We are reportedly at a “watershed” moment on the issue of sexual harassment. Women, emboldened by the Harvey Weinstein revelations, have come out of the shadows of shame and stigma to tell their own stories of harassment and assault. It’s also been a time of “reckoning” for Democrats who once excused or defended President Bill Clinton over accusations of abuse and harassment. From an electoral standpoint, this new focus on empowering and energizing women voters should be an opportunity for Democrats. In Alabama, Democrats have a chance to steal away a bright-red Senate seat thanks to assault accusations against Republican Roy Moore. It’s also an opportunity for them to prove to voters that the party demands the highest standards of conduct from its representatives in Congress. An opportunity to show that Democrats won’t put party over doing the right thing. Yet, I have been struck by the lack of “watershed-level” response to Democrats’ handling of allegations against Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers, two members of their own party. Instead of meeting the moment, Democrats have missed it.
First, there was Leader Nancy Pelosi’s political face-plant on Meet the Press this weekend. When pressed by moderator Chuck Todd as to the fate of Conyers given her call for “zero tolerance” regarding sexual harassment, she gave this garbled — and wholly unsatisfying — reply:
We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be — John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women — Violence Against Women Act, which the left — right-wing — is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that, and he did great work on that. But the fact is, as John reviews his case, which he knows, which I don’t, I believe he will do the right thing.
A few hours after the taping, Conyers stepped down from his leadership post, while still denying the charges against him. On Monday, Pelosi released a statement saying that she had personally spoken with one of the accusers, Melanie Sloan, and said she “find[s] the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing…[And] believe[s] what Ms. Sloan has told [her].” Sloan had publicly accused Conyers with “berating her” while she worked for him in the 1990s. Sloan’s story was in the Washington Post on November 22 — four days before Pelosi’s Meet the Press interview. When asked if she “believed” the accusers by Todd on Sunday, Pelosi replied: “I don’t know who they are. Do you? They have not really come forward.”
In an interview Monday morning on NPR , Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who serves with Conyers on the Judiciary Committee, defended Conyers’ right to due process, while also questioning the veracity of the source of the information. BuzzFeed, who broke the Conyers story, was given documents, including four signed affidavits, by Mike Cernovich, the conservative activist behind the “Pizzagate” conspiracy. Lofgren said:
Well, I think we can wait until either more material comes forward, if that happens, or if the Ethics Committee finishes promptly, I would hope, their investigation. He’s served for more than 50 years. He contests the allegations. They were given to the BuzzFeed organization by a political operative. We want to make sure that they’re accurate. A little due process doesn’t hurt.
Democrats and Republicans both agree that the Office of Compliance, the agency responsible for handling claims of harassment in Congress, must be overhauled. The process is opaque and confusing. The payouts are secret. The members are shielded from public scrutiny. Congress is set to vote on a resolution next week that requires staff and members to undergo sexual harassment training. Still, these are around the edges sorts of changes. Most workers in America have sexual harassment training requirements. More important, these actions fail to address the bigger and more pervasive trust deficit between the public and Congress. If you say you have a “zero tolerance” policy, the policy should reflect that pledge. As of late Tuesday afternoon, only two Democrats, Reps. Kathleen Rice (NY) and Pramila Jayapal (WA), have publicly called for Conyers’ resignation.