A young woman is called into her boss’s office and she’s instructed to close the door. She asks what he needs. He doesn’t respond, he simply sits there with his mouth hanging open and very obviously ogles her body, looking her up and down. He then dismisses her.
It’s not the first time this has happened to her and it won’t be the last.
This is a true story. The woman in the story is former Equality Michigan Executive Director Emily Dievendorf and the man is TJ Bucholz, the CEO of Vanguard Public Affairs, a well-established Michigan-based political consultant whose work focuses primarily on left-leaning candidates, organizations, and issues.
This behavior was first revealed in a powerful, must-read Facebook post by Dievendorf. This incident isn’t the only one she shared about Bucholz. Here’s another:
On other days he would call me over to his desk and ask me to look at his phone. On it were pictures of his wife in a bikini. He would pepper me with questions about whether I thought she was attractive and whether I would have a threesome with them. He would tell me that he had already brought this up with her and she was all for it.
I once, years later, brought up to other women that he regularly suggested a threesome with me (which is a regular way that bisexual women get sexually harassed). The other women had also been approached with the same suggestion and knew others who had received the question as well. We joked, in that sad and hopeless way that femmes/women in a workplace who have been harassed but lack power do, that we could connect much of the women of a certain age in Michigan politics thru his threesome invites.
Having to hear what somebody would like to do to/with you all the time at work, and to have to try to go from work to that and back again is torture. It isn’t charming. It is a power game. It is being treated like a game or a toy. It becomes an anxiety around feeling responsible for how they look at you and talk to you and it feels gross. You aren’t able to just do your job and you certainly know you aren’t considered EQUAL. I remember one day coming home and saying hello to my neighbors and bursting into tears while talking over the fence. I had stopped digesting my food.
Once I read this intense essay (and there’s much more to it that you should read), I put out a call: If any men or women had experienced or witnessed this behavior, they should consider my platform, this blog, open to tell their stories. Given the danger to their careers and even personal well-being this could put them in, I offered them anonymity in order to share what they knew.
By the morning of the next day, I was contacted by at least a half dozen women who had worked for or with Bucholz and had been subjected to the same sort of sexual harassment my friend Emily had gone through. Some spoke of an email chain of eight women who had survived Bucholz’s harassment.
As a group, the women I spoke to described a work environment that seemed designed to take advantage of young women. The office was overwhelmingly staffed by young women in their early-20s. They were often from blue-collar working-class families, fresh out of college, and eager to begin a new career or single moms who really needed a job to pay her bills. They were often inexperienced but talented and eager to get their careers off the ground. Bucholz would lavish gifts and attention on the women, sometimes encouraging them to go on weekend “business trips” with him. Alcohol was consumed openly and regularly in their Lansing office.
Dievendorf’s experience with Bucholz talking about a threesome with his wife was not an isolated incident. In fact, one woman said she thinks he may have used it to gauge how far they would be willing to go with him sexually. Other times, however, he complained about how his wife wouldn’t have sex with him and joked about “trading her in for a younger model” while mentioning specific women. For some reason, he just really seemed to enjoy talking to these young women about his wife Lori.
In the office, Bucholz was volatile, one day gregarious and generous, handing out cash or AirPods to the women in the office. Other times he was angry and hostile to the point of backing people into the corner screaming at them.
But some things were a constant: inappropriate sexual jokes and comments about women’s looks.
One of the women who spoke to me said that Bucholz once brought a handgun to work, put on the desk in front of her. “He told me to touch it in a sexual innuendo way,” she told me. He was also known to call women into his office, make comments about the bodies of women on the television, and then dismiss them.
Bucholz cautioned the young women not to get pregnant because he would have to pay for their maternity leave. Vanguard doesn’t offer their employees health insurance but Bucholz would offer to pay for their insurance himself off the books. One woman said that he didn’t pay the premium at times and the women found themselves without any health insurance when they went to buy prescriptions or go to the doctor.
More than one woman said that Bucholz texted her constantly and frequently called women into his office and asked them to close the door. More than one of the women I spoke to said they quit working at Vanguard because it was causing them too much anxiety.
It wasn’t just Vanguard employees. One woman worked as a contractor for Vanguard. “It was never just about the work with TJ,” she told me. He was relentless.” Bucholz constantly sent her pictures and texts. “As soon as I logged onto Facebook, he would be in my DMs” she said.
At first the attention was tolerable for the sake of the extra income. He bought her jewelry and, later, lingerie. He wanted to see her naked and to go on work trips with him. With Bucholz, she told me, “everything came back to sex.”
She eventually had enough and broke off their relationship and blocked Bucholz on Facebook. She never consented to having sex with him.
The screenshots in this post are from women Bucholz harassed and show what they faced.
In this text, when the contractor who he gave jewelry and lingerie to talks about how she dislikes her current employer. Bucholz suggests that she come work for him, with the implication that it will be more than just a job:
In this one, after the woman declines to have sex with him, Bucholz says he gets turned down “all the time” and how much it angers him:
The women I spoke to say Bucholz bragged about his sexual prowess, complained about not getting sex from his wife, and showered gifts on them, inviting some to go on a business trip with him and asking for nude photos:
While much of this was going on, Bucholz was portraying Vanguard partner Jen Eyer as someone who would be a mentor to the young women in his office. However, the women I spoke with said she was rarely in the office and, when they went to her with problems, Eyer “gaslit” them, or made them feel like they were in the wrong, even suggesting that they were exaggerating and should dress differently.
“Many of us confided in her and she told some that they should be thankful for the attention,” one woman told me. “She called me crazy and childish.”
Another woman told me, “Jen has always gaslighted women who said anything about this. Several of us have tried to talk to her about TJ and she blew us off.”
I asked Eyer about this and she said the accusations are “categorically untrue” and that she had no idea she was being portrayed as a mentor to young women. She said during her time there, only one woman came to her with complaints about Bucholz, that she told her to take it to her supervisor, and that was the last she heard about it. Later, in 2017, when this young woman was “trashing” Bucholz on social media, Eyer took the woman’s accusations to him and delivered an ultimatum: if he didn’t correct his behavior, she would leave. Both Eyer and Vanguard Chief Operating Officer Katherine Erickson told me there have been no formal or informal complaints brought to them about Bucholz. “How can I be faulted for not fixing a problem that I didn’t know even existed?,” Eyer asked.
After Dievendorf’s Facebook post, Bucholz issued the following statement:
In this era we now live in, I’ve taken considerable time to think about words I’ve said and sent to women – people I’ve considered friends, co-workers, and colleagues – over the years. I’m not perfect. I’ve tried too hard sometimes to act cool or go for a punchline or a cheap laugh. I’ve made reference to lines in movies and late night television, many of which include inappropriate language and adult humor. I know those types of comments can make people uncomfortable, even when they are said with no malicious intent and I regret those words.
In the past few years, I’ve also taken stock of my company’s internal communications practices as well and have been striving each day to create an atmosphere that is collegial and encourages growth and reflection, and I believe my employees would agree. We continue to review our internal policies and make clear a process for people to report issues when they are uncomfortable. I work with many women in my industry and while I’m not a public official, I need to hold myself to a higher standard. My colleagues at Vanguard Public Affairs – the majority of whom are strong, smart, well intentioned women – know me and my true intentions to improve the world around us.
For those who I have offended with my comments in the past, I sincerely apologize and can only say that I will continue to work to make amends with those I have hurt and live my life in a more honest and forthright way.
COO Erickson provided me with this statement:
I have met with all of our current employees about these concerns, and TJ sent the apology statement. We are updating our company discrimination/harassment policy and procedures. In the near future, we will have a staff meeting about our revised discrimination/harassment policy/procedures and an employee acknowledgment form related to zero-tolerance for workplace discrimination, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment. I’ve included our policy statement for your review. We will also be removing all alcoholic beverages from our VPA office.
This is the “Discrimination and Harassment” policy provided to me:
In keeping with our Equal Opportunity Employment clause, Vanguard Public Affairs will not tolerate on-site discrimination or harassment on any legally protected basis, including that of physical characteristics, mental characteristics, race, religious or political views, nationality, disability, medical condition, sex, sexual preference, or gender identification. Harassment and discriminatory behavior among employees or contractors will result in disciplinary action, with the possibility of termination. Employees should immediately report any alleged discrimination and/or harassment incident by coworkers, supervisors, customers, or other business associates to your supervisor. At this point, Vanguard Public Affairs will investigate and take corrective action. You are welcome to seek legal relief if you find Vanguard Public Affairs’ actions inadequate.
It’s worth noting that, for many if not all employees at Vanguard (there are fewer than 20 of them), TJ Bucholz IS their supervisor.
This story is heartbreaking to me. As progressives, we should all be striving to bring more women into the fight and give them paths to rise to positions of power and authority. The women I spoke with said that TJ Bucholz characterized himself as someone who would do that for them. But what started as an exciting new job with lots of potential turned into a place where they were constantly having to deal with sexual harassment from the owner of the company.
One thing needs to be made absolutely clear: when a supervisor is cultivating a relationship with someone they are “the boss” of, it’s not possible for there to be true consent. The power dynamic puts the person who is under the boss in a position to choose between going along or losing their job. This is precisely why so many workplaces have strict rules against supervisors being romantically involved with the people who report to them.
But, for me, what is worse than the “TJ Bucholz the sexual harasser” aspect to this story is that Bucholz has a reputation for being this way. The more I dove into this story, the more I learned that “everyone in Lansing” knows about how he is. People described it as “the worst kept secret in Michigan politics”. His reputation is so well-known that some of the women who came forward for this story worry that any success they achieve as a result of their time at Vanguard will be written off as them “sleeping their way to the top” and it made it difficult for them to leave because, as one woman put it, “People will assume I slept with him.”
But this isn’t just a story about TJ Bucholz the sexual harasser. It’s also a story about how someone like him could continue to get away with it for years even while “everyone knew” what he was like and what he was doing. He continued to get work from individuals and organizations and issue groups. And that’s largely because these groups sending business his way are, by and large, run by other men.
And make no mistake, Bucholz is not the only man like this in Michigan politics.
But, unless those with actual power stand up and do something about it, women — especially young women just starting out in their careers — will continue to be subjected to this sort of hateful, hurtful, disrespectful, and completely unacceptable abuse.
Emily Dievendorf made this very clear in a powerful statement she gave me after her Facebook post:
I posted on social media to address the hypocrisy of perpetrators profiting from sexual violence and to put out an ask to male colleagues in politics to talk openly about the folx they know have done the harassment so survivors don’t have to — whether they are TJ [Bucholz] or [former Lansing mayor] Virg [Bernero] or others.
We all know plenty of people who have been harassed by both individuals and plenty more. I have stories about both and others. But why do I, and other survivors have to be the ones to risk ourselves when men, who by default have more stability and protection, are staying silent?
They are remaining silent to protect their relationships, deals, clout and their power.
This is a call to action and accountability: Not just for the perpetrators of harassment but the perpetrators by proxy, the enablers of sexual harassment and assault.
These silent men are our trusted friends, but they have yet to decide that the health and equity of the women in their lives matter enough to say that they know their buddy is creating a hostile place to work. Or better yet, that their buddy still has much growth to do as a human, and that even outside of work they don’t appreciate the way they function in the world.
I get too many direct messages from men after I show vulnerability about trauma saying, “Emily, I respect what you are doing, I am almost positive I know who you are talking about. Tell me I’m correct and I won’t hire them anymore.”
Instead our colleagues should just stop rewarding bad actors with more work and start calling into question their toxic behavior openly.
Sexual harassment isn’t somebody’s private problem to conquer. It is a cultural manifestation of violence and misogyny and perpetuates real harm in the moment and for years after.
So, for all of you out there reading this, I encourage you to read and re-read Emily’s statement. And then look in your own lives and make sure you aren’t a “perpetrator by proxy” as Emily so eloquently put it. Because until you take direct action to put a halt to this, it will never stop. And the next young woman who has to go through this might be someone you know or someone you love.
UPDATE: Jen Eyer has resigned from Vanguard Public Affairs:
Due to today's revelations, I have decided to leave Vanguard Public Affairs and strike out on my own. Tomorrow is my last day. Beginning Friday, March 25, 2021, I can be reached at 734-846-1566, and my email address is [email protected]
— Jen Eyer Irwin (@jeneyer) March 24, 2021
UPDATE 2: TJ Bucholz has been removed from the Board of Downtown Lansing, Inc.:
UPDATE 3: TJ Bucholz was on the Board of the Central Michigan Public Relations Society of America and was recently chosen to be the group’s President-Elect. As of Wednesday, March 24th, he is no longer listed as a Board member and the President-Elect position as listed as “Vacant”.
UPDATE 4: Vanguard Public Affairs Vice President David Lossing has resigned:
Also, the Vanguard Public Affairs website is essentially now just a placeholder page with no links: