Capitol reacts to allegations Rep. Shooter harassed women, fellow lawmakers

Capitol reacts to allegations Rep. Shooter harassed women, fellow lawmakers

Rep. Don Shooter (R-Yuma)
Rep. Don Shooter (R-Yuma)

After seven women publicly accused Rep. Don Shooter of sexual harassment, the Capitol community has taken to social media to condemn – or defend – the Yuma Republican.

The accusers include Shooter’s fellow lawmakers Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe; and Rep. Wenona Benally, D-Window Rock; lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez; two unnamed lobbyists and former Arizona Capitol Times intern Kendra Penningroth, who was 19 at the time of the incident she reported. Their allegations against the 65-year-old Shooter range from sexually charged comments to unwanted touching.  

As of Friday afternoon, Shooter was suspended – not removed – from his duties as chairman of the House Appropriations committee.

Also on Friday, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce joined calls for Shooter’s resignation.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, and Democrat David Garcia, both candidates for governor, made earlier calls for him to resign, as did the Arizona Democratic Party and House Democrats.

“Rep. Shooter should resign immediately so the women who have come forward with details of his unwelcome sexual advances can avoid publicly reliving their traumas,” Farley tweeted on Wednesday evening, adding Shooter had disrespected Arizonans and disgraced the Legislature.

Garcia called for an end to the “‘good-old-boys’ club that tolerates the harassment and abuse of female legislators and staff.”

He also expressed outrage that Shooter attacked Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, after initially issuing an apology, calling his actions “unconscionable.”

After Ugenti-Rita named Shooter as one of her harassers during an interview with KTVK (Channel 3) political reporter Dennis Welch on Tuesday, Shooter issued a written statement and said he “apparently said things that were insensitive and not taken well.”

However, later that same day, he retracted that statement, stating he had previously been told only that Ugenti-Rita was upset by comments he made but wasn’t given details.

“Ms. Ugenti is lying about me, and I have asked Speaker Mesnard to have the entire matter investigated by the House Ethics Committee/Counsel,” he said. “At the conclusion of their work, I will consider taking further legal action in this matter.”

Nathan Schneider, a Democratic candidate for the House in Shooter’s Legislative District 13, said the accusations were evidence of a “pattern of abuse and unprofessionalism.”

“When will Republicans join us in calling for Don Shooter’s resignation?” he added on Twitter.

Some Republicans have condemned Shooter’s actions, but unlike their colleagues across the aisle, none have yet publicly demanded his removal.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, was one of the first to defend Ugenti-Rita after the KTVK report, and said the allegations must be investigated.

“Sexual harassment should never be tolerated … Lead by example!” he wrote on Twitter.

In a statement, Arizona Republican Party spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair acknowledged the allegations were serious and applauded the decision by House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, to open an investigation.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard addresses his decision to suspend his Republican colleague Rep. Don Shooter from his duties as chairman of the House Appropriations committee on Nov. 10. Shooter's suspension came after several women publicly accused him of sexual harassment. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard addresses his decision to suspend his Republican colleague Rep. Don Shooter from his duties as chairman of the House Appropriations committee on Nov. 10. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

According to a statement from Mesnard on Friday announcing Shooter’s suspension, the House’s bipartisan team assembled to investigate the allegations decided to employ outside investigators as they move forward. The team is set to meet Monday to discuss next steps.

Gov. Doug Ducey joined the party in supporting Mesnard and broadly condemned sexual harassment at the Capitol, though he made no specific reference to Shooter.

In a press release, Shooter’s primary challenger for next year’s Senate race, Republican Brent Backus, said that “the House will have to seriously consider discharging Rep. Shooter from the Chamber” if the investigation finds that the allegations are true.

He also called for Shooter to withdraw from the LD13 Senate race if expelled from the House.

And his Democratic challenger, Michelle Harris, compared the Legislature’s response to Shooter’s alleged behavior to her experience with the “old boys club” during her time in the U.S. Air Force.

“The military is far from perfect in this respect, but what we had was accountability at every level of the chain of command.  So far, the Arizona Legislature has shown it has little appetite to police itself,” she said in a written statement Thursday afternoon.

Harris went on to say the only way to change the culture would be to “confront it head-on,” and she supported a call from Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, to codify Capitol sexual harassment policies.

Contrary to much of the outrage that followed the women’s public comments, Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said she’d never experienced harassment since being elected in 2015 and hadn’t witnessed inappropriate behavior toward others at the Capitol either.

“I have been treated with the utmost respect. You’re in a man’s world, and there’s harassment, but the harassment you usually get is because of… not going along with your party line or something like that. It’s not necessarily because you’re a woman,” she said.

She added that she was surprised by the allegations against Shooter, the legislator she said she’s grown closest to during her time at the Legislature.

“I can make him blush telling him he’s got a nice suit,” she said. “So, for me, if those accusations are made, they better have something substantial to back them up. That could hurt somebody’s life personally and professionally.”

Cobb said Shooter is “a good guy,” and repeatedly commented that the women who have accused him of sexual harassment should be sure of their allegations.

“If it was truly something that you felt was strong and should have been brought out, bring it out. And I think it should be brought out when it happens,” she said, adding the allegations came up because of a “fish-finding expedition” by an unnamed party.