.
“I think that too many people have gotten really comfortable doing inappropriate things,” said Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, the only woman in the state’s six-person, all-Republican federal delegation.
None of this behavior coming to light now, she said, is new to Congress. The unwanted advances and the off-color comments, the touching and the leering have been going on for years and have been concealed by a culture of secrecy.
The pressure is on now to change it, Love suggests.
She’d like to see a requirement for all representatives to complete anti-harassment training, which is currently only mandated in the Senate but under consideration in the House this week. She’s part of a group of lawmakers, including Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, that envisions changing the rules for victims to file complaints with no time limits and with transparency in their resolutions. She supports calls for a ban on Congress from spending taxpayer money to settle claims. And she wants those accused of misconduct to be “held accountable.”
For Moore, that would mean dropping out of the Senate race in Alabama.
“These are not just accusations — there’s evidence,” Love said. “To me, it’s unacceptable for people like that to hold office that are engaged in that disgusting behavior.”
The congresswoman says she’s been in situations in Washington where men have come “close to crossing the line.” Each time, she said, she’s been able to walk away or tell them to stop.
For Mickelsen and others, situations often unfold too fast for warnings.
The red rock landscape inside the frame could’ve been Zion Canyon, she thought. Or maybe it was somewhere else in the southwest. She wasn’t entirely sure but the river running through it looked familiar.
“That’s a beautiful painting,” Sheryl Allen said, nodding toward the wall where it hung as she stood in her colleague’s office at the Utah Capitol.
He glanced up from his desk. “When I look at that picture,” he said, “I think of a naked woman coming around that corner.”
While her mind was racing — What prompted that remark? What should I say? Does he think that was appropriate? — none of the thoughts formed into a response. Allen, then a state lawmaker, was speechless and turned to the door.
“I was just lucky because I was in a situation where I could leave,” Allen said, reflecting on the uncomfortable encounter that happened roughly 14 years ago.
She shared her story last week after feeling encouraged by the women speaking out nationwide. Her assessment: Of course sexual harassment happens in Utah politics, too. The Salt Lake Tribune spoke to 13 leaders from around the state who agreed. Many had similar stories.
When Sophia DiCaro was giving a presentation in 2009 for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, an older man in the crowd asked her to read the PowerPoint while sitting on his lap. She laughed nervously and said “no.”
When Jenny Wilson, now a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, was chief of staff to the late Rep. Bill Orton about 20 years ago, a male staffer from another office called her “a pretty little thing.” He’s a bit out of touch, she thought, and went back to work.
When seven women came forward in June accusing Rob Miller, then a candidate for Utah Democratic Party chairman, of misconduct, they said it revealed a “culture of pervasive sexual harassment” in the state. Miller allegedly kissed, hugged and touched individuals without their consent, and pulled down his pants to expose Mormon undergarments.
When Patrice Arent was pregnant and serving as associate general counsel to the Legislature in the late 1980s, lobbyists and lawmakers touched her “in the wrong places.” She also faced harassing comments from various men while an intern for the Utah governor some 10 years before that.
“Yes, this is a serious problem,” she said.
Now a state representative, Arent, D-Millcreek, argued this month for a bill that would require Utah lobbyists to undergo annual anti-harassment training (lawmakers and their staff already do so). It didn’t pass in committee, but she hopes it will be re-examined during the regular legislative session beginning in January.
Part of the push, Arent added, is to protect young men and women at the Utah Capitol, particularly interns, who may be afraid to report sexual misconduct.
Politics creates an “environment where that kind of complaint can be weaponized,” said former U.S. Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, who served one term beginning in 1993. “They’ve got to figure out a way to keep people in power from victimizing people who don’t have power.”
The congressman who kissed Enid Mickelsen was not a member of her committee. And later encounters with him were all professional, she said. Still, Mickelsen was cautious to keep her distance during late sessions.
“He didn’t mean it to be offensive,” she said, “but it was a liberty taken by an older man who thought that’s how the world still worked.”
When Mickelsen left Congress in 1997, Utah didn’t elect another female representative until 17 years later when Mia Love won in Utah’s 4th District in 2014. (Women currently make up 21 percent of the U.S. Senate seats and 19 percent of the U.S. House, tracking just slightly higher than the gender makeup of Utah’s statehouse.)
Mickelsen continued on in politics, serving terms as vice chairwoman and chairwoman of the Utah Republican Party. She ran and lost a bid for lieutenant governor in 2004 and later served as the state’s GOP national committeewoman.
Last year, she headed the rules committee for the Republican National Convention, tasked with setting the standards and quashing any last-ditch attempts to deny Donald Trump the presidential nomination — despite her own hesitation to support his candidacy.
“Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are going to be people that we point our children toward and say, ‘I want you to be just like them when you grow up.’ That’s not the case in this race, and that’s a shame,” she said in June 2016.
Mickelsen stepped back from her role after the convention and before the release of the Access Hollywood video that showed Trump bragging about groping and kissing women in a way some believe would constitute sexual assault. She calls that “very juvenile and disgusting” behavior, part of the spectrum of harassment that’s now playing out on a national stage with Moore, Conyers and Franken.
“In politics, you get some of the best people and some of the worst people,” she said. “I’m hoping now that as we drag these secrets out from the carpet they were swept under that behaviors will change.”