Conceding that his conduct toward female staffers was “sometimes inappropriate and unprofessional,” a contrite Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) Wednesday apologized for his behavior and appealed for voters’ forgiveness.
“The kidding around and flirting that I did, while I didn’t think it was wrong at the time, I now realize was not appropriate in some instances,” Bates said. “That point has been made convincingly. It hurts, but hopefully this will be something that I can grow from and be strengthened by.”
Bates, who is running for reelection to a fourth two-year term in the heavily Democratic 44th Congressional District, has been at the center of a major political controversy since a small weekly Washington newspaper last week reported that he sexually harassed female employees and treated workers cruelly.
Although Bates professed confidence that voters “won’t let this one thing . . . wipe out all the hard work I’ve done for the district,” he acknowledged that the allegations have done serious political harm. As a result, Bates said, “we’re going to have to work a little harder and spend a little more than we would have otherwise” in his race against Republican lawyer Rob Butterfield Jr.
Top local and national Republican strategists, meanwhile, gleefully argued Wednesday that the political maelstrom has transformed a race viewed as unwinnable for the GOP a week ago--largely because of Democrats’ 56%-32% edge in voter registration--into one in which an upset now is possible.
At a downtown news conference, Rich Galen, press secretary of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said the allegations caused that group, which funnels money and other aid to GOP congressional candidates throughout the country, to decide to take a much more active role in Butterfield’s race than it would have otherwise.
In addition to contributing $5,000 to Butterfield, the committee has paid for large ads in the San Diego Union and Tribune costing $18,000, Galen said. Both state and national Republican campaign groups, Galen added, may contribute up to another $52,000 to Butterfield, depending on whether polls show major slippage in Bates’ support. The NRCC also has paid for 95,000 pamphlets detailing the sexual harassment charges that will be mailed to 44th District voters.
Butterfield was not at the news conference, but said later: “A week ago, I’d have told you I expected to lose. Today, I feel I have a chance.”
In last week’s front-page story in Roll Call, a paper that specializes in Capitol Hill issues, former and current Bates staffers were quoted anonymously as complaining that Bates has habitually sexually harassed and verbally abused his aides.
The examples of alleged sexual harassment detailed in that story and subsequent ones in San Diego newspapers include charges that Bates requested daily hugs from female staffers during which he “often patted their behinds and thanked them for being good;" asked one aide whether she would sleep with him if they were stranded on a desert island, and embarrassed another female employee when, in full view of his office staff, he “wrapped his legs around her extended leg, began to sway back and forth, grinning, while he inquired about a specific legislative project.”
The Worst Thing
As he has since the allegations surfaced, Bates insisted Wednesday that he could not recall most of those alleged incidents and argued that other charges were “exaggerated or misconstrued to some extent.” As an example, he cited a printed allegation that, in front of a male constituent, he stared at a female aide’s breasts while saying, “Yes, they do look good, don’t they?” Bates’ recollection, however, is that he was “talking about how great the staff was, not her breasts.”
Calling the allegations “absolutely the worst thing I’ve had to go through” in a public career that began in the early 1970s, Bates said the tumult has “embarrassed and hurt my family” and left him feeling “about as discouraged as I’ve ever been.”
“I’m so sensitive now that I’m afraid to even shake anyone’s hand when they come into the office,” Bates said. “Unlike being attacked over an issue, this goes to your character and behavior. That’s what makes it so devastating. I don’t think that ever goes away entirely. There will probably always be a star there.”
Saying that he has “only myself to blame for this,” Bates faulted himself for “doing the kind of kidding and joking that can be misunderstood.”
“I tend to be a person who has a sort of sarcastic sense of humor, who sometimes says or does things just to be different or shocking without really meaning anything by it,” Bates said. “In public life, you can’t do that and shouldn’t do that. To the extent that I did, that was inappropriate.”
Speaks With Aides
Most of his current staffers, Bates said, have told him that they feel there is no need for him to apologize for his behavior. But the congressman added that he has spoken privately with several aides to tell them, “I hope nothing I did or said . . . was offensive.”
But Bates’ Republican opponent dismissed his explanation and apology as “just a political attempt to minimize the damage.”
“Jim Bates is trying to evoke sympathy by saying these were just surface things that were taken the wrong way,” Butterfield said. “He’s saying that 15 years of conduct is going to change overnight, which is hard to believe. Bates never was known as an especially effective congressman anyway, but this is going to devastate his chances of getting anything done for years. That’s why I think voters need to replace him right now.”
NRCC staffer Galen provided an even more caustic assessment at the news conference, likening Bates to “an alcoholic who needs outside therapy” and going so far as to suggest that he resign to spare himself and his family further embarrassment.
“He’s a man out of control,” Galen said, charging that the sexual harassment allegations “represent a pattern of abuse” going back to when Bates was a local official. Like an alcoholic who will not sincerely admit his mistakes, Bates needs someone who “will look you square in the eye and say, ‘You are a drunk and you need help,’ ” Galen said.
Terming Galen’s remarks and the Republicans’ efforts to keep the issue alive examples of “Bates bashing,” Bates said he expects his reelection to be “a tougher race” than it was before the allegations surfaced. Hoping to neutralize the Republicans’ attack, Bates’ campaign this week began purchasing more radio ads than first planned.