Many state lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct run again
ATLANTA — Allegations of sexual misconduct against Kentucky lawmakers have become so common that the statehouse has seemed more like a frat house: Seven have faced accusations, including four who settled secretly with a female legislative aide.
Voters’ response? Mostly, keep them in office.
Of the five lawmakers up for re-election this year, three easily made it through their party primaries and will be favored to retain their seats in November. The other two chose not to run.
It’s not just Kentucky. An Associated Press review finds that 25 state lawmakers who have been accused of sexual misconduct are running for re-election or another office this year. Of those, 15 have already advanced to the Nov. 6 general election. Seven did not even face a challenger in their primary.
Cassaundra Cooper, who filed a sexual harassment claim against a former Kentucky lawmaker in 2013, wonders why voters would re-elect public officials accused of sexual misconduct, or simply choose to ignore the allegations.
“That shocks me,” she said. “Where is the empathy?”
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — and the extraordinary growth of the #MeToo movement — any assumption that accused office holders would be political pariahs is not borne out on the state level. (Though by comparison, virtually every member of Congress accused of sexual harassment has resigned or opted against running for re-election.)
Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University, said the relative political success of accused state lawmakers suggests that voters are unsure how to respond. Does a private failing disqualify someone from serving in public office?
“We don’t have an answer for that,” she said.
That is true even in states where voters have a history of supporting female politicians and traditionally liberal issues.
In California, of the six state lawmakers who faced misconduct allegations and ran for re-election or another office, four advanced to the general election. That includes two women.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, an early advocate for legislative changes in support of the #MeToo movement, was the top vote-getter in a crowded June primary for her Los Angeles-area district. She took a three-month leave of absence earlier this year after a former legislative staffer accused her of groping him in 2014.
Investigators initially cleared Garcia of the charge, but her accuser appealed the findings and the investigation has since been reopened.
In November, Garcia will face Republican Mike Simpfenderfer, a 56-year-old mortgage banker who sits on the board of a national nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault. He was inspired years ago to become an advocate after family members told him of their experiences with sexual assault.
“Through that tough experience, it opened my eyes to what goes on,” Simpfenderfer said. “I have a blunt message: Men, it’s time to start standing up.”
Simpfenderfer said some politicians facing harassment allegations will do what he considers the right thing and resign, but others try to hang on to power. He called the allegations against Garcia embarrassing.
“Cristina Garcia is not the advocate,” he said. “She’s actually the problem.”
Garcia’s spokesman said the assemblywoman was not granting interviews because of the ongoing investigation. She has denied wrongdoing.
In North Carolina, Allison Dahle initially did not plan to bring up the allegations against Rep. Duane Hall as she challenged him in the Democratic primary. The 54-year-old office manager from Raleigh eventually decided to send two mailers late in the campaign noting the calls by others for Hall to resign, then won the state’s May 8 primary.
“When he didn’t resign, it became clear that I was going to have to highlight the allegations because it didn’t seem apparent that people were reading the news or even knew about it,” Dahle said.
Hall did not respond to an interview request.
Dahle and Simpfenderfer are among the few candidates to raise their opponents’ sexual misconduct claims on the campaign trail. Many challengers say they try to avoid it, preferring to focus on bread-and-butter issues such as education, health care and jobs.
In Arizona, former state Rep. Don Shooter was the first state lawmaker in the country to be expelled in the #MeToo era after he was criticized for a pattern of sexually harassing women. Now he’s back, running in the state’s Republican primary for a seat in the state Senate.
His opponent in the August Republican primary, Sen. Sine Kerr, said she has no plans to highlight the allegations against Shooter.
“I trust the voters of our district,” Kerr said. “They’re informed, and they’ll make a good decision.”
Even in Kentucky, challengers are reluctant to make sexual harassment a cornerstone of their campaigns.
Democrat Debra Ferguson Payne, a retired teacher, is challenging state Rep. Jim Stewart in November. Stewart was mentioned in a recently released memo that indicated a female state employee had filed a complaint against him for “unwanted verbal advances.” Stewart has denied the complaint exists, and state officials have refused to release documents related to it.
Payne said she has no plans to discuss the allegations in her campaign, fearing it would backfire in a district where voters have re-elected Stewart for two decades.
“We have 2-to-1 Republicans here. And I don’t think they want to hear it,” she said. “It’s one of those things where if you don’t look, maybe it will go away.”