Dem leaders split on whether Rep. Kihuen should go

Dem leaders split on whether Rep. Kihuen should go
© Greg Nash

Breaking with Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDem mega-donor to spend M on GOTV campaign ahead of midterms The Hill's Morning Report — Trump heads to New York to shore-up GOP districts Pelosi claims NBC is trying to 'undermine' her potential Speaker bid MORE (D-Calif.), top House Democrats are holding their fire when it comes to the fate of Rep. Ruben KihuenRuben Jesus Kihuen BernalBattle of the billionaires drives Nevada contest Danny Tarkanian wins Nevada GOP congressional primary Laxalt, Sisolak to face off in Nevada governor's race MORE (D).  

Kihuen, a Nevada freshman, has been accused by a former campaign staffer of unwanted sexual advances, prompting immediate calls of resignation from both Pelosi and Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), the head of the Democrats’ campaign arm. 

But other party leaders have suggested those calls — based on a single allegation that Kihuen has denied — are premature. They’re awaiting more evidence of misconduct before joining Pelosi in urging Kihuen to step down.

“Mr. Kihuen has said he didn't do … what he is alleged to have done,” said Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerElection analyst predicts 'impeachment hearings will happen' if Dems take Congress Michigan lawmaker wants seat for Midwest at Dem leadership table Dems introduce measure to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act MORE (D-Md.), the minority whip. “I have said that there needs to be a process that needs to be pursued quickly and transparently to resolve that issue. And if, in fact, the allegations are proven to be true, then I said he ought to resign.”

Hoyer said he expects the Ethics Committee to launch an investigation into the Kihuen allegations. 

Other Democratic leaders are also adopting Hoyer’s wait-and-see position.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), head of the Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday that Congress must become “the platinum standard” for the country when it comes to zero tolerance on sexual harassment. But he stopped well short of promoting Kihuen’s ouster, suggesting a single allegation alone is not enough to assign guilt.  

“If any of the individuals are guilty of what they’re being accused of, then they should resign,” Crowley said.   

The divergent messages from the Democrats’ top brass highlight the dilemma facing leaders of both parties as they navigate their response to the wave of sexual harassment allegations that have emerged against lawmakers in recent weeks. With no clear guidelines for approaching such cases, leaders have struggled to find a balance between providing justice for victims and protecting the accused against potentially false charges. 

The difficulties in striking that balance were on display earlier this month when a string of harassment allegations were leveled against Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersConservative activist disrupts campaign event for Muslim candidates Michigan Dems elect state's first all-female statewide ticket for midterms Record numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress MORE Jr. (D-Mich.), the former dean of the House. Publicly, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders had promoted Conyers’s right to due process, even as they were working behind the scenes to push him out before he could defend himself before the House Ethics Committee. Conyers resigned last week. 

In the case of Kihuen, the top Democrats are less united. 

After BuzzFeed News reported on Dec. 1 that Kihuen’s former finance director had accused the 37-year-old lawmaker of unwanted sexual advances — and reported those allegations to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) — Luján, the DCCC chairman, immediately called for Kihuen to step down. Within hours, Pelosi followed suit.

“The young woman’s documented account is convincing, and I commend her for the courage it took to come forward,” Pelosi said in a statement.

The intraparty split has led to grumbling among some Democrats that the party risks losing its claim to the anti-harassment high ground if the top leaders can’t unite around a consistent message. 

“It doesn’t help,” said an aide.

The seemingly haphazard response has prompted calls from all sides to adopt a clear new set of rules governing harassment claims that streamlines the process for accusers while ensuring rights of defense for the accused. Pelosi has created a task force charged with doing just that. 

“The working group is solely focused on trying to reform the process here in the Capitol to make sure that complainants are given a fair process,” Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus and a member of the task force, said Wednesday.  

“Right now the deck has been stacked against them,” added Sánchez, who has said she herself was a victim of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.  

“We need to change the culture in this Capitol, so that folks understand that there is zero tolerance and it’s not acceptable.”