Presidential hopefuls struggle to control damage from sexual misconduct cases in first race of #MeToo era
As he lays ground to run for president, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock looks back with regret at his failure to recognize the gravity of a top aide’s sexual harassment of a colleague.
After he was fired, the advisor went to work for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and was soon accused of harassing two more women. Bullock now says he’s “deeply sorry” he never told de Blasio about his aide’s misbehavior.
“I was wrong and naïve to think I did enough,” Bullock, a Democrat, wrote Feb. 2 in a blog post.
The 2020 presidential race is the first to occur since the #MeToo movement changed the nation’s cultural and political climate. Democratic contenders are already struggling to control the damage from their own shortcomings in policing sexual harassment in the workplace.
“You can say you support #MeToo, and you can say you support women, but you have to be able to demonstrate that in your own organization and in your own behavior,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
“I don’t think we’re going to see all of a sudden a wholesale overturning of the allowances that we’ve given to folks for this type of behavior, or not acting significantly to stop this behavior in the past. But I do think the bar is higher.”
Cold political math is at least part of what’s drawing heightened attention to sexual misconduct: Women consistently turn out to vote in greater numbers than men. Women have also strongly preferred Democrats in recent elections, driving the party’s takeover of the House in the November midterm.
In the White House race, Democrats face pressure to nominate a candidate who can draw a strong contrast with President Trump. A Democrat who is perceived as not dealing with sexual harassment seriously could have a hard time attacking the president over allegations by multiple women that Trump sexually assaulted them.
The accusations, which Trump denies, have not caused die-hard supporters to desert him, but the president remains highly unpopular among women in general.
For Harris, the U.S. senator from California, the issue has become fraught since the Sacramento Bee revealed in December that the state paid $400,000 to settle a lawsuit over alleged sexual harassment by Larry Wallace, one of her closest aides for 14 years.
When Harris was state attorney general, she named Wallace as chief of the Division of Law Enforcement. He was in charge of her personal security detail, and he was a crucial figure in her political life: He led Harris’ successful drive to win endorsements from dozens of police groups that had once roundly opposed her.
In September 2016, Wallace and at least four others on her staff at the attorney general’s office were notified of the initial complaint filed by Danielle Hartley, Wallace’s executive assistant.
Three months later, Hartley sued the state, alleging Wallace had “harassed and demeaned” her in his Sacramento office. He kept a printer on the floor beneath his desk, she claimed, and ordered her every day to get on her knees to put paper in it or replace the ink, at times with him and male co-workers watching. Harris’ successor, Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, approved the settlement in May 2017.
Harris said she was not told about the case until the Bee asked about it two months ago. The inquiry led Wallace to resign as a senior advisor on her Senate staff in Sacramento.
“It was a very painful experience to know that something can happen in one’s office — of almost 5,000 people, granted, but I didn’t know about it,” Harris told CNN. “That being said, I take full responsibility for anything that has happened in my office.”
Critics have attacked the credibility of Harris, one of the Senate’s most pointed interrogators of Brett M. Kavanaugh when he faced sexual assault accusations at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. A Bee editorial called her denial of any knowledge of the Wallace settlement “far-fetched.” And if she’s to be believed, it said, she “isn’t a terribly good manager.”
Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State, said Harris was facing the conundrum of many politicians: How do they justify actions they took — or didn’t take — prior to the #MeToo movement shifting public attitudes?
“It’s very hard for those folks to go back and undo what they did at a time when it wasn’t viewed as terrible as it is now,” he said.
For Sanders, the Vermont senator preparing to launch his second campaign for the Democratic nomination, the politics are messier. Multiple women have gone public with accusations of sexism, sexual harassment and pay discrimination by male supervisors in his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton.
His initial apology last month in a CNN interview was widely seen as dismissive toward the accusers. Explaining why he’d been unaware of their complaints, he said: “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.”
Sarah Slamen, who worked for his campaign in Texas, said that comment gave her no confidence that Sanders cares enough about sexual harassment to keep it from recurring. She suggested another Democrat would be a more effective champion of his agenda.
“I don’t think that Sen. Sanders has changed much of his mindset,” she said.
In a second apology days later at a news conference, Sanders was more forceful in denouncing the discrimination against women who worked on his campaign.
“What they experienced was absolutely unacceptable and certainly not what a progressive campaign or any campaign should be about,” he said.
Sanders and some of his top aides later met privately with some of the women to hear their accounts of mistreatment.
“We were trying to identify some concrete strategies and action steps for any future Sanders campaign,” said Jenny R. Yang, a sexual harassment expert who joined the meeting.
Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, called sexual misconduct on the Sanders campaign “a very big deal.” She, too, cast doubt on whether any adjustments he might make to prevent harassment in the campaign ahead reflect a better understanding of the damage it causes.
“I think he’ll do it because it’s part of the political equation,” she said.
In Biden’s case, the former vice president has been struggling for nearly three decades to overcome the fallout from his leadership of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee when Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
Witnesses were blocked from testifying on Hill’s behalf at the confirmation hearing, and senators pelted Hill with aggressive and embarrassing questions.
“My one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends,” Biden told Teen Vogue in late 2017. “I mean, they really went after her.”
Biden, who co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, said he wished he’d been able to do more for Hill. “I owe her an apology,” he said.
If Biden joins the race for president, as expected, he will inevitably be called to account again for Hill’s treatment in the 1991 hearing.
“It’s hard for me to forgive him,” Van Pelt said. “He’s done a lot of good with the Violence Against Women Act, there’s no question of that. But I just think maybe it’s time for new thinking.”
As for Bullock, his admission that he fell short in preventing sexual harassment has made for an awkward introduction to a national audience as he prepares his likely announcement that he’s running for president.
When he was chairman of the Democratic Governors Assn., Bullock dismissed his longtime Montana aide Kevin O’Brien for sexual harassment. He said he “felt sick and heartbroken” when he recently learned O’Brien had gone on to sexually harass two women at his next job. De Blasio has attacked the governors association for failing to alert him to O’Brien’s history.
Nan Whaley, a longtime Democratic Party activist who is mayor of Dayton, Ohio, said the #MeToo movement has changed the rules in politics, elevating the importance of troubles like Bullock’s.
“I think what has been acceptable in the past is not going to be acceptable in this cycle,” she said. “And you’re seeing that bear out.”
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics teams from Sacramento to D.C.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.