As the Ohio House prepares to vote this afternoon on a new House speaker, a Republican legislative aide has gone public with accusations of enduring sexist and racist behavior from a few members and staff backing Rep. Larry Householder for leadership.

Marissa Reyes posted on Twitter on Sunday a letter she wrote to Rep. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, about how she “had to endure months of unacceptable treatment and was forced to listen to the representatives’ opinions that painted myself, my family and other Hispanics in a demeaning light.”

Reyes said that when she disagreed, she was told that “women do not think logically” and that her views don’t matter because her parents are immigrants from Latin America. She said “Rep. Householder-affiliated staffers” would enter her office, stay for hours, and “on more than one occasion, they came around my desk and made unwanted advances.”

That caused her to change the orientation of her desk, she wrote, “to prevent them from cornering me.”

Reyes said the treatment occurred while she was a staffer for Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, whom she specifically notes is a supporter of Householder, R-Glenford, a former House speaker who is challenging Speaker Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, to become leader of the chamber for the new two-year session. The vote will occur this afternoon, when the House convenes for opening day.

With House Republicans split between Smith and Householder, minority Democrats will play a rare key role in deciding the next speaker. While Smith has more Republican votes, Householder could have the advantage heading into today, based on a closed-door informal vote last week where most Democrats said they backed him for speaker.

Reyes, who currently works for Rep. Bob Cupp, R-Lima, wrote to Boggs because she lives in her Columbus district. She wrote that she has “suffered degrading comments and harassment by the very people that the Democratic caucus may choose to empower on Jan. 7.” She stressed in the letter that her negative experiences were with “members of team Householder.”

Messages for comment were left with Wiggam. Reyes said he called her “the good type of Mexican.” Wiggam told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Monday that the accusations were false and appear to be politically motivated. He is calling for a full investigation, as are other members of the Republican and Democratic caucuses.

Householder, who was named in the letter only in relation to who the accused are supporting for speaker, said: “It appears these allegations were complaints made to current leadership many months ago. Current leadership had ample time to have completed an investigation and dealt with the results appropriately.”

Boggs, who has a background of working with crime victims, said she had not heard of the allegations before Sunday. She said she believes that what Reyes wrote is likely to have occurred, and she wants to see processes followed. She is drafting a letter to Smith for information about any ongoing investigation or conclusions and to ensure Reyes has been protected.

House Democrats plan to meet prior to today’s 2 p.m. session, and Boggs said the letter will be part of the conversation.

“How much weight to give it and how it should shape the vote I take today is a little difficult,” Boggs said. “Ultimately the speaker is in charge of managing and addressing this type of misconduct and bad behavior. But she wants to make someone who’s not in charge yet the fall guy for it. I’m having trouble reconciling that.”

The complaint filed with administrative staff has been handled appropriately, said Brad Miller, spokesman for Smith.

“The House always encourages staff to bring forward allegations of harassment and discrimination and to file complaints, which is outlined in the House Administrative Reference Guide, and this remains a priority,” Miller said. “At this time, we will not be offering any comment on ongoing investigations.”

Reyes also mentioned an interaction with outgoing Rep. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton, at a German Village bar, Club 185, following a Christmas party, where, she alleges that he told her that he would “prefer to see me with my dress off.”

In the letter, Reyes said she has reported some of her experiences to the House and “the appropriate attention and resources have been devoted to ensuring this behavior is dealt with.”

She also accused Rep. Derek Merrin, R-Monclova, of telling her that Mexicans are dangerous people, while she was talking at a legislative fundraiser about her hometown in south Texas. She said another legislative staffer would “yell stereotypical Spanish words, such as ‘Taco! Nacho! Burrito!’ when he overheard me speaking in Spanish, and (he) changed my name to Maria ‘because that sounds more Mexican.’”

A message for comment was left with Merrin.

Some Republicans who back Smith for Speaker released statements on the letter, including Rep. Theresa Gavarone of Bowling Green, who said she was “disgusted” by the revelations.

“I support a full investigation into this matter and demand that the perpetrators be held accountable for their actions so that no one who serves in the House will ever be subjected to this type of behavior in the future,” she wrote. “I am heartbroken for what has happened to Marissa Reyes and I thank her for the courage it took to come forward.”

Rep. Steve Arndt, R-Port Clinton, wrote that he was saddened to read the letter. “Marissa is a fantastic person and certainly did not deserve to be treated this way. I understood you had issues with your boss, but not nearly to this extent.”

jsiegel@dispatch.com

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