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Iowa Senate Democratic Leader Defends Promotion Of Lawmaker Previously Accused Of Sexual Misconduct

nate boulton
John Pemble
IPR file
Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, has been promoted in the Iowa Legislature after previously being demoted because of sexual misconduct allegations.

The new Iowa Senate minority leader said Thursday that Democrats have promoted a senator previously accused of sexual harassment to a leadership position because he was reelected and is knowledgeable about labor issues.

Three women accused Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, of sexual misconduct in 2018. Boulton dropped out of the Democratic primary for governor, but resisted calls from some of his fellow Democrats to resign from the Iowa Senate.

Boulton won reelection this year after he was unopposed in the Democratic primary and had no Republican challenger in the general election.

This month, new Senate Minority Leader Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, appointed Boulton to be the top Democrat on the Labor and Business Relations Committee, the position he was previously demoted from because of the sexual harassment allegations.

Senate Democrats also elected Boulton as one of five assistant minority leaders.

Iowa Public Radio asked Wahls why Senate Democrats promoted Boulton.

“Obviously we saw this year that labor issues—specifically the corporate legal liability law that was passed to give large employers immunity, employers like Tyson—was a big priority for Republicans,” Wahls said. “So as we get ready to go into 2021, we wanted to make sure that we had an attorney who understands this part of the law able to speak to these issues on the Senate floor and in committee. And Boulton is the only labor attorney in the Iowa Senate, and the [Senate Democratic] caucus felt that he was the right person to do that.”

IPR asked if that sends the wrong message to victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment.

“I think the people of his Senate district felt like he was the right person who they wanted to fight for them,” Wahls said, though Boulton had no major party challenger. “I think there may be more work for Nate to do on the question that you just raised, but in terms of him being a member of the Iowa Senate, I think that the view of our caucus was that he would be a good voice on these issues of labor law.”

Wahls was first elected to the Senate in November 2018, months after the allegations against Boulton were first raised.

That fall, one of the women filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee, but the committee determined it could not take any action because the alleged sexual misconduct happened before Boulton was a senator. At the time, Boulton said he had no memory of the events described by the woman but did not fully deny the allegations.

Former Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, called on Boulton to resign in 2018. He stayed in the Iowa Legislature, but Petersen demoted him from his position as the top Democrat on the Labor and Business Relations Committee. She also moved him off of some of the more influential committees.

“Second chances are deserving for those who show empathy, remorse and are accountable for their actions,” said Kirsten Anderson, who runs a consultancy focused on eliminating harassment from workplaces. “Having said that, I believe a mixed message is sent by any party who rewards someone with a leadership position who has victim-shamed a target—behavior unbecoming of a leader."

Anderson is a former Senate Republican staffer who alleged she was fired hours after complaining about a toxic work environment and sexual harassment, and ultimately reached a $1.75 million settlement with the state in 2017.

Anderson added she hopes Boulton uses his position to work toward tougher accountability measures, as well as support for Iowans facing harassment and retaliation.

Boulton said in an email that it means a lot to have been reelected and promoted.

“My responsibility now is to prove myself worthy of that trust in the upcoming session, including in the policy work that can benefit from my experience as a workplace rights attorney on making sure our state is where it needs to be on issues of wage inequalities, pregnancy accommodations, and to your specific question, on sexual harassment and gender discrimination,” Boulton said.

He added he is ultimately accountable to voters in Des Moines and Pleasant Hill, and that they expect his full investment in his work at the Iowa Legislature, including through leadership roles.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter