The Packwood Syndrome

Loretta Smith speaking at the Londer Learning Center graduation.Image courtesy of The Skanner News via Flickr.
Loretta Smith speaking at the Londer Learning Center graduation.
Image courtesy of The Skanner News via Flickr.

What springs to mind when the name Bob Packwood is mentioned in conversation? Do you recall the successful political career he had as a United States senator? Do you ponder the interesting fact that he became the first Senate Republican to support Nixon’s impeachment in 1973? Or, when Packwood’s name is brought up do you journey to 1995 and remember the sex scandal involving his apparent inability to keep from groping women during his political career, which finally led to his resignation?

Most people, when asked about Bob Packwood recall that he was a “groper.” Packwood spent a lifetime working to make Portland Oregon a better place but after his career imploded due to his self-sabotaging attempts to connect sexually with numerous women, he was forced to resign for official ethical misconduct. Ultimately, Packwood’s entire career was whittled down to something cheap. After groping and assaulting women, his political career was over. Sadly, it took almost two decades for any of the dozens of women he assaulted to get any form of justice by his forced resignation.

How far have we come since 1995? Are women—particularly women in politics—better off in Portland than they were twenty or thirty years ago?

On June 6, a respected and highly regarded Multnomah County commissioner, Loretta Smith, was publicly embarrassed when fellow commissioner Baruti Artharee pointed her out at a city equity event, to formally introduce Dante James, the city’s new director of the Office of Equity and Human Rights. The event was conducted at the Quartet Restaurant at Riverplace, with over 40 other prominent community members present.

As Artharee, 60, stood at the podium, he introduced James to the group, and then began to mention other notable persons present, including pointing out Loretta Smith, who stood in the back of the room. By his own admission, he later admitted to saying, “Here’s our beautiful commissioner, Loretta Smith, mmm, mmm, mmm…she looks good tonight!” and according to Smith and others, after his statement, he proceeded to thrust his hips in a gesture that was sexually suggestive.

Commissioner Loretta Smith was so offended by Artharee’s comments and gestures that she left the function immediately. Later, after Smith went public with the incident, she was quoted as saying by local Willamette Week newspaper, “It was inappropriate what I was subjected to Thursday night. The damage is done. When Baruti acknowledged me that way, he marginalized me. And he gave everyone the license to speak to me in the future that way. He made a joke out of it. I couldn’t believe it.”

Smith went on to say, “By me being an elected official, I think my role was minimized and marginalized and I think because it was in such a public way, it will give license to others to do the same. …You wouldn’t have done that to Commissioner Deborah Kafoury. You wouldn’t have done that to Governor Barbara Roberts.”

“If I don’t speak up when something happens to me, women—and young girls, in particular—won’t know it’s OK to speak up.”

For his part, Baruti Artharee’s explained his behavior thusly: “I meant to give [Smith] a compliment and do so in a comical way. I recognize now my comments were inappropriate.”

Artharee’s behavior, in fact, promotes the misunderstanding that a comment about a woman’s physical appearance is a compliment. This practice serves only to overshadow a woman’s accomplishments by condescending to her, and sexualizing her. Artharee’s faulty reasoning is about as sound as men claiming a woman was “asking for it” before being sexually assaulted because if she was friendly or wore revealing clothing.

Artharee claims he did not make a thrusting motion with his hips, though Smith and others say they witnessed him do so. As Loretta Smith was in the back of the room (apparently as far away from Artharee as she could get herself), she would have had a bird’s eye view of his entire form from a distance. It’s entirely possible and even probable that she did in fact witness the gesture, after making his remarks about how “good” Smith looked that night.

According to Smith, Artharee has made sexually suggestive references regarding her appearance on two previous occasions while they were in elevators together. Being sexually harassed and even groped in elevators is probably the most classic example of what can happen when people work together. “Elevator comments” and “accidental touching” is classic sexual harassment behavior, when the confined space can be blamed for the deliberate and abusive behavior. These incidents often come up in sexual harassment lawsuits.

Portland’s mayor, Charlie Hales, was apprised of the incident in early June by Smith and an investigation was formally launched, unfortunately that took over a week to set into motion. After almost four days of not contacting Commissioner Loretta Smith, after she had gone public with the story, Hales finally offered his formal apology to her for Artharee’s “boys-will-be-boys” behavior at the dinner function of June 6th. Smith then had to endure another invasion of her privacy when Artharee called her and left a voice message apologizing for his unprofessional behavior.

After it was determined that Artharee had indeed violated the city’s ordinance against sexually harassing a city employee, he was fined a week’s pay and told he would have to attend “Diversity Training” classes. And that was all.

As Artharee makes in excess of $85,000 per year in a cozy, highly paid city job, a week’s pay comes to $1,681 and for a man who makes over $6,000 per month, that amount deducted from his earnings seems hardly punitive. Two weeks’ pay deducted would have been far more appropriate.

In a later interview with Laurel Porter-local television host of the news program “Straight Talk,” Smith said: “No, it wasn’t funny. What it did was identify my physical appearance without acknowledging the work I had done for the community. It made me feel so uncomfortable. It minimized me. I am a public official. It gave people in the room license to talk about me in that manner.”

Turning towards “rehab” type programs, or in Artharee’s case, “Diversity Training,” has become a fix-all for inexcusable behavior. “Diversity training” and “sensitivity training” does not undo unprofessional misconduct. Nor does it tend to have that much effect on serial abusers of women. What if Loretta Smith had been white? Perhaps the public would have been more outraged. Artharee would likely have been terminated immediately. Was Artharee’s behavior, as an African-American man to an African-American woman, considered more acceptable?

Artharee’s behavior became more and more abusive, going from closed elevator shaft comments to comments and a hip thrust, at a public event, many influential women leaders in Portland were incensed and rightly so. The group of former and current leaders and advocacy group leaders wrote a letter lambasting Hales’s slow response time and demanding justice.

Ultimately, the letter was ignored.

Hales has made it clear he will protect those men who indulge in this kind of abusive behavior. In so doing, he may have made some enemies in the process. Female enemies of some political power and influence. It’s still early on in his term and many in Portland value his seasoned and mature approach but if he’s wise, he will now tread very carefully around the Baruti Artharee issue and any possible relapses. If he were to ever demonstrate he was protecting Artharee or other men who engage in this kind of behavior towards female elected city commissioners, he would be committing political suicide. Hopefully, he will have the wisdom and intelligence to understand that.

2 thoughts on “The Packwood Syndrome

  1. I was interested by the statement, ““Elevator comments” and “accidental touching” is classic sexual harassment behavior, when the confined space can be blamed for the deliberate and abusive behavior.” It’s always interesting to me how calculating people can be in pursuit of this kind of misconduct.


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