Thrown on the defensive by sexual harassment allegations from former female staffers, Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), once considered a certain bet for reelection, finds himself in jeopardy as the race in his heavily Democratic district enters the final week.
Two former Bates aides have filed formal harassment complaints with a House ethics panel, and more than a dozen other current or former Bates staffers anonymously complained to a small Washington newspaper in late September that Bates habitually sexually harassed female employees and treated workers cruelly.
Although the House committee is not expected to decide whether to investigate the accusations until next year, Bates' Republican opponent, Rob Butterfield Jr., contends that they are serious enough on their face to give voters a compelling reason to oust Bates.
Concedes 'Careless Behavior'
The examples of alleged sexual harassment detailed in recent newspaper stories include accusations 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."
Bates has conceded engaging in occasional "careless behavior" but disputes most of the accusations and accuses the Republicans of "trying to blow up a small thing into the crime of the century."
Hoping to quell the political storm, Bates has repeatedly apologized over the past month for "flirting and kidding around" in ways that he admits were "sometimes inappropriate and unprofessional." Gleeful GOP leaders, however, have done their best to keep the issue alive, recognizing it as the most potent weapon in Butterfield's arsenal.
"A month ago, being realistic about my chances, I expected to lose," said Butterfield, a 37-year-old lawyer. "Now I not only think I have a chance--I think I'm going to win."
While others are not yet willing to go quite that far, most observers agree that the political maelstrom has shaken Bates' aura of invincibility in the 44th District, where Democrats hold a 55%-32% edge among registered voters. A 47-year-old former San Diego city councilman and county supervisor, Bates has never received less than 64% of the vote since capturing the seat in 1982.
Largely ignored by the press beforehand, the race now is commanding substantial coverage--a boon for Butterfield and bane for Bates, because each story repeats the damaging allegations. The controversy also has inspired widespread public jokes and provided easy fodder for editorial cartoonists. Typical is a recent San Diego Union cartoon that illustrated Bates' "hands-on experience" with a drawing in which he was shown pinching a startled female aide.
Acknowledging the changed political realities, Bates, who in early September said he planned to run a "bare-bones" $100,000 campaign, now plans to spend nearly $400,000, roughly three times more than Butterfield. Over the last several weeks, Bates has been raising about $10,000 a day, primarily from other Democratic congressmen and political action committees, with much of the money going for TV and radio advertising.
"I'm feeling confident but I also realize that I have to run harder now," Bates said. "A lot harder."
The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, which was uninvolved in the race before the allegations, has since contributed about $50,000 to Butterfield, including money used to purchase full-page newspaper ads and for 95,000 pamphlets detailing the sexual harassment allegations.