Democrats worry: Were we too slow on sex assault response?

2017-12-06 | McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON _ John Conyers resigned. Ruben Kihuen faces intense pressure to do the same. And Al Franken's own colleagues expect him to step aside Thursday.

Democratic leaders think they have finally found the right response to accusations of sexual assault and harassment against their own lawmakers, after weeks of half-measures and ill-timed gaffes.

But now they must assess the political fallout, knowing that the party's initially slow-footed response might have undermined its credibility amid a transformative national movement of women revealing their stories of sexual abuse.

It's an important question as Democrats look to the 2018 midterm elections _ especially coming just as President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee decided to once again help Roy Moore, a Senate candidate in Alabama who has been accused _ by multiple people, on the record _ of sexually assaulting teenagers.

"When you're faced with a situation like the Democratic Party faces right now, then you have to act swiftly and make it known to the public that this is not acceptable," said Nina Turner, president of the liberal group Our Revolution.

Democrats can't afford to be hypocrites, Turner said, not after "the tide has turned" on how the public treats allegations of sexual harassment.

Calls for Franken's resignation mounted Wednesday after two additional reports that the senator had inappropriately touched women, bringing the total number of accusers against him to eight. Fellow Senate Democrats had been hesitant to call for resignation, citing an ongoing Senate Ethics Committee investigation.

But their minds had changed Wednesday. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, called on Franken to resign, saying that "enough is enough." Sen. Kamala Harris of California, another Democratic rising star, said "sexual harassment and misconduct should not be allowed by anyone."

And Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said Franken "should step down immediately."

Franken said he would hold a news conference Thursday, where he is widely expected to announce his resignation even as his Senate office reiterated that "no decision has been made."

Calls for Franken's resignation came a day after Rep. John Conyers of Michigan announced his immediate retirement from Congress, and a week after BuzzFeed published an account from a former campaign staffer of Rep. Ruben Kihuen, accusing the congressman from Nevada of repeated unwanted sexual advances.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, both called for Kihuen's resignation.

Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who was the only member of the Judiciary Committee to call for Conyers to step down, said the process has been difficult but "we're all getting on the same page."

"We have to be very clear about what the limits are, we can't start parsing," she said, warning that failing to do so "takes away our moral authority to be able to call on Roy Moore to step aside or Donald Trump for that matter. We can't pick and choose."

Democratic leaders such as Pelosi were sharply criticized in recent weeks for their response to the Conyers allegations. The veteran congressional leader appeared to defend her longtime colleague on "Meet the Press" last month, calling him an "icon" and questioning why his accusers were, at that time, anonymous.

Coupled with Senate Democrats' refusal to call for Franken's departure, Pelosi's comments fueled concern among many Democrats that they could no longer claim to be the defender of women's equality. Democratic candidates rely heavily on votes from women, and many of the party's rising stars _ including possible future presidential candidates _ are women.

Not calling for their own members to resign "muddies the waters between right and wrong," said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist.

"When there's an opportunity to speak with authority and say clearly what Democrats stand for _ which is not sex harassment, which is not groping _ we need to say it," she said. "We can't tolerate it."

The GOP has faced intense criticism this week after GOP officials, led by Trump, once again threw their support to Moore. The RNC had stopped funding Moore after reports that the former state Supreme Court judge, while in his early 30s, had regularly dated girls younger than 18.

Politico also reported this week that Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas settled a sexual harassment complaint with a former staffer. And multiple women have accused Trump of sexual assault.

"There are people who are frustrated that Democrats are calling out those on our side but Republicans are not doing the same," Jayapal said. "Blake Farenthold is still here and they don't see that happening on the other side. But sexual harassment is not something you wait for the other side to do the right thing, you have to do the right thing first."

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