House Democrats on Wednesday voted to suspend state representative David Sawyer, a Tacoma Democrat, from a committee chairmanship after a months-long investigation revealed accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women were credible, The News Tribune reported.
The House Democratic Caucus Leadership's statement said it found that Sawyer "created a hostile work environment, improper use of staff for personal issues, and inconsistent statements" made by him during the investigation. Leaders revoked his standing as chair of the Commerce and Gaming Committee and could consider further action by the end of the month.
The News Tribune and Northwest News Network in February reported that eight women accused Sawyer of harassment and inappropriate behavior that included commenting on women's looks, unwanted attention, and persistent Facebook or text messaging. Sawyer has so far ignored calls for resignation and is running for re-election this year.
"I am concerned that this is somebody who is in a position of power and they're just going to continue to abuse it," one of the women, who wished to remain anonymous, told PubliCola.
A few of those women also interviewed by PubliCola said they tried to ignore his communications but felt they couldn't tell him to stop at the risk of isolating a powerful figure in the Democratic circle or creating an uncomfortable work environment for themselves. Pierce County Democrats chair Timothy Ferrell urged him to step down in March.
One of the women, Jessica Gavre, served as a legislative assistant for representative Laurie Jinkins. She said she met Sawyer in 2009 when she was working on a referendum. Back then, messages show he asked for her number and said it was for organizing a signature-challenge ballot chase. She said he never reached out again until 2011, when he began messaging her through Facebook and texts, sometimes late at night and asking to get drinks.
Gavre said Sawyer made her uncomfortable in spaces that should have felt safe. She said in part, the "rampant sexism and misogyny" that exists in Olympia drew her away from a legislative role.
"I think at the end of the day, it's not just about David Sawyer," Gavre told PubliCola. "This is why I work at (a) nonprofit and not politics. ... It really felt to me that if I wanted to work in the Legislature, this was something I needed to compromise on."
Another woman, a lobbyist at the Legislature who wished to remain anonymous, said she met Sawyer at a Young Democrats party in 2011 when she was 19 years old and eight years younger than Sawyer. For years he texted her often trying to spend time with her while she deflected, once calling her "arm candy." She said she would have to plan around an event when she expected him to be there.
She described multiple times coming to a "breaking point," when she would stop responding altogether and he would apologize, only to have it start again later.
"This was something he did that was systemic," she said, adding that often women didn't realize they weren't the only ones who were uncomfortable around Sawyer. "It was calculated, and I was just part of it."
Sawyer in response to the accusations in February said he believed he conducted himself professionally and lawfully. Through his attorney, Beth Terrell, a letter sent to the House said the leadership had rushed to judgment.
"Significantly, not a single allegation involved improper or unwanted touching, groping sexual propositions, either express or implied, or pursuit of a romantic relationship," Terrell wrote. "Representative Sawyer never intended to make any female colleague or employee uncomfortable and he is committed to making concrete changes in how he interacts to ensure that his intent is clear in the future."
Sawyer has raised $89,000 in his re-election campaign, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission, the most out of any 29th Legislative District candidate. Franklin-Pierce School Board director Melanie Morgan, a Democrat, entered the race against Sawyer late March and has since raised $6,600.