For Many, Packwood Case Has Extra Sting of Betrayal : Scandal: Oregon senator, facing sexual harassment accusations, had long been champion of women’s causes.
For more than two decades, Sen. Bob Packwood was a rare commodity in politics: a Republican abortion rights advocate who championed women’s causes and won the support of feminists across the nation.
But today, women who were once among his strongest backers are calling for his resignation. Shocked by allegations that the four-term senator has long made unwanted sexual advances toward women, leaders of the women’s movement in Oregon say they feel betrayed, deceived and angry.
“I’ve got to believe that we ought to be able to trust people--and we did trust him,” said Diane Linn, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League’s Oregon chapter. “We just feel betrayal at this point.”
Across the state, many Oregonians were surprised and distressed to learn of the charges against Packwood, just three weeks after electing him to a fifth term in the Senate.
Some voters believed their state held politicians to a high ethical standard and were stunned by reports that Packwood stonewalled the press to prevent the allegations from surfacing before the Nov. 3 election.
“I think there’s a lot of anger,” said Denise Miller, a toy-store owner in Portland. “Obviously, if it had come out before the election he would not have been elected. He’s always gotten the support of Democratic women. To have him turn around and do this is really disgusting.”
Much like the Clarence Thomas-Anita Faye Hill hearings last year, the Packwood case has brought the issue of aggressive sexual behavior to the forefront in Oregon. People who have never met find themselves discussing the allegations in stores and restaurants. And the charges have triggered a debate on radio talk shows about the nature of sexual harassment and Packwood’s political future.
“People who aren’t really into politics are discussing this,” said James Meade, a retired psychologist who voted for Packwood last month and thinks he should resign. “People really feel lied to.”
Among Oregon political insiders, rumors of Packwood’s alleged womanizing had been told with relish for years. To hear the stories now, Packwood was depicted as someone who had approached women on airplanes and in other public places as well as in the privacy of his Senate office.
But the general public here never heard such tales until the Washington Post reported on Nov. 22 that the senator had allegedly made unwanted sexual advances toward 10 women between 1969 and 1989--allegedly grabbing, fondling and kissing female staff members and, in one case, an abortion rights lobbyist. Julie Williamson, one of the 10, said that when she worked for Packwood in 1969 the senator once stood on her toes, pulled on her pony tail and tried to remove her clothes.
Before the election, Packwood denied the allegations and gave the Post material challenging the credibility of some of the women. And when the Portland Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, got wind of the Post’s investigation and asked about it, the senator’s chief of staff denied that Packwood was in contact with the Post--on the same day that the senator met with Post reporters.
But after his victory at the polls, he said he would no longer “make an issue” of any of the specific charges and apologized if his behavior had caused anyone “discomfort or embarrassment.”
Last Monday, his office announced he had checked himself into a private Minnesota clinic for evaluation of a possible drinking problem. The Oregonian reported Saturday that he returned to Washington, D.C., Friday night, telling reporters, “I don’t have anything to say to you right now.”
The day after Packwood went to Minnesota, the Senate Ethics Committee said it would conduct a preliminary inquiry into allegations against him. And on Wednesday, the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence filed a complaint with the committee alleging five additional victims and predicting that more will come forward.
In Oregon, the uproar over the Packwood affair was so great that the Oregonian ran a detailed story explaining its failure to report the charges, saying that even one of the paper’s reporters--a 64-year-old woman--received an unwanted kiss on the lips from the senator.
On its own front page, the Oregonian reported that it “failed to pursue the story aggressively enough, and to devote the time and resources needed to delve into the rumors, which had swirled around Packwood for years.”
Outrage over Packwood’s alleged behavior has quickly given rise to a movement seeking his resignation. Many of those favoring his ouster were backers of veteran Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin, who narrowly lost to Packwood last month.
“It’s not an issue of sexual harassment. It’s about abuse of power,” said Betty Roberts, a former Oregon Supreme Court Justice who ran against Packwood and lost in 1974. “The guy deceived us. It wasn’t a fair election. We didn’t have all the facts.”
Short of a resignation, it may be difficult for Oregonians to remove Packwood in the next six years. It is questionable whether the state constitution allows for a recall of a federal official. And it is extremely rare for the Senate to oust one of its own members.
Some Democrats hope that Packwood will be enticed to resign by a windfall of as much as $900,000 in campaign funds he could convert to his personal use if he leaves office before the new term begins.
But a spokeswoman for Packwood predicted the senator will never quit.
“If people think Sen. Packwood is going to take the money and resign, they don’t know Sen. Packwood,” said Julia Brim-Edwards, his communications director. “Sen. Packwood is not motivated by money. He has a very Spartan, frugal lifestyle. He lives in Washington, D.C., in a basement apartment. He buys his suits off the rack. He drives an old car.”
Brim-Edwards went on to defend the man who has been her boss for nine years, pointing out that he has an excellent record of employing women on his Senate staff.
“I have found that he was always a perfect gentleman and hired and promoted women when other people in the Capitol weren’t hiring and promoting women,” she said.
But Packwood’s critics said some of the allegations that have come to light went beyond sexual harassment and could constitute sexual assault.
“It’s clear there were a number of women who were very loyal to him,” said Holly Pruett, executive director of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “But a robber doesn’t rob every house on the block either.”
As a senator, Packwood earned a reputation as a master of the political game--but not necessarily someone with strong convictions on policy issues. In 1970 he introduced a bill to legalize abortion and has always been a reliable vote for women on the issue of choice. But in recent years he also has helped raise money for anti-abortion senators like Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
During the early 1980s, he was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and presided over the major overhaul of federal tax laws. At the same time, he gained notoriety for charging lobbyists $5,000 apiece to have breakfast with him.
Married for 27 years, he and his wife, Georgie, divorced in 1990.
If Packwood indeed had a pattern of approaching and harassing women throughout his career, how could the women’s movement have supported him for so long?
Abortion rights leaders said they had heard rumors of Packwood’s “womanizing” but had never heard charges of sexual harassment or assault. Privately, however, one woman insider said: “In Oregon, we knew this was a person no good feminist would support.”
One of the groups that had long backed Packwood was the National Abortion Rights Action League. And one of the women who finally came forward to make allegations against Packwood was Mary Heffernan, a lobbyist for the Oregon chapter.
During a visit to his office in the early 1980s, she claimed to the Washington Post, the senator grabbed her arms and kissed her. She said she was certain he would have made more serious advances if she had not immediately stopped him. Heffernan did not tell anyone about the incident at the time, she said, because she was embarrassed and knew she could not afford to alienate a senator sympathetic to her cause.
Packwood, as a rare Republican supporter of abortion rights, was an important ally on the national stage. Still, abortion rights leaders said if they had known the full extent of his alleged behavior, they would have broken with him.
Feminist and author Gloria Steinem, a longtime Packwood supporter, issued a statement in New York partially defending the senator and calling him a “courageous champion” of women’s causes.
Some Oregonians are offended not only by Packwood’s alleged advances toward women but by the way the senator manipulated the press to hold off the story until after the election. By initially denying the charges, they believe, Packwood delayed subsequent allegations and saved his job.
Feminists were especially angry that Packwood sought to attack the credibility of his alleged victims by giving the Post potentially damaging statements about some of the women.
Voters also are skeptical of his decision to check into the alcohol treatment facility, noting that in some of the accusations no drinking was alleged to have been involved.
“The issue facing all Oregonians, including men,” said Portland political activist Mark Gardiner, “is whether we should be represented in the United States Senate by someone who attacks women, tries to smear his victims, lies to the press and public, and then refuses to be accountable to the people who elected him.”