Dems seek moral high ground in fight over sexual harassment

Dems seek moral high ground in fight over sexual harassment
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Democrats fought Wednesday to take back the moral high ground on issues of sexual misconduct, rushing to push Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenGillibrand defends her call for Franken to resign Gillibrand: Aide who claimed sexual harassment was 'believed' Kirsten Gillibrand officially announces White House run MORE (D-Minn.) out the door after the latest allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

The calls for Franken’s resignation came with less than a week to go until the special election to fill a Senate seat in Alabama, where Republican candidate Roy Moore has faced a string of allegations of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls.


It also followed by a day the dramatic fall of former Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersOvernight Health Care: Pelosi asks how to pay for single-payer | Liberal groups want Dems to go bigger on drug prices | Surprise medical bill legislation could come soon Key Dem chairman voices skepticism on 'Medicare for all' bill Democrats seek cosponsors for new 'Medicare for all' bill MORE Jr. (D-Mich.), who resigned on Tuesday amid mounting pressure from colleagues. Minnesota Public Radio reports that Franken will resign on Thursday.

Freshman Rep. Ruben KihuenRuben Jesus KihuenNevada Dem sanctioned for sexual misconduct announces city council bid Dem gains put Sunbelt in play for 2020 Pence aide defends Meadows after ethics panel reprimand: He ‘had my back’ MORE (D-Nev.) remains in the House after accusations of sexual harassment by a former campaign staffer. He has refused to step down, but leaders have cut off political support and pressed him to resign.

Democratic strategists outside Congress said they were happy their party had taken a firmer stand against Franken after weeks in which senators said they would await an ethics probe of the senator.

That approach attracted criticism on and off Capitol Hill from Democrats who thought the party was losing an opportunity to take a stronger stand on issues of sexual harassment and sexism.

At the same time, many felt that the party had acted too late.

Democrats are certainly hoping that they’ll get “brownie points” by pushing Franken and Conyers to resign, said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer.

“But that water has already been muddied, and neither party’s hands are clean,” she said. 

She said it doesn’t matter that Franken is accused of groping while Moore faces accusations of pursuing teenage girls — including a 14-year-old.

“There’s no good way to message ‘Our side’s sexual harassment isn’t as bad as your side’s,’ ” she said.

Rep. Kathleen RiceKathleen Maura RiceNew York Rep. Maloney endorses Gillibrand for president Hispanic Dems ask for multi-agency meeting on family separations The Hill's 12:30 Report: O'Rourke jumps into 2020 fray MORE (D-N.Y.) agreed, suggesting Democratic leaders have been too quick to take the politically expedient route, rather than sticking to principles. 

“When you make decisions based on politics, sometimes you forfeit the moral high ground, and that’s what I think happened,” said Rice, who for weeks called on Franken to resign.

She criticized House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiHistory teaches that Nancy Pelosi is right about impeachment The politics and practicalities of impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms MORE (Calif.) for a Nov. 26 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in which she had praised Conyers.

“You have the president endorsing Roy Moore and you have Nancy Pelosi somewhat defending Conyers by calling him an ‘icon.’ I just think at that point both sides lose, and none of us have clean hands when it comes to this issue,” she said. 

Rice, Setzer and others say Democrats should have pounced weeks ago when allegations surfaced against Franken and Conyers. It would have highlighted their point that their party has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, showing a stark difference with Republicans and Moore in Alabama.

“I think the Republicans are morally bankrupt for how they are handling a child predator in Moore, but the Dem leadership’s failure to push Franken is equally wrong,” Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen said on Wednesday. “Inaction on either [side] doesn’t justify inaction on the other. I get that people feel like the behavior is not equal, but clearly these Franken women felt violated and that is what matters.” 

One Democratic lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about leadership, said the party’s top brass erred miserably in their initial response to the Conyers allegations, particularly in their decision to cast early doubts on the accusers. In doing so, the lawmaker said, they “lost their license” to speak on the topic “with any authority at all.”

The lawmaker singled out Pelosi’s defense of Conyers on “Meet the Press” — “That was her at her worst,” the lawmaker said — as well as Rep. James Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) early comments to The New York Times, in which the third-ranking House Democrat suggested “all of this could be made up.”

“Neither Pelosi nor Clyburn clothed themselves in glory that day,” the lawmaker said.

Both Pelosi and Clyburn, after working behind the scenes to nudge Conyers out, eventually called publicly for his resignation.

Conyers’s resignation on Tuesday marked a victory for Democratic leaders, eliminating a major distraction that had obscured the party’s attacks on the GOP’s tax bill, undermined their claims to the moral high ground and complicated their arguments that the Republican lawmakers facing their own harassment charges — particularly Moore and President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to visit White House on Monday Transportation Dept requests formal audit of Boeing 737 Max certification MORE — are unfit to serve in public office.

A number of Democrats are defending the party’s response to the Conyers and Franken allegations, citing the dangers of rushing to judgment in the face of highly charged — and potentially career-ending — accusations.

“I don’t think there’s a loss of any moral high ground in wanting to know what was going to be the process and what was the response from the accused,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the House Progressive Caucus.

Even Rice, who has emerged as one of the loudest advocates pushing for lawmakers of both parties facing harassment charges to resign, sees an opportunity for Congress to step in, improve the culture and prove to voters they’re serious about tackling the problem. That demonstration must be visible not only in how Congress responds to individual harassment cases, she said, but in what kind of legislative fix lawmakers are willing to support.

“That’s going to show the public how seriously we feel about policing our own in the future,” she said. 

“I don’t think that it’s ever too late to make sure that the public understands where you stand.”