NC lawmaker accuses multiple senators of abusive behavior

"It's like being bullied on the playground," Sen. Erica Smith says, "and everybody else is turning a blind eye."

Posted Updated

Travis Fain
, WRAL statehouse reporter, & Laura Leslie, WRAL Capitol Bureau chief
RALEIGH, N.C. — A North Carolina state senator accused multiple colleagues Thursday of abusive behavior.

Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, who ran this year for the U.S. Senate, said three fellow Democrats made disparaging or sexual comments and that one of them – Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, – was seconds away from physically assaulting her last year before colleagues stepped in.

That incident generated a police report, and the investigating officer concluded that, while no physical contact took place, "a simple assault did occur" because "a reasonable person may have believed that an assault was about to take place."

A reporter for NC PolicyWatch heard some of this argument from outside a closed committee room in the General Assembly building. Then Lowe exited, escorted by two other senators, grabbed the reporter's cellphone and threw it across the room.

The incident was captured on video, and Smith can be seen exiting the room behind Lowe. Sen. Sam Searcy, D-Wake, gave a statement to General Assembly police in the aftermath, saying he stepped between Lowe and Smith as their argument escalated.

"I have witnessed Senator Lowe use profane and hostile language to Senator Smith and others before," Searcy said in the statement. "Although I did not see Senator Lowe touch Senator Smith, I fully understand why Senator Smith could have felt threatened by Senator Lowe’s actions."

Searcy told WRAL News on Thursday evening that he didn't think Lowe was going to hit Smith, but "the argument was so heated I just felt the need to step in front of him."

Lowe didn't return a phone message seeking comment Thursday. He apologized last year for throwing the reporter's phone.

Late Friday, he released the following statement:

"Senator Erica Smith and I have served together in the North Carolina Senate for the past five years. As members of the General Assembly, we routinely engaged in vigorous debate in the representation of our districts and the citizens of North Carolina. I have always had and continue to have the utmost respect for Senator Erica Smith and all of the members of the General Assembly.

"I respect all human beings and have never, in the course of those vigorous debates, threatened Senator Smith in any way. I believe that all people should be treated with respect and dignity, and any form of harassment cannot be tolerated. I wholeheartedly apologize if she felt disrespected or unsafe during those debates. As to the allegations aimed at the other six senators of sexual or dismissive comments in Senator Smith’s complaint, I was not present for the interactions and have no firsthand knowledge. I support Senator Smith and her right to have any and all grievances heard."

"It took grown men to get Sen. Lowe away from me and out of my space," Smith said Friday. "He kept saying, 'Y'all move, I’m not going to hit her.' But if he wasn’t going to hit me, why did he charge me?"

She said Lowe has been intimidating and harassing her since 2015, but other Democratic senators urged her to brush it off.

"One of my colleagues said, 'Please don’t call security or call the police because we have to sustain the veto, and we need to just keep this out of the media,'" she said.

Smith filed a complaint with the General Assembly's Legislative Ethics Committee that accused Lowe of repeated bad behavior and also accused other senators of harassing comments. She said in the sworn complaint that Senate Democratic leadership failed to address her concerns and called for their censure as well.

The ethics committee, which meets in secret, dismissed her complaint last week.

Smith filed legislation last year to change the complaint process, which required her to start by taking concerns to Senate leadership. That bill had support from Democrats, including some she accused, but it never got a committee hearing in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

The News & Observer published a lengthy report on Smith's allegations Thursday, in partnership with ProPublica. Smith followed that with a news release and a series of tweets.

"I have endured being repeatedly yelled at, cursed out, bullied and badgered by both Republican and Democratic members of the NCGA since 2015," Smith said in the release. "The harmful atmosphere culminated in an egregious incident on September 11, 2019, when I was violently confronted by Senator Paul Lowe and was found to be the victim of simple assault by the NCGA Police."

Smith promised to lay out more details during an online public forum next Wednesday.

In her tweets, Smith shared dirty comments, which she later connected to individual senators during a Thursday evening interview. She said Sen. Toby Fitch, D-Wilson, told her in December 2018 to “Get off your knees and stop begging Republicans. … I only want to see a woman doing one thing on her knees."

Fitch, in a Thursday interview, denied making the remark or anything like it. He said Smith has never expressed displeasure to him over things he's said to her.

Smith said that Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said “Whose ****s are y’all going to suck to get that office?" apparently in reference to office assignments at the General Assembly complex. Smith said both she and her legislative assistant at the time were present for the remark.

Woodard told WRAL he never said that or anything like it and that Smith never complained to him about the way he's spoken to her. Smith's former legislative assistant spoke to The News & Observer, saying she didn't know she was named as a witness in Smith's complaint and that she was upset to learn about it.

She declined further comment, the newspaper reported.

Smith also said Thursday that Lowe cursed her in May 2019.

"**** you and **** [Gov. Roy] Cooper to," she quoted him as saying.

In her complaint, Smith asked that Fitch and Lowe be expelled from the Senate. She wanted Woodard censured, along with Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, former Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, and Senate Rules Chairman Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick.

Those three held leadership positions last year in the Senate or Legislative Black Caucus.

Attempts to reach Rabon were not successful Thursday evening.

McKissick said Friday morning that he was surprised to learn he was mentioned in the complaint, which accuses him of failing to recuse himself on a bill last year when he should have. Smith alleges that he stayed involved to curry favor with Republicans so they would go along with his appointment to the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

"Ludicrous," McKissick said. "I'm completely bewildered. It is totally baseless."

Blue's spokeswoman said in a statement that caucus leadership "made multiple attempts to resolve Senator Smith’s alleged allegations through several different avenues."

"The results may not have satisfied all of those affected, as we are bound by an imperfect system that is currently dominated by Republicans," spokeswoman Leslie Rudd said in an email. "We have exhausted our ability to mediate this issue, as it is larger than this caucus.”

Rudd emailed Friday to clarify her comment and say she didn't intend to frame it as a partisan issue, but that Blue's role as minority leader "isn’t a formal position that gives him the power or ability to take action on the allegations."

"He tried to privately lead mediation between Senator Smith and Lowe and also filed a bill last year to strengthen the existing system," Rudd said Friday. "But that is the extent of what he is able to do to address allegations."

Smith said on Twitter that, when she reported the troubling comments to leadership, "one of them laughed and stated he would have a talk with the 'fellas' about their 'boyish' behavior."

"I think that that behavior stems from a good-old-boy network and system that’s just been ingrained, and it has to be challenged along with the #MeToo movement," she said Friday.

Although Smith said Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger didn't intervene, Berger spokeswoman Lauren Horsch said Friday that the Senate leader and his top staff met with Smith for hours about her allegations.

"Following those sensitive discussions, Sen. Berger’s office provided her with a four-page memo outlining her legal options and also offered to work with her on multiple next steps," Horsch said in an email. "The focus of this story remains to be allegations of conflict within the Senate Democratic caucus."

Smith's complaint also named Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, accusing him of verbal insults not detailed in the complaint and calling for his censure. An attempt to reach Tillman Thursday night was not successful. The News & Observer said he didn't respond to emails seeking comment.

Smith said in her release Thursday that she raised "serious concerns by exhausting every available option" before going public. She had declined to discuss the Lowe confrontation with WRAL shortly after it happened and said Thursday she wanted to let the process play out first.

"This broken process required me to report the incident to Senate leaders," she said in her release. "I was retaliated against at every step in my efforts to seek address and resolution of harassment concerns. I faced stalling tactics, an utter lack of will to address the egregious actions of colleagues and disregard for my experience."

Smith said the Legislative Ethics Committee "ultimately only sent letters of caution to the perpetrators."

"It's like being bullied on the playground," Smith told WRAL, "and everybody else is turning a blind eye."


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