Gov. Abbott announces new plan to fight sexual misconduct at the Texas State Capitol

Sami Sparber

Journalism senior Christine Vanderwater thought she knew what to expect when she accepted a full-time position as a legislative aid for a Texas State representative last year.

Handling constituent cases, directing media relations, analyzing legislation — these were all fair game. What Vanderwater didn’t expect was to come face-to-face with sexism and sexual harassment at the Texas State Capitol.

Vanderwater said she remembers being at the Capitol one day discussing the Brock Turner case, in which a former Stanford student was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on campus. Without warning, Vanderwater said someone in a position of power asked her, “Well, have you ever been raped? Like, it can’t have been as bad as you make it sound.”

“I was like, ‘What?’” Vanderwater said. “I was shocked. It was absolutely inappropriate.”

To help combat this culture, Governor Greg Abbott recommended in his “Preventing Crime, Protecting Texans, Punishing Criminals” plan on Feb. 6 that the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit be placed in charge of collecting and investigating allegations of sexual misconduct by legislators, statewide elected officials and other Capitol employees. Abbott’s recommendation will cost the state an estimated $1.9 million, according to Abbott’s campaign website.

“By allowing these cases to be reported to the Texas Rangers … we can ensure that claims are investigated by an impartial law enforcement body that is equipped to hold public servants accountable,” Abbott said in a speech announcing the plan.

Vanderwater said she considers herself lucky because her encounter did not escalate further and she is grateful for the women who helped her navigate the in’s and out’s of the Capitol’s male-dominated culture.

“I heard stories from other women who said things like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to be in a room alone with this guy,’ or ‘Don’t get upset with this lobbyist because he’ll call you something awful after he’s had a few drinks,’” Vanderwater said.

By the time the regular session came to a close, Vanderwater said she left the Capitol with a much different vision for her future.

“The general sexism I experienced in my six months there was actually enough to turn me off of working in politics,” Vanderwater said.

Vanderwater emphasized that her experience, while not unique, is not universal. She said she has female friends who’ve had very positive internship experiences at the Capitol.

Plan II senior Jason Taper interned at the Capitol around the same time Vanderwater worked there. Although he did not experience any harassment, Taper said he was familiar with the Capitol’s reputation as a breeding ground for sexual misconduct and sexism.

“It has always been an unspoken truth that the Texas State Capitol is a boys’ club,” Taper said. 

Taper said he is glad something is finally being done, although he said the sexist behavior is part of a broader cultural issue.

“I think the Texas Rangers will bring some much-needed expertise in dealing with these incidents,” Taper said. “I am personally skeptical of the Texas Rangers’ ability to completely change what is ultimately an incredibly sexist power dynamic.”

Vanderwater said Abbott’s plan is a step in the right direction, but thinks getting the Rangers involved is only part of the solution.

“The culture of the Capitol is not going to change unless every single person under that dome acknowledges it and decides to do something about it,” Vanderwater said. “And I don’t think, in Texas politics, we are there yet.”