Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s early support for the resignation of Senator Al Franken cost her the backing of some major Democratic donors. But the New York Democrat now faces a sexual harassment crisis of her own, and the reverberations could jeopardize her new presidential campaign.
On Monday, Politico reported that Gillibrand continued to employ a male aide, Abbas Malik, after a female staffer reported him for sexual harassment. The female staffer eventually resigned. In a letter published by Politico, the woman told the senator’s top aides at the time that she had “trusted and leaned on this statement that you made: ‘You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is O.K. None of it is acceptable.’” But that doesn’t comport with the treatment she received in Gillibrand’s office, she says.
“As I have long said, when allegations are made in the workplace, we must believe women so that serious investigations can actually take place, we can learn the facts, and there can be appropriate accountability,” Gillibrand told Politico in a statement. “That’s exactly what happened at every step of this case last year. I told her that we loved her at the time and the same is true today.”
The aide, Malik, has since been fired, but Politico says the termination occurred after its reporters presented additional misconduct complaints to Gillibrand’s office. At least one of those complaints came from a source that Malik’s original accuser had told Gillibrand’s office to contact.
The senator is hardly the only prominent Democrat to be accused of ignoring sexual harassment within her office or campaign. Against the recommendations of her own staff, Hillary Clinton refused to fire a longtime aide who’d been credibly accused of sexually harassing a younger female subordinate. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for president as a Democrat, apologized in January to former staffers who said that his 2016 campaign failed to address specific incidents of sexual harassment. Also in January, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee resigned as the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation after BuzzFeed News reported that she had fired a young woman who said she had been raped by the CBCF’s former intern coordinator. Representative Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut left office over reports that she wrote a job recommendation for a male staffer whom she’d fired for threatening to kill a colleague he used to date.
Gillibrand, though, may be uniquely vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. As Politico notes, she’s used her campaign and her rising national profile to highlight issues of gender inequality. Her marquee policies, like paid family leave, link feminism to a left-leaning economic message. That’s a relatively recent shift for the senator, who once had a reputation for more moderate politics. She has that in common with many of her fellow Democratic candidates for president, who are now making overtures to the left. But even within this field, Gillibrand’s evolution stands out. Rather than try to recast her career as a corporate attorney in progressive terms — or justify her previous centrism as necessary pragmatism — she has admitted, openly, to her own failings. “[My positions] certainly weren’t empathetic and they were not kind and I did not think about suffering in other people’s lives,” she said of her anti-immigration votes, in a January interview with CNN.
Despite her recent leftward turn, Gillibrand hasn’t been leading the polls for president. This scandal won’t exactly help her make her case.