Democrats in Congress are struggling with how to calibrate their response to sexual harassment claims against two prominent lawmakers while trying to maintain the party’s standing with female voters.
The tension was illustrated by the conflicting positions taken by Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader and the most senior woman in congressional leadership, on allegations of abuse and sexual harassment against Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat who is the longest serving member of Congress.
She called him an “icon in our country” in a interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and declined to say whether she believes the claims against him, a response met by criticism from Republicans as well as some Democrats.
By Monday, Pelosi released a statement saying she spoke with Melanie Sloan, an ethics lawyer who told The Washington Post last week that Conyers verbally abused her when she worked for him in the later 1990s and that she had witnessed inappropriate behavior toward other staff members.
“I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing,” Pelosi said. In between the two statements, Conyers said he would step aside as the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Both parties are confronting the wave of women coming forward with sexual harassment, assault and other claims against politicians, which has revealed the weak systems in place to protect victims. It’s also forcing lawmakers to choose whether to side with accusers or colleagues amid a struggle for political control in Washington.
Many Republicans in Washington quickly denounced the GOP Senate candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore, after an allegation from one woman that he initiated sexual contact with her when she 14 and he was in his 30s. Another woman accused Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was 16, and several other women said the former Alabama supreme court justice pursued them for dates when they were teenagers.
But the GOP in Alabama is standing by Moore, who’s flatly denied the accusations, as their candidate in a special election on Dec. 12. And President Donald Trump, who backed Moore’s opponent in a Republican primary, gave his tacit endorsement last week, saying that Alabama voters shouldn’t send the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones, to the Senate. Moore’s campaign quickly sent out a fundraiser mailing highlighting Trump’s “strong words of support.”
Democrats are seeking a particularly delicate balance as a party that portrays itself as an advocate for women’s rights and gender equality.
Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat and favorite of the progressive movement, addressed that dilemma Monday. He’s accused of forcibly kissing Los-Angeles radio broadcaster LeAnn Tweeden and was photographed groping at her breasts while she slept. Three other women have said Franken grabbed their buttocks during photographs taken as he met with voters.
Speaking to reporters at the Capitol, Franken said he was was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” and said he’d let down “everyone who has counted on me to be be a champion for woman.”
Democratic leaders have emphasized the need for due process and careful examination of charges against Conyers and Franken, even as they has been quick to support the women making accusations against figures like Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer facing dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and assault and rape.
Democratic colleagues of the two lawmakers argued for the cases to go before their respective ethics committee, despite concerns that those procedures aren’t transparent. Only Representative Kathleen Rice, a New York Democrat with a history of bucking party leadership, has called on Conyers to resign. Even most Republicans have held off calling for Franken or Conyers to leave office.
Penny Lee, a former staffer for retired Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said that Pelosi’s “lack of consistency” on Conyers’s case weakened the argument that Democrats have a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment, as well as any arguments against Moore.
“The only way Democrats have credibility on this is to be consistent,” she said. “If you’re going to an advocate for victims you need to be an advocate for victims.”
Congress has taken some steps to change the way it responds to such cases. Earlier this month, the Senate passed legislation requiring mandatory harassment training for senators and aides. The House plans to vote on a similar measure this week.
Democrats have also lobbied for the passage of the “Me Too” Act, a bill sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, and Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, that would rework the long, opaque reporting process for reporting sexual harassment by blocking forced non-disclosure agreements, creating an online reporting system for complaints, and requiring that the name of the employing office be made public when settlements are reached. The bill, named after the hashtag women have used to share their stories of sexual harassment, would also force members to pay for settlements out of pocket.
For Democrats, part of the problem is deciding where to draw the line between inappropriate behavior and actions that warrant forcing a member to step down.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said it’s too early to say what an appropriate punishment for Franken might look like. That will be determined much later after the ethics committee probes the matter, he said.
“I’m not going to make a judgment based on the facts that are out there now because we have an investigation that is ongoing,” he said. “But I think there should be remedies that are found to be appropriate by the ethics investigation and committed.”’
Jane Kleeb, the chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said her state party is working on a code of conduct and ethics guidelines to help prevent sexual harassment and raise awareness of the problem. She said she didn’t have a good answer for where the party should draw the line, but she drew it at sexual assault.
“I think any elected official that forces himself sexually onto women should resign,” Kleeb said. “For me that is a bright line. The fuzzier line is certainly these sexually charged comments that men somehow think are funny.”
Kleeb said Democrats shouldn’t point to Trump, who won a presidential election and has stayed in office despite being accused of sexual misconduct, as a reason to not act on accusations against Democrats.
“That’s not what we stand for as Democrats,” she said. “As Democrats we actually stand up for women and stand on our values. And because the Republicans don’t doesn’t mean that we should be following in their very very bad footsteps.”