Lansing is driven by politics. It serves as the undercurrent of the city. It’s local politics and state politics, all concentrated in the downtown area and rippling out into Greater Lansing from there.
The recent revelations of the toxic work environment at Vanguard Public Affairs, a progressive public relations and political consulting firm, has also laid bare a glaring problem in Lansing and beyond: Men control the power structures, which makes sexual harassment a constant reality.
It has been four years since the #MeToo Movement exploded into a viral social media mantra, but it took 11 years before for it to gain much traction. What the Vanguard scandal in Lansing reveals, at least, is that ending the plague of harassment requires men to be involved as well.
“This is a call to action and accountability: Not just for the perpetrators of harassment but the perpetrators by proxy, the enablers of sexual harassment and assault,” said Emily Dievendorf, a local LGBTQ activist who unleashed the frenzy of reporting on Vanguard three weeks ago with a Facebook post. “These silent men are our trusted friends, but they have yet to decide that the health and equity of the women in their lives matter enough to say that they know their buddy is creating a hostile place to work. Or better yet, that their buddy still has much growth to do as a human, and that even outside of work they don’t appreciate the way they function in the world.”
That sentiment was echoed by a woman who does political communications in the state and has worked extensively in the city. She asked not to be identified because she said she had survived sexual harassment from Vanguard owner TJ Bucholz alongside several other women.
“All these people acting shocked now heard from many of us directly — not only that TJ had been gross to us, but that he had been doing it to a lot of women around town,” she wrote.
“Maybe they’re being honest when they say they don’t remember it, but that’s not because they weren’t told. Maybe they need to think harder about how they could hear directly some of these things and let it slip their mind. That means they registered it as unimportant or untrue. When men around town reflect on this, and I hope they do, they shouldn’t be thinking about how they could have been the whistleblower. This isn’t about men having an opportunity to be white knights and failing. This is about men having the opportunity to be decent and not bothering.”
She’s not alone in that assessment. Women interviewed by City Pulse who worked at Vanguard said the constant presence of politicos in the office made it feel like the men (and most of them were men) had known about and condoned Bucholz’ sexually charged and erratic workplace.
It was an adjacency to power.
Barbara Neiss-May is the executive director of SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor. It’s a domestic violence shelter and intervention program, but it also does some work dealing with the power dynamics that underlie domestic violence, sexism and its corrupt displays as discrimination and harassment targeting women in the workplace, in the community and in the home.
“It’s been long known that women are treated as second-class citizens. In corporate America, it couldn’t be more true,” she said. “What happens is that there are dynamics that are created in the workplace that are intended to communicate that you are less than and you need to do what I tell you to do or else your job is at risk, or potentially something worse could happen to you.”
And that fear of something worse played out last month. Women said they believed the male-dominated political consulting world would blackball them if they raised concerns to men who were in positions of power — like Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr.
Both said they were unaware of the extent of harassment and workplace toxicity at Vanguard.
“I didn’t know,” Hertel said. “I am still sitting with that because I should have known. I am horrified that women didn’t feel they could come to me and that I would act to protect them.”
Hertel has a lengthy history of advocating for women — from reproductive health through advocacy for survivors of sexual harassment and assault. Schor also said he too had no clue about the extent of the toxic workplace from which Chelsea Coffey had asked to be removed.
Coffey went to Schor while serving as his campaign manager and explained that she had received an inappropriate text message from Bucholz and felt uncomfortable continuing to work at Vanguard. Schor offered her an out — a position in his mayoral administration after he won.
“In hindsight, I could have done more,” Schor said. “I could have asked more questions. I didn’t.”
Schor has known Buchholz for about 20 years, the same length of time Hertel has known him. When Hertel’s father, Curtis Hertel Sr., a former speaker of the House, died unexpectedly, it was Bucholz who stepped in to handle media inquiries. Hertel “just never saw that behavior.”
City Pulse spoke with three politicians who used Vanguard for their political campaigns and political activity: Hertel, Schor and Lansing City Council President Peter Spadafore.
And in all fairness to the men, this reporter was part of the problem. A female political consultant told me about Bucholz’ sexual harassment. And while I was a reporter at the time, I failed to dig into those allegations, to probe further or ask any questions. I cut Bucholz off and stopped selling him vintage Star Wars items, but I remained friendly with him, communicating about our shared love of the Star Wars films.
Neiss-May, the expert in sexual and gender-based violence from Ann Arbor called my response and Schor’s “enabling.” As for Hertel and others who did not know about the abusive environment? Neiss-May explained how that plays into an unfortunate reality of societal norms.
“It’s a learned behavior. Some men just can’t see it,” she said of harassment. “My husband and I talked about that once, and he said he just can’t imagine treating a woman like that. So he just can’t see it. I didn’t used to understand that.”
With what some women described as a “stew of grossness” at Vanguard Public Affairs finally out in the open, men are left asking one significant question: How can we all do better?
“That’s not an easy question,” said Michael McDaniel. Bucholz voluntarily represented McDaniel to the media when McDaniel, a law professor at then Cooley Law School, headed the probe into the handling of the 2013 ice storm by the Lansing Board of Water and Light. “We have to be clear, from the top, that discrimination simply is not going to be acceptable. Period.”
The problem, he noted, is that there are no clear “bright boundaries” to help inform men and women about what legally is “objectively” an offensive workplace.
For Spadafore, the entire set of revelations left him wanting to review City Council policies.
Schor appointed Bucholz, with the advice and consent of the City Council, to the board of directors for Downtown Lansing Inc. None of the toxic behavior reported in the last two weeks was publicly known. Schor said he had heard of only one instance but heard nothing further, so when Bucholz was identified as a possible board member, he saw no lingering issues.
“We need to do a better job of vetting,” Spadafore said. Schor concurred.
“What that looks like, I don’t know,” Schor added. “Previously, only the bare minimum was done to review candidates for appointment to boards. There wasn’t even a social media review. But how do we get to workplace culture? It would be uncomfortable for current employees to talk out about their current employer. I don’t know, but we have to do something.”
Spadafore said that the Council has also had to beef up its current sexual harassment training, which consists of videos that demonstrate “obvious” sexual harassment cases, he explained.
“But I think we have to have more in-depth conversations,” Spadafore noted.
All men interviewed for this story described themselves as safe people to whom to reveal discrimination and harassment. They will work to find solutions for the survivor’s comfort level.
“This won’t land on the front page of the newspaper,” Hertel said. “Unless that’s what the survivor wants.”
The cross-pollination and reliance on the political infrastructure in the capital is also something that has to be addressed. Spadafore, who also works as a lobbyist in Lansing, said he is in a unique position. Because he is gay, he suspects that most men don’t share the “locker-room talk” of sexual harassment in his presence. But he hears and sees microaggressions almost every day.
“I hear homophobic comments and sexist comments,” Spadafore added. “Sometimes it’s easier to ignore them than confront them. That’s something we all have to do better with.”
Neiss-May said that idea hinges largely on the structural reality that women have to navigate. It’s a system designed by men, to benefit men, who then make decisions that impact women.
“It goes back to the learned behavior male privilege exists in our culture,” she said. “Power adjacency is automatic. It is further enhanced by position and money. What happens in my estimation is that women are conditioned men hold power and wealth in our country and therefore get to make decisions that women don’t get to be a part of.”
She said that existence, which goes well beyond politics, is like a pinball machine for women.
“We’re constantly shifting and redirecting to get around one thing or another,” she said. “I think people think that the people who have this behavior are these green-eyed monsters, that you can immediately tell who they are. But it’s not the case.”
That’s where McDaniel said that it is essential that the organizational structure from the top down clearly establishes that everyone is valued.
Referring to his stint as a deputy assistant secretary for homeland security, McDaniel said, “My first day at the Pentagon, I sat my team down and I told them: You are here because you are smart. You are thoughtful. You are committed. You are problem solvers.”
Despite that, he still had instances in which he had to challenge his own staff. In one instance, he said his chief of staff had mistreated an administrative assistant with an elitist type of attitude.
“I had to tell him, you are no more important than the administrative assistant,” he said. “I had to put him in his place.”
Hertel has also reiterated to his staff that he will not tolerate any form of sexism, from lobbyists, fellow lawmakers or the public. He wants his staff to disclose it immediately. And he will act.
“There just is no room for this,” he said.