Political Year of the Woman? Been There, Done That, Oregon Says

Some Republican women, like Jessica Gomez, a business owner in southwest Oregon who is running for office for the first time, are sharpening the argument: Women in power in Salem have accomplished some admirable things, she tells voters, but they’ve gone too far.

“We need to support women’s rights and women’s health and those things are important, but when you have a legislature that really just pushes that off the deep end, I think people have an issue with it,” said Ms. Gomez, who has described herself as “pro-choice” on abortion in her race against a male candidate for an open seat in the State Senate.

Many women in elected office in Oregon link their progress to Barbara Roberts, the state’s first female governor, who was elected in 1990. When Ms. Roberts, a Democrat, left office, she became a mentor to others, helping to start political training camps. Thirty women are now among the 90 members of the State Legislature’s two chambers, and 25 of the women are Democrats.

Over the last year, public debate over a sexual harassment scandal has played out inside the Capitol. Jeff Kruse, a state senator, resigned earlier this year after an independent report found that for years he had touched women, including three senators, inappropriately or offensively, sometimes hugging them from behind or putting his hands below their waists. Mr. Kruse, a Republican, said he did not recall many of the incidents and did not intend anything sexual.

In August, Brad Avakian, the State Commissioner of Labor and Industries filed a complaint with his own commission accusing legislative leaders of having “permitted a generally hostile environment based upon sex” that affected legislators, employees, lobbyists and interns. The accusation — by a Democrat, though the Commissioner’s job is formally nonpartisan — sent an electric charge into the election cycle, suggesting that women, even as they rose to power, had not acted forcefully enough against a climate of harassment.

Legislative leaders like Ms. Williamson said the harassment allegations in the Legislature were distressing, but that emerging reports of harassment should not be taken to mean that harassment is a growing problem. Rather, she said, women feel safer about coming forward with their experiences with women now in leadership.