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What the Devil won't tell you

Claims about Grijalva clarify question of the moment

Accused of drinking, not groping — Situation demands we define some terms

That U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva enjoys his glass of wine is news in the same way that a new mattress store has been built at some major Tucson intersection.

Oh really? You're kidding. Couldn't be. Snark. Snark. Snark.

So when the Washington Times reported Monday that the House Natural Resources Committee paid a former staffer a $48,000 settlement after she claimed Grijalva created a hostile work environment with an ample BAC, a bunch of us were left thinking, "Hostile work environment? That's odd."

A bunch of us just breezed right by the notion that Grijalva might have imbibed the modern version of the three-martini lunch.

The G.I. Generation built the greatest economic success story in history of the world, and often with a full "Mad Men" bar on display in the boss's office. Yet drinking on the job is now considered a taboo.

Grijalva drinks. Maybe the guy drinks old-school. It gets worse. Grijalva has been known to smoke cigarettes. It's true! There's the real scandal. I'm not talking pot. Who cares about that these days? Marlboros, on the other hand, are truly evil weed.

The eight-term congressman out of Tucson has been a part of area politics since his days on the Tucson Unified Governing Board in the 1970s and was elected five times to the Pima County Board of Supervisors. He's always maintained a stable and loyal staff and built broad support in the community beyond his Latino base. There's a reason he calls his campaigns, "A Whole Lotta People for Grijalva."

Grijalva is ripping pissed that this revelation might get conflated into the pyroclastic flow of the erupting sexual harassment scandal. The way this case was disposed of, with a cash payout and a secrecy agreement, resembles how congressional cases of sexual harassment have been taken care of. On the face of it, they are unrelated even if the allegations are true. On the other hand, maybe not.

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Men in power have been behaving badly for decades and the obvious cases are easy. The Grijalva accusations are an opportunity to really look at the dirtier truth. We have no idea where the line is drawn between good and bad workplace conduct, but we sure love to pretend we do. In a more generic sense than sex, what do we do with men who behave in ways women find hostile?

To stand up and say "let's discuss this rationally" in the current environment is to temp banishment to an cultural island with only a couple cans of tuna fish and Swiss Army knife. But let's give it a whirl and get past "I don't know what happened but off with his head because I don't need the hassle."

I know you America and the one thing our culture can be counted on demanding is massive over-correction. If there were an outbreak of people getting punched in the face, we would set a standard that no human being can be within 50 yards of another. A congressional staff position is at once a poor substitute for the typical job but a good case study in reducing our tolerance to the absurd.

With 130 million people in the work force, America has 130 million standards of what is offensive, funny, flirtation, hostility and acceptable lines that can be crossed. With millions of bosses in the work force, there are that many standards of responsibility and entitlement. People with power have the upper hand in resolving workplace grievances.

I have known Grijalva for years and I really like the guy. I've seen him on the job a lot and have spent a lot of time with him in his office. I never saw him drunk while working. People around him like or love him, though I know some who hate him with the fire of a thousand suns. I've heard stories about some elected officials I couldn't lock down. I never heard any about Grijalva dissing people who worked for him. If anything, his team has always had an open familiarity with him that could prompt between them an occasional sigh, shrug or eyeroll right there in front of him.

Could I see him drinking on the job? Sure.

His accuser can be right and the rest of his team can be happy even if they witness the same behavior.

Grijalva drinks. If he's drinking on the job, he's crossed into the gray. And America hates gray. It prefers good versus evil because then there's right and wrong. It's just that Grijalva can be both an inspiring leader for the folks who work for him and a hostile boss to one person who couldn't just shrug off the behavior. Through her eyes, maybe the loyal staff is just a bunch of enablers.

No one say a word

The problem, of course, is with the non-disclosure agreement that wrapped up her service and often was the requirement for sexual harassment claims.

Under the terms of the agreement, Grijalva can't comment on the charges or he's in breach. He can't deny something without confirming the something is a something at all. Voters are left to wonder just what the hell he is accused of doing.

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Such confidentiality agreements can turn clear signs of danger into free passes. Worse, they withhold important information from the real bosses of elected officials. The voters are kept in the dark. The accused is muted. Only the lawyers are happy and when only the lawyers are happy, the rest of us should be worried.

The woman whose job with the Natural Resources Committee matches the reports of a severance agreement left her gig and wasn't exactly banished. She went on to work for the U.S. Department of Interior and now is an advisor to Sen. Chris Von Hollen (D-Md.), who used to be a colleague with Grijalva and a member of House leadership. Her career was hardly wrecked. Do his colleagues shrug "that's just Raul?" or do they know at all? Do they have the right to know this employee has a low tolerance for certain kinds of behavior? Or does she have the right to be protected from such accusations? Is there anything wrong with saying "I have no tolerance for certain kinds of trashy behavior?"

A different dynamic

While House staffers are workers like anyone else, what they actually are is formal version of a Hollywood entourage. They are utterly dependent on their boss' survival in ways an engineer at Raytheon is not. If they do anything to undermine their representative or senator, it's like a coal miner squealing on the company for operating a dangerous mine. They may be doing "the right thing" but they are ruining their own livelihood.

Having worked in politics, I know it gets real easy to justify things because you need a paycheck because your kid needs to eat. It's also easy to think that you are fighting the good fight so just suck it up and deal with the garbage.

I've never been an elected official but I've been around them. City council members, state reps, even community college governing board members get singled out at Chamber of Commerce luncheons. Those in Congress are met with constant preening from admirers among party loyalists and community stakeholders. And in Washington, they can deliver results for entire spheres of the economy and can get the same smoke-blowing treatment there.

I once talked to a Flagstaff City Council member who was a smart guy and saw himself as a congressman someday. Except. He told me the cross pressures of sitting on the dais in a city of 50,000 were exhausting. "I can't imagine what you face when you are in Congress with people pulling you one way and another."

People joke members of Congress only work three days a week to which I say "you have to be absolutely kidding me." The one thing Democrats and Republicans have in common is an almost super-natural form of endurance. Grijalva had a staffer I knew who was constantly struggling to keep up with him. She was 21. He was in his 60s.

On the face of it, serving in Congress is the worst job in the world. I once entertained delusions until I saw the gig from the outside. You work 100 hours a week. Half the people hate you. You are instantly assumed to be a skunk. You are away from your family for long stretches. Depending on the time zone, you spend more time in coach on commercial flights than you do in bed. You are reading legalese and becoming expert in timber diameters and defense procurement. Everyone you meet is BSing you to an extraordinary degree and getting good information is hard to impossible. And you make less than someone who owns a middling plumbing business.

On the other hand, people fight to stay in Congress their whole lives because they control the levers to a superpower and are affirmed by a vote of the people. Everyone who works for you is dependent on you for their rent and mortgage. That combination of ego-stroking and power is what economists now call "psychic income." It's worth a lot to be that person. And power tempts entitlement.

"So what if I drink on the job?" Who is going to do anything about it? I'm a star. And if Karl Rove, Joe Barton, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich can cash that stardom in for the affections of younger staffers, well then ...

Grijalva told me years ago some egotistical puffery was involved in elected office. It's one of the things I always liked about him. He was always upfront with me about the particulars of public service and public policy.

Star power and attraction

That may make the charges against him believable but it in no way makes him guilty.

One of the first things you learn in journalism is that controversy is controversial for a reason. Very few dustups are cut and dried. Both sides have points.

If we are really not going to kid ourselves, some people who work on the staff are attracted to the proximity to power and so what if the boss does things that a  Circle K supervisor can't get away with. But if we're really really to be honest with ourselves as members of the human race, even that Circle K supervisor can get away with stuff because maybe in the world of convenience stores, they are stars.

Freedom is a big part of power and license is always a danger of freedom.

Sex, drinking, forcing staff to memorize the lines of "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" — they're all part of the same power puzzle. Where do we draw the line?

There's a temptation to stand up and shout: Anything that offends anyone, ever, is henceforth verboten.

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So a conservative politician chasing teenage girls must go and so too must the liberal who took an immature photo he thought was funny. The accusation can be enough and that's bad. Women are empowered and that's good. Settlements are seen as hush money and that's good. Tribalism is enough to forgive and that's bad. Men in power are thinking twice and that's good. They are scared of women they could mentor and that's bad. Families are started from co-workers and that's good. Men have been atrociously ignorant of the meaning of the word "flirt" and that's bad.

Grijalva's accuser apparently has nothing to do with the sexual harassment eruption but everything to do with the entitlement and the shifting notion of workplace propriety.

My daughter's boyfriend is a pipe-fitting apprentice and he's shrugs off the heaps of abuse he takes from his journeyman. He's called a piece of shit on a regular basis and knows the key is to know when and how to flip the boss off to his face. That, and doing a good job, are the keys to earning respect.

No, I in no way expect that to be the standard but what the exact position of the line bosses cross remains a mystery. Do we draw it for the line of the most sensitive of co-workers so everyone respects them? Or do we force them to thicken their skins to cope with things they find hostile.

Do we correct our behavior, over-correct or go on a jihad with a whole bunch of collateral damage? Is that damage — the occasional needlessly ruined career — acceptable payback for decades of women being screwed over in the workforce?

I haven't a freaking clue. But we should probably put some thought into how we address men behaving badly because right now, George Stephanopoulos is in Manhattan going "ummmm."

Blake Morlock is a journalist who spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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1 comment on this story

Dec 4, 2017, 10:23 am
-0 +0

This article is somewhat confusing.

At first, there is a $48,000 “claim” paid to some “woman”?
Then there’s a long article that indicates Griljava “might” be a booze hound?

Not sure what is the purpose of this article?

Please enlighten us.

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