A reporter said a Michigan lawmaker objectified and humiliated her in front of a group of high school boys when she tried to interview him at the state capitol, telling her, "They could have a lot of fun with you."
At first, Allison Donahue said, she was too stunned, angry, and embarrassed to say anything back to state Sen. Peter Lucido, a Republican leader in the legislature who may run for governor in 2022. Donahue walked away, but the 22-year-old then thought of her younger self.
Seven years ago, Donahue said, she was sexually assaulted. She never told anyone about it, because she feared the man would "get in trouble."
"I had guilt about not speaking up about it, and once I started to look back at it and how I was persuaded into not talking about it or not reporting it, in an ode to 15-year-old me, I knew that speaking up is important now," she told BuzzFeed News. "This is a different situation than what I dealt with back then, but I think speaking up in big and small moments is important."
Donahue confronted the lawmaker about why she considered his comments inappropriate. And she wrote about what happened, prompting an outpouring of support. Dozens of media outlets across the US picked up her story, and people have shared it widely on Twitter and Facebook.
"People [are] saying 'I have been in your shoes' or 'I am a dad with a daughter your age,'" she said. "It's been meaningful."
Donahue is a reporter for the Michigan Advance. It's her second job after college, and she covers education, immigration, and LGBTQ and women's issues. In August, she started covering state politics and has been spending a lot of her time at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.
On Tuesday, her assignment was to ask Lucido about his participation in a large Facebook group in which members have shared violent, racist, and derogatory comments about Democrats, women, and Muslims. According to the Detroit Metro Times, the Michigan Republican made comments against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
When Donahue approached Lucido after the Senate session concluded, he told her he would speak with her after he finished with a group of about 20 high school boys from his alma mater, De La Salle Collegiate.
As she turned to walk away, the senator asked if she had heard of the school. The reporter said she had not.
"It's an all-boys school," he told her. “You should hang around. You could have a lot of fun with these boys, or they could have a lot of fun with you.”
In her story about the encounter, Donahue said the teens then burst "into an Old Boys’ Network-type of laughter" and she walked away, rattled and angry. Faced with a sexist or "belittling" comment, Donahue empathized that women often stay quiet, smile, shrug it off, or ignore it to continue their interview, meeting, or errand.
"It's so normalized. You hear something and you don't take the time to say something," she said. "But this time, it stopped me from doing my job, from doing the job I wanted to do, and that was significant to me."
She waited 30 minutes for the senator to wrap up with the boys to pose the question she came to ask. Then, her voice shaking, she told him that what he said to her was unprofessional and that he could not talk to her that way.
The reporter recorded the exchange. In a nearly minute-long clip, Lucido cuts her off and fumbles through a defense, explaining that "it's an all-male school" and talking to girls and inviting them to dances is "very awkward."
“So if you took it any way other than that. ... The fact that they have Regina school, an all-girls school, get together," he went on. "They do this, and they have dances and they have social days. It was awkward for me when I went to college and I first met a woman. I didn’t even know how to act around a woman.”
“Yeah, I was just saying I’m at work,” she responded. “And you wouldn’t have said it to any of my male colleagues or anyone who presented to be older than I am.”
After the exchange, the reporter went back to her newsroom and told her editor what had happened.
"My editor has always advocated for me and other coworkers to stick up for yourself," Donahue said. "She has always let us know that she has our back, so I never had any hesitation that my job was at risk or that she wouldn't believe me."
After an in-depth conversation, Donahue decided to write about what happened, the first time she has been the subject of her writing.
"As a reporter, putting yourself as the subject is awkward and an uncomfortable thing to do," she said. "And I wanted to make sure that if I was going to be vulnerable, I wanted to tell the story accurately and the best that I could."
Unsure how to start, she read a story by another woman reporter covering politics in Mississippi. In July, Larrison Campbell reported her experience trying to shadow state Rep. Robert Foster, a Republican who denied her request because she was a woman.
"I took one from her playbook," Donahue said, adding that she was nervous about professional ramifications of speaking up. But, she added: "I knew I wasn't alone in dealing with this."
Michigan Advance published Donahue's story on Wednesday, and she woke up to "overwhelming support."
Donahue chronicled her thoughts in a Twitter thread; she has spent much of Wednesday responding to and retweeting supportive messages from her colleagues, politicians, and other journalists who have had similar experiences.
Lucido did not respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment but said on Facebook it was a "misunderstanding."
"I apologize for the misunderstanding yesterday and for offending Allison Donahue," he wrote.
The 59-year-old also told USA Today that the quotes were taken out of context and "blown out of proportion."
The politician contended that he wasn't "talking about anything sexual," but was excited about boys from his old school visiting and that he "was there to have some fun."
In response to her story, several lawmakers called for Lucido to step down and state Senate leaders have asked for a formal investigation. In a letter to the Senate Business Office, the Republican majority leader and Democratic minority leader said that "sexual harassment has no place in the Michigan Senate."
Donahue said that she hasn't heard from Lucido personally, but that she is "looking forward to future conversations with him."
She said, "I think it's an important conversation to have, how these comments affect both parties."
Mostly, though, Donahue just wants to do her job.
"I am new to covering Lansing politics, and I don't want to walk away being known as that girl who wrote that story about Lucido, because I don't think this is defining work for me," she said. "But I knew that this was bigger than this one situation and bigger than this one senator."