The women at the well: #MeToo comes to the state Senate

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, on Wednesday protested the decision by her fellow Republicans to remove her as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Bob Andres,

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, on Wednesday protested the decision by her fellow Republicans to remove her as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Bob Andres,

The #MeToo movement came to the state Senate this week.

It was an event complicated by party identity, the politics of revenge, and a brewing health care debate with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

Yet, it was also the first time in years that the state Capitol has seen an overt, bipartisan alliance of women lawmakers.

“Ladies of the Senate, we’re not the pitcher,” the Republican protagonist of this story said during one of two trips to the well. “We’re not the first baseman, we’re not the second baseman. We’re not even in the outfield. As a matter-of-fact, we’re not even in the ballpark. We’re outside, looking over a fence.”

The first ingredient in the female rebellion was a change in the rules that govern the GOP-controlled chamber, creating a two-year window for the filing of sexual harassment complaints against senators or Senate staff.

Clearly, Republicans senators who drove the revision were reacting to the fortunes of a former colleague. Last year, David Shafer of Duluth was the favorite in the GOP contest for lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate. A complaint alleging sexual misconduct against Shafer was filed, investigated and dismissed.

But the damage was done. Anonymous fliers that focused on the allegation became a major feature of the race. Shafer lost. Geoff Duncan, the Republican victor, was sworn in as lieutenant governor on Monday.

Power, or lack of it, was the second ingredient of the women’s revolt.

On Tuesday, news came that Renee Unterman, R-Buford, one of only two women in the Republican caucus, had been removed as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. She took to the well to address her colleagues.

“I’m not going to be quiet. I’m not going to go lightly,” she promised.

Unterman herself will admit that she has made her share of foes during her 20 years at the Capitol. She can be forceful and abrupt. The comic Samantha Bee made Unterman a cable TV villain when she attempted, unsuccessfully, to block a bill championed by state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. It required the processing of more than 1,000 rape kits in police storage rooms around the state.

House Republicans have been frustrated by Unterman’s attempts to hamper their legislation to allow the use of medicinal marijuana in Georgia.

Unterman was also an ally of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who as leader of the Senate returned the favor with her health committee chairmanship. “He saw my potential,” she said.

Unterman campaigned fiercely for Cagle during his bid for governor, and when a spokesman for GOP rival Brian Kemp referred to her as “mentally unstable” – well, her gloves came off.

Unterman says she has made up with Governor Kemp, but that may be wishful thinking. The Senate committee on assignments, which doles out the chamber’s chairmanships, has five members. One is President pro tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. Another is Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R- Carrollton. But the committee is controlled by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and his two appointees, Bill Cowsert, R-Athens and Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia.

Cowsert is the governor’s brother-in-law. Tillery is the governor’s floor leader in the Senate.

In truth, Unterman herself thinks she was dumped in anticipation of a legislative push to overhaul the state’s “certificate of need” system, established four decades ago to limit competition among hospitals and other health care providers – as a means of controlling costs.

Many Republicans want more competition, not less. Ben Watson of Savannah, a physician specializing in geriatrics, is among them. He’s replaced Unterman as chairman of the Senate health committee. Watson is an advocate of private, standalone out-patient clinics that public hospitals fear will cherry-pick the insured, leaving them the indigent. Watson and his allies think the private management companies that control many public non-profit hospitals are a main driver of unnecessary increases in health care costs.

Unterman is on the side of the hospitals. On Wednesday, in a separate trip to the well, she attributed the loss of her chairmanship to “lobbyists and donors who want to strip-mine Georgia’s health care system.”

This time, the Republican lawmaker wasn’t alone. There are 15 women in the 56-member Senate. Thirteen are Democrats. “I asked them for help,” Unterman later said. “Because I wasn’t getting any help in my own caucus.”

When Unterman made her Wednesday return to the rostrum, she came with numbers. In the last two years, her health committee had handled 121 bills. The Senate science and technology committee, which she now chairs, handled three bills and four study committees over the same period.

“I guess I don’t have the correct skill set anymore,” she said.

Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, followed her. Women are under-represented on the Senate committees that handle the heaviest and most important traffic, and “warehoused” in the ones that are sent the fewest bills.

In her local paper, Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, a lawyer who sits on the governing board of the State Bar, had expressed delight at being named chairman of the Senate Special Judiciary Committee.

As part of the parade of women lawmakers, realizing how little legislation her committee would be considering, she now retracted that enthusiasm. “If all you’re going to do is put me in a committee and not give me any legislation to actually look at — shame on you,” she said.

The female protesters had wandered away from the initial spark of the uprising – that two-year lid placed on sexual harassment complaints against senators and staffers. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth, brought the chamber back to the topic.

The time period is actually shorter than that, the newly elected lawmaker and attorney said. The new Senate rules state that no harassment complaint can be filed against a senator who is a candidate for public office.

So running for re-election, or for any other office, would be a kind of temporary amnesty. The member would be free from any Senate ethics investigation from the time of qualification until the final certification of the election.

Quite the convenient loophole.

The women who went to the well on Wednesday were allowed to speak as long as they wanted. Duncan and other Senate Republican leaders attempted no interference.

Gender and party identification are tied so closely in the chamber that the Republicans could easily argue – and did — that the complaints amounted to mere Democratic whining. “Any insinuation that this year’s process was discriminatory is nonsense,” Duncan said in a statement later that afternoon.

The female disadvantage in the Senate may be only a temporary condition. Roughly 31 percent of Georgia’s freshmen class of state legislators are women, up from 25 percent two years ago, and 20 percent a decade ago.

“Democrat women have grown their numbers, and the Republican women haven’t,” Unterman said afterwards. “There’s no cultivation in the Republican party to encourage women. They want them to work on campaigns, they want them to lick the envelopes.”

Unterman has built her political career in suburban Gwinnett County – now a former Republican stronghold. I asked if she had considered switching parties in 2020.

“I’ve thought about it,” she said. “I agree with them on a lot of social issues.” Meaning health care and the environment.

“And yet I’m a gun-toter. I’m a hunter. I’m a fisherman. I’m pro-life. I’ve carried every single abortion bill that’s gone through the Senate,” she said.

For the moment, she’s also a Republican lawmaker without a home.