As beleaguered Secretary of State Tom Schedler explained Wednesday why he would serve out the rest of his term, despite allegations of sexual harassment by a longtime employee and his own disputed contention that the two had been involved consensually, Schedler seemed for all the world like a man who wants his good name back.
The appearance before reporters also served as a reminder of why he had a good name in the first place.
Schedler showed some flashes of defiance over calls from Gov. John Bel Edwards and several high-profile female politicians that he step down now. While he said he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2019, he said quitting would be cowardly, and “Tom Schedler is not a coward." He also said that he has no intention of walking away “with my tail between my legs.” And his decision not to take questions contradicted his reminder that he has always been accessible and transparent.
Yet the truth is that, until now, he has been. The secretary of state’s office under Schedler has been a professional, competent operation. Schedler’s a Republican, but he has not brought his politics into the job of overseeing elections, and unlike some other states, Louisiana has not been beset by fights over ballot access or voting procedures. Confidence in the office, which also oversees business records, is high.
The measured words from even some of those who’ve called for him to leave attest to the job he’s done. The most dramatic call for his resignation came from fellow Republican Sharon Hewitt, who represents Slidell in the state Senate, as Schedler himself once did. But comments from Democrats joining her were also tinged with sadness.
“I always thought he was a little head and shoulders above. I would have expected it from other folks but not him,” said state Sen. Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat who chairs a committee investigating the state’s sexual harassment policies.
Schedler justified his decision by arguing that the office is at a “critical crossroads.” A new elections commissioner has just come on board, and new voting machines are being purchased, he said. Then there’s the ongoing challenge of fending off Russia’s attempts to infiltrate state voting systems, an effort in which he’s been heavily involved, as this fall’s midterm elections loom. All in all, he made a pretty strong case for himself, and for the stability that his continued presence would bring.
And yet the idea that things could return to something like normal is farfetched.
The lawsuit against Schedler arrived at a time when the shocking extent of workplace sexual harassment across all sectors of the economy is changing attitudes, and when both gender dynamics and power imbalances are under intense scrutiny. The charges, if they’re true, are disqualifying, as even many of Schedler’s allies admit. The employee who filed suit accuses him of a frightening pattern of unwanted advances, of professional retaliation for resisting them, and even of some behavior that could be construed as taxpayer-funded stalking.
What’s new and different here is that it’s no longer considered acceptable to minimize allegations because they’re as-yet unproven. And even if Schedler were involved in a relationship with a subordinate, that’s now widely recognized to have crossed a line.
It makes sense that people caught up in these shifting standards don’t know what hit them. This is hard, and complicated, and is affecting not just people who have long behaved boorishly in public but also those who are liked and respected otherwise.
Which is why Schedler’s case for compartmentalization is problematic. If the premise is that some people are just too valuable to be sidelined, then others are automatically relegated to the less valuable column, where their concerns and even fears for their own safety often aren’t addressed, and where abuse of power can flourish.
Which is exactly the status quo that led to this messy moment of reckoning in the first place.