by James Brooks, Alaska Beacon
June 27, 2022
For a decade, Anchorage Rep. Geran Tarr has pursued progressive policies as a Democratic member of the Alaska Legislature.
But as she launches a run for state Senate, a group of legislative aides, including many who worked for Tarr, say they were emotionally and verbally abused by Tarr. None allege physical abuse or illegal acts. Several said they are speaking publicly because of her Senate run.
“If constituents knew how she treated her staff, I don’t think they would vote for her. Because how she treats staff in the office, and how she treats her constituents, is very different,” said Monica Southworth, a former Tarr aide who now works outside the Legislature.
In interviews, current and former legislative aides — some who worked under Tarr, some who worked in other offices — described a demanding boss prone to berating subordinates into tears, someone who denied religious holidays, pressured staffers into attending political fundraisers, and blacklisted them from legislative jobs if they complained and quit.
One of the aides is now running against Tarr for Senate. All others interviewed for this article said they had no affiliation with him or any of Tarr’s other opponents.
Asked whether she is aware of staffers’ views, Tarr said, “I would like to thank everyone that I’ve worked with over the years for the work they did in helping get accomplishments and bills passed for our neighbors in Airport Heights, Russian Jack and Mountain View. That’s always been our focus. And for those that have moved on, I hope they’re happy now.”
“That’s all I can say,” she said. “And that’s all that I have.”
Not all of the aides’ stories were negative. Current and former aides described a fierce advocate for her Anchorage district and a successful lawmaker who negotiated improvements to the state’s treatment of rape and sexual assault victims.
Of 15 current and former aides interviewed for this article, four, including two currently employed by Tarr, said they experienced no problems and weren’t aware there was an issue.
“I haven’t seen that. It’s just surprising to hear,” said Thatcher Brouwer, who has worked for Tarr since 2015.
Their comments were not the norm.
“Geran Tarr’s treatment of staffers and other people is above and beyond what is appropriate,” said Joe Caissie, who worked on Tarr’s staff in her first term.
Southworth and Caissie worked together and said after they failed to attend a political fundraiser despite Tarr’s insistence, she gave them the silent treatment for three days.
Southworth said that meant she had to beg for a lunch break, and in a written recollection, Caissie said it forced staffers to request permission to go to the bathroom.
Many of the former staffers criticized the Legislature’s handling of their situation, saying lawmakers’ need to maintain relationships with Tarr meant legislators were reluctant to take action and protect staff.
Others faulted the Legislature’s human resources policy, which deals with complaints behind closed doors, making it impossible for the public to know whether complaints have been filed or verified.
Several asked that their names not be printed, citing fear of retaliation by Tarr or others.
“I think people should know that this is inappropriate behavior from anyone, that no one will come forward and say anything if they think they’re alone. No one will come forward and say anything if they think it will hurt their job prospects. No one will talk if they think nothing will change,” said Samantha Weinstein, a former Tarr staffer now working as an attorney in Juneau.
“The reason we’re willing to talk right now is because something might change,” she said.
‘You hear rumors around the building’
Tarr’s behavior with her staff is an open secret in the Alaska Capitol, where it has been joked about in an annual legislative comedy show and employees quietly warn potential hires away from her and other legislators, including departing state Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River.
Some social scientists have found that female leaders are held to a higher standard of behavior than men, but Weinstein and others said they don’t believe that’s happening here. Many of the aides who were interviewed have worked for multiple legislative offices.
Weinstein said she didn’t believe the whispers when she joined Tarr in December 2013. She saw a smart, progressive woman who shared many of her same political beliefs.
“I remember writing (them) off, thinking ‘I’m a woman, my experience is going to be different. Different personalities get along or don’t, so I’m going to do this. I need a job.’ And by the time I left, I was experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Weinstein said.
During her time, she kept notes of her experience in an email intended to provide dated evidence of what she was experiencing.
In one entry, she writes about being prevented from attending a Passover Seder. In another, she discusses how Tarr accused her of talking to a political writer about her behavior.
“The day after that (article) came out, Geran accused me of speaking to the press and berated me and yelled until I began crying,” she said.
Another aide, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears retaliation, said Tarr physically cornered her while yelling at her. When the aide moved to get away, Tarr followed and continued yelling.
Southworth described a situation where Tarr yelled at her to the point that she fled to the office of fellow Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, and cried in an empty room.
Drummond’s chief of staff at the time was surprised.
“She told me later, ‘I’ve never seen you cry at work before.’ I was like, that’s because I haven’t. I’m not a crier,” Southworth said.
She said that when she quit Tarr’s office and attempted to get a job with Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, Tarr went to Tuck and tried to stop him from hiring her.
“Well, I guess I inadvertently stepped on some toes,” Tuck said of the experience.
Southworth ended up joining the office of Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.
Asked whether he ever received complaints from Tarr’s staff, Tuck said, “Well, I don’t know details, but you hear rumors around the building.”
He said he isn’t aware of any discussions in closed-door executive sessions involving complaints against Tarr.
Problems with workplace culture
Because the Legislature’s HR process is opaque, the only public complaint against Tarr is from the Legislature’s ethics committee, which in 2018 confirmed that Tarr ordered staff to spend time planning the Mountain View Street Fair while on the state payroll.
The committee found that act violated state law, but recommended no punishment.
“It’s not healthy what she does to her staffers, and her behavior, it’s abusive,” said a legislative aide familiar with that case. That aide is no longer working in the Capitol and asked to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation.
Michelle Hale, a former Tarr aide who now serves on the Juneau Assembly, was reluctant to talk about Tarr’s behavior.
“I’m very cautious to feed rumor mills,” she said. “I would say that when I worked for her, one of the things I worked on was the consent legislation.”
That bill, which modernized the definition of sexual assault in state law, passed the Legislature this year.
“Were it not for Geran’s fierce dedication to that topic, it probably would not have happened. I was kind of blown away that passed,” Hale said.
Diana Rhoades, a former Tarr aide, also praised the legislator.
“I worked with her on the outdoor recreation economy (legislation), the rape kit reform, the red flag laws, and I think she’s doing a great job,” Rhoades said, adding that she does support Tarr for Senate.
When Hale was asked whether she would support Tarr for Senate, she paused.
“If I lived in Anchorage, I would be 100% behind Forrest Dunbar, because of his demonstrated abilities to make good law and go above and beyond the call of duty to serve the people of Anchorage,” she said.
Dunbar, a member of the Anchorage Assembly, is one of two Democratic candidates running against Tarr in an East Anchorage Senate seat carved by the state’s once-per-decade redistricting process.
The other is Drew Cason, a former legislative aide who worked alongside Tarr as a staff member for the House’s predominantly Democratic coalition majority. (Republican Andrew Satterfield has also filed to run in the heavily Democratic district.)
Cason was reluctant to talk about Tarr’s relationship with staff, saying, “I don’t really want to go after her. I do want to give people an alternative.”
He said he does feel an obligation to talk about the issue, even though he agrees with Tarr on many political topics.
“Doing good work doesn’t mean you’re not also doing some things that are bad, like yelling at and bordering on being abusive to staff,” he said.
In Tarr’s current legislative district, Genevieve Mina is running to replace Tarr. An aide to Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, Mina said she doesn’t have direct experience with Tarr.
“The workplace culture in the Legislature needs to be improved, and that’s what I’ll say generally,” Mina said.
Tom Wright, a longtime legislative aide for Republicans including former Speaker of the House Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said Tarr has a reputation, but other legislators have the same reputation.
“They just have their own way of doing things,” Wright said.
Tuck, the Anchorage legislator, said it’s possible that Tarr has improved over time. Brouwer has worked for Tarr since 2015, and David Song, a new aide, said he has had no problems.
But those with older relationships said they’re not sure.
“If things haven’t changed, they need to,” Weinstein said.
“This isn’t exclusive to legislative offices. This isn’t exclusive to just this person. This is just the story that happens to have a whole bunch of people who finally feel safe saying something,” she said.
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