Former District Attorney Josh Marquis stands behind an opinion column that contrasted inappropriate touching at the state Capitol with home burglary, a comparison several lawmakers and some prosecutors found offensive.
The column, which appeared in the Portland Tribune in February, said lawmakers are “obsessed with the lingering hugs and suggestive comments” but dismiss the fear of property crime victims.
He singled out state Sen. Sara Gelser, whose complaints about unwanted touching from state Sen. Jeff Kruse led to an extensive examination of sexual harassment at the Capitol.
“One of the most vocal lawmakers — state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis — succeeded in driving one of her colleagues out of office for hugging her and touching her in a way that made her uncomfortable,” Marquis wrote without naming Kruse, a Roseburg Republican who resigned in 2018. “Yet she joined with many of the state’s Democrats in easing criminal sentencing of serious felonies — including burglary.”
Marquis’ column was published a week before state House and Senate leaders reached a $1.3 million settlement in March with nine women and the state Bureau of Labor and Industries over sexual harassment at the Capitol. In addition to Gelser’s account, two former interns claimed Kruse groped and made sexual comments to them. Kruse has denied the accusations.
A few days after the settlement was announced, several lawmakers called out Marquis’ column during a Joint Subcommittee on Public Safety review of a bill to fund district attorneys across the state.
“As I am sure you are aware, an important part of being in law enforcement is ensuring that victims feel respected,” said state Rep. Carla Piluso, the Democratic co-chairwoman of the subcommittee and a former Gresham police chief. “I am concerned that with language like this in the public sphere, rape and sexual assault victims may be more hesitant to come forward.”
Rep. Tawna Sanchez, a Portland Democrat, said the column was “amazingly hurtful to the victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment. And I’m offended by the idea that we are not doing our job.”
Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Clackamas Democrat, was also concerned and submitted Marquis’ column into the record on the district attorneys’ funding bill.
Beth Heckert, the president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, told lawmakers that she and several other district attorneys had sent personal emails to Sen. Gelser. “Josh Marquis does not represent Oregon District Attorneys Association,” she said.
Heckert, the district attorney in Jackson County, said “there may be things that we agree with and things that we disagree with, but it shouldn’t come down to a personal attack.
“And I, as well, was offended that a victim was basically being blamed for conduct that was happening to them, and thought that was inappropriate.”
The Oregon District Attorneys Association issued a statement to lawmakers in March that said the organization stood “firmly with victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
“The positions ODAA takes do not always mirror the positions of each of its individual members,” the statement said. “Similarly, the statements of individual or former members do not represent the position of ODAA.”
Heckert confirmed to The Daily Astorian that Marquis’ column was “a factor, but not the entire issue” that prompted the organization’s lobbyist to quit.
The Willamette Week first reported on the blowback from Marquis’ column last week.
Marquis, who retired in January after 25 years as Clatsop County’s district attorney, said he believes the coverage of his column is “politically motivated.” He assumes the reaction is because he criticized a powerful legislator by name.
“Apparently my sin was being critical of Sara Gelser,” he said.
Gelser could not be reached for comment.
Marquis stands by his column, he said. But he said if given the chance to write a few more paragraphs, he would clarify his point that there is a “world of difference” between workplace behavior that is “offensive and sometimes even marginalizing” and being the victim of a crime.
“Sara Gelser was not the victim of a criminal offense. I’m not saying that as a judgment. I’m just saying that as a fact,” Marquis said. “Maybe it should be, but it’s not.”
Marquis is one of the state’s leading critics of lowering the penalties for drug and property crimes. He finds it hypocritical for lawmakers to care about victims of workplace harassment while voting for legislation he feels dismisses the victims of property crimes.
“What I mean is, if you’re going to be sensitive to that, then why aren’t you being sensitive to the violations of crime victims, women and children, for behavior far, far worse? That’s the only point,” he explained.
• Read Marquis’ column in the Portland Tribune: https://bit.ly/2FFLybl