The absence of African-American women in Kentucky’s halls of power is why former state Rep. John Arnold hasn’t been held accountable.
That’s according to Cassaundra Cooper and Yolanda Costner, two of the three statehouse staffers who have alleged they were sexually harassed and assaulted by Arnold over a three-year period.
Since August, the Arnold scandal has put the treatment of women in the legislature front and center.
The case has also found its way into the lap of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is running to unseat Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell.
It’s has been a road of disappointment for the two longtime Frankfort employees, who argue the mix of state politics and lack of diversity have played a role in Arnold’s alleged actions slipping through the cracks on two separate occasions.
In December 2013, a special Democratic-led House investigative committee voted to end their probe without interviewing a single witness or examining a shred of evidence. Just this week, the Legislative Ethics Commission fell one vote shy of finding Arnold guilty of their charges thanks to a Democratic appointees vote.
“There’s not that many African-American women in state government or even in the Legislative Research Commission or higher administrative decision-making positions,” Costner told WFPL. “There’s no African-American women of decision-making in the governor’s office or the legislature. I don’t think we have any cabinet secretaries now that are black women.”
Costner and Cooper are veteran employees of state government, and have worked in the legislature for more than a decade. Costner’s employment goes back to being an employee in former Gov. Paul Patton’s office—where, she notes, an effort was made to hire minorities.
Both say that white female staffers have complained to them about being harassed by lawmakers or supervisors in the Capitol, but have yet to speak up because they are afraid.
A third black female staffer, Gloria Morgan, came forward less than a month after the initial accusations were made and she was also part of the ethics case against Arnold.
While this case has put a spotlight on how Kentucky women are treated in the workplace, Cooper says it’s also a reflection of how race works in the state. Women of color and their issues are often ignored by even their white female counterparts, she says.
“Just the fact that we don’t have any representation in our General Assembly. There is not an African-American female anywhere in the Senate or the House,” says Cooper. “Maybe you’d feel a little bit of compassion or empathy when you deal issues like this and we just haven’t had that happen for us because there’s nobody there that can truly relate.”
As WFPL reported when the 2014 legislative session began, there hasn’t been a black woman elected to the General Assembly since 2000.
A review of the top LRC administrative positions shows only one African-American woman. Of the eight sitting members, no blacks sit on the legislative ethics panel that heard Arnold’s case.
As a Versailles Ky.-native, Costner sees the case as not just a good old boys political network protecting one of its own, but through a historical prism as well.
“It put me in my place to remind me I’m just the help,” she says. “I’m pretty much enslaved to state government until I get my freedom papers when I get my retirement in another two or three years.”
Arnold Controversy Invades Kentucky U.S. Senate Race
In a Kentucky election it isn’t much of a surprise that the Arnold controversy found its way into one as tight as the McConnell-Grimes contest.
The scandal gives Republicans a pivot as the Grimes’ campaign pounds McConnell and the GOP over its comments, policies and treatment of women. It is “yesterday’s politics,” Democrats kick and scream when discussing McConnell’s voting record and blockade to important proposals.
It’s a sign that McConnell is out of touch and too entrenched to care about average Kentucky women, Democrats cry. But Grimes has been behind on addressing the Arnold scandal in her own political backyard since last fall.
When the news first broke Grimes declined to say whether Arnold should resign or if Democratic House leaders had done enough to intervene. A month after he did leave office Grimes accepted a $250 contribution from the former lawmaker.
When the ethics panel fell short of punishing Arnold, Grimes ignored direct questions from the media and instead issue a statement one day later saying she was “disappointed” in the decision.
Only when Cooper and Costner began to adopt the Democratic language of there being a “war on women,” presumably led by state House Democrats, did the Grimes campaign issues its strongest statement—against Republican Mitch McConnell.
From the Grimes campaign:
“Mitch McConnell’s bullying tactics are outrageous and truly know no bounds. It’s alarming that on the same day McConnell led his caucus to block Paycheck Fairness in the Senate, his campaign is taking advantage of female victims of sexual assault to boost his flailing re-election campaign,” Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said Wednesday. “McConnell’s latest display is politics at its lowest, and there seems to be no depth Mitch McConnell is unwilling to sink to distract Kentuckians from his failed record of fighting for the Commonwealth’s women and families.”
As WFPL reported this week, the lone vote against punishing Arnold was cast by Marion County lawyer Elmer George, who has made hefty contributions to Grimes. Federal campaign finance records show that he’s given the maximum $5,200 to Grimes.
The money connection to George goes both ways, apparently. In a blog post this morning, PageOne Kentucky has documentation showing George’s son is on the Grimes Senate campaign payroll as well.
Republicans are obviously hoping this puts a dent in the Grimes argument that she is a champion for women.
“There is no permission slip for failing to speak out for women who were victimized in the workplace,” McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore says. “This isn’t a partisan question, this is a question about whether someone lacks the courage to speak out against her own party when they’ve clearly allowed an incredible injustice to move forward.”
‘Almost Like Slavery Days’
After speaking with the would-be senator, Cooper and Costner were mentioned in a Grimes news release saying that in no uncertain terms do they want to be pawns in the Senate race. That’s largely because they have already been treated as such in the Democratic-controlled state House, which is hanging on to its majority by a thread.
Cooper and Costner told WFPL that through this seven-month ordeal they have learned just how expendable they are to people who they trusted and worked for tirelessly.
It’s been a startling realization to learn that mostly older white men still rule with impunity, Costner says.
“It just reminded me I’m not their equal,” she says. “It’s almost like slavery days where you had a female slave and she took care of master and did everything she’s supposed to do and if she got raped she was still required to go there and work for master and smile and shut up and do her job.”