Gillibrand’s Turn in the Barrel

If she's less than totally transparent, she's in trouble. Good.

Politico reported Monday that Kirsten Gillibrand has been accused of mishandling an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct in her office. Per Politico:

In July, the female staffer alleged one of Gillibrand’s closest aides — who was a decade her senior and married — repeatedly made unwelcome advances after the senator had told him he would be promoted to a supervisory role over her. She also said the male aide regularly made crude, misogynistic remarks in the office about his female colleagues and potential female hires.

Less than three weeks after reporting the alleged harassment and subsequently claiming that the man retaliated against her for doing so, the woman told chief of staff Jess Fassler that she was resigning because of the office’s handling of the matter.

The Times reported today that Gillibrand’s office fired the man in question last week only after Politico presented “new details” into the allegations. That suggests one of two things. Either Gillibrand is willing to unload staffers under the slightest of pressure, or the investigation into the allegations was a sham. Or both—and that’s a very bad thing for a senator running for president as a champion of women.

You could say that’s all there is. But time and again, we’ve seen instances in which no, this is not all there is; it is never all there is. And if this gets worse, the New York senator runs the risk of not only failing as a presidential candidate before her candidacy begins, but losing her job. Similar allegations sank the career of US Rep. Elizabeth Esty. After news reports of her botching inquiries into sexual misconduct, and violence, in her office, Esty said she wouldn’t run again in 2016. (Jahana Hayes later won her seat, becoming the first black woman to represent Connecticut.)

She’s not coming off well

But unlike Esty, Gillibrand has been the face of the #MeToo movement in Congress. She was famously the first Democrat in the Senate (but not the last) to call for Al Franken’s resignation after eight women came forward to tell their stories about him.

She has been a fierce critic of the Pentagon’s handling of sexual crimes. And she has made sexual assault a centerpiece of her presidential campaign in an effort to distinguish herself from a crowded Democratic field. Now that it’s her turn in the barrel, it’s important how she comports herself. If she’s anything less than totally transparent, she’s going to raise more questions and increase political scrutiny.

That’s how it should be. I’ve never been one to say that the Democrats should only do the right thing when the Republicans do the right thing. I thought then and think now that Gillibrand was correct in calling for Franken’s head. She was right morally as well as politically. By getting rid of Franken, the Democrats did not have to defend him before the congressional midterms, and the midterms were powered by women absolutely raging against the president. If facts come to light warranting Gillibrand’s resignation, or casting doubt on her image as warrior for women, so be it.

Her critics shouldn’t get off lightly. On the left are those who said that demanding Franken’s resignation was ridiculous when Donald Trump is president. Franken can step down when Trump steps down, they said. In the absence of such reciprocity, they said, Gillibrand is grandstanding and acting cynically. But such criticism, if not totally misogynist, was and is morally relative. That scarcely makes it acceptable.

Things were worse on the right. Not only did some critics call for Franken’s resignation but they defended Brett Kavanaugh from more serious allegations, arguing that allegations mean nothing until they are proved, and that we can’t spend time proving them because words, words, words. Put another way, allegations need to be proved when they are aimed at Republicans. Not so much when they are aimed at Democrats. There’s a reason I have yet to see anyone on the right come to her defense.

Still the focus should be on the New York senator, and right now, she’s not coming off well. She’s defending the investigation, saying her office did everything properly, but skipping over the fact that firing the man undermines the integrity of an investigation that supposedly found no wrongdoing. Worse: “I told this employee at the time that she was loved, that we loved her,” Gillibrand told reporters. “I deeply valued her.” Again, this may be all there is, but there’s usually more. If so, the senator who made her name taking unyielding moral positions may do some yielding of her own.

—John Stoehr


TODAY: A very special local event!

The Editorial Board is partnering with the New Haven Review and the Institute Library to bring writers and thinkers together to explore key issues in civic and political life.

We’re calling it Politics in Plain English.

Our second event is titled “What’s Up with Liberalism and the Left?” Batya Ungar Sargon, opinion editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, will join Joshua Holland, contributing editor for The Nation, to examine liberal-leftism in the era of Donald Trump. I’ll be co-hosting. I hope you can come. I’d love to meet in person!

Date: TODAY, March 12. 
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: 847 Chapel St., New Haven, Conn.
Cost: $10 suggested donation.