In 2017, the resignation of Senator Al Franken (D-MN) over a series of allegations that he had groped or kissed women without their consent was viewed as a pivotal moment in the long history of sexual abuse on Capitol Hill. As the allegations mounted, thirty senators from his own party, joined by two independents, placed what he later called a “tremendous amount of pressure” on Franken to resign, which he did.
Now, as a sexual assault allegation against Democratic front-runner and former vice president Joe Biden trickles from the world of online news into the mainstream media, all but one of those thirty-two senators are staying silent.
Last week, Tara Reade, a former staffer of Biden’s, alleged that in 1993, he had pushed her up against the wall and groped and penetrated her with his hands, telling her afterward, “You mean nothing to me.” Although Jacobin was unable to reach Reade and has not independently corroborated her story, the Intercept’s Ryan Grim, who originally broke the story, spoke to Reade’s brother and friend, who recounted hearing the story from her at the time. Grim had originally also broken the story about then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
Biden has previously said that “for a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real.” His senior adviser, Symone Sanders, whose personal website describes her as “a champion for women,” had said in 2018 she believed Ford’s allegation, stressing that she didn’t “think anyone that has ever done that, whether it was once in their life or fifty times, deserves to sit at the highest precipice of power.” Biden’s campaign has called Reade’s allegation “false.”
Jacobin reached out to the twenty-nine Democratic and independent senators who had called for Franken’s resignation three years ago and are still in office, in some cases leaving multiple voicemails and emails, and sometimes speaking directly with staffers. Some of those senators have since endorsed Biden for president, including Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ). Of those twenty-nine, only one — Ohio’s Sherrod Brown — offered a statement in response:
“Every woman has a right to be heard without fear of intimidation or retribution, and I will always fight for that right.”
Perhaps the most surprising silence came from Senator Gillibrand, who has carved out a profile as a champion of women and sexual assault victims. Gillibrand has fought for years to ensure accusers in the military can be heard and see justice, and she was the first senator to call for Franken’s resignation in 2017, without an investigation into the allegations first.
“We must not lose sight that this watershed moment is bigger than any one industry, any one party, or any one person,” she wrote in a Facebook post at the time. “We have to rise to the occasion, and not shrink away from it, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard.”
Gillibrand later said that Franken, someone she considered a personal friend and an effective legislator, “wasn’t entitled to me carrying his water, and defending him with my silence.” Though she suffered political backlash for the decision, with major Democratic donors and bundlers vowing never to back her again, Gillibrand stressed she had “no regrets” and, if she could go back and change anything, she “might have done it sooner.”
Gillibrand endorsed Biden a little over a week ago, saying he would “be a champion for women.” The senator’s team did not appear to be aware of the sexual assault allegation when Jacobin reached out late last week, her press assistant welcoming an offer to share Reade’s recent interviews. Though Jacobin was told Gillibrand’s team would see if they could provide a statement by Monday, and despite multiple phone calls and emails, Gillibrand’s office has not yet offered a response, nor did they reply when asked if the senator was standing by her endorsement of Biden.
According to the New Yorker, Gillibrand was one of seven female Democratic senators who confronted Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer on December 1, 2017 about the Franken allegations, leading to his eventual resignation. The magazine reported that the group grew only more determined when they learned of a seventh accuser — one who, like Reade, was a former Senate staffer. None of the five other members of the group who are still in Congress — Kamala Harris (D-CA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) — offered a response to Reade’s allegation.
Cortez Masto never publicly called for Franken’s resignation, but she did say at the time that she was “disappointed & disgusted with the allegations” against him and that “he should be held accountable.” After he resigned, she put out a statement declaring that “we must create an environment where every woman or man feels empowered to come forward.”
Though Cortez Masto has not weighed in on the ongoing Democratic contest, Hassan and Harris have, endorsing Biden for president, and both Harris and Cortez Masto are reportedly on Biden’s short list for the vice presidency. Sources told Mediaite the latter is one of Biden’s “top three” for the position, while Harris is one of a number of names being urged by Biden’s wealthy donors, according to CNBC. In calling for Franken to step down at the time, Harris said that “sexual harassment and misconduct should not be allowed by anyone and should not occur anywhere.”
In all, eleven of the thirty-two Democratic and independent senators who called for Franken’s resignation have formally endorsed Biden, with two of them now gone from Congress. One endorser is New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who has said Biden would “restore honor to the Oval Office,” and had earlier praised Franken for doing “the honorable thing” and resigning, calling for Donald Trump to “do the same thing,” owing to the “more serious allegations against him.” Another is California’s Dianne Feinstein, who had said about the Franken allegations that “the American people don’t look lightly on these kinds of actions, no matter who they’re committed by.” Still another is Tom Carper, Biden’s Delaware colleague for seven years, who had found the allegations against Franken “deeply troubling.”
One notable silence came from Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose coveted endorsement continues to elude both Democratic candidates left in the race. Though Warren had lagged behind other Democratic woman senators to call for Franken’s resignation, an aide told the Boston Globe she had personally phoned him to urge him to resign, and she made the issue of gender discrimination a cornerstone of her presidential campaign in 2020.
Warren received plaudits for her takedown of billionaire Michael Bloomberg in the Democratic debates over his long history of misogyny, at one point confronting the former New York City mayor over his alleged instruction to a pregnant employee to “kill it,” referring to her pregnancy. When asked by a debate moderator what her evidence was for the charge, Warren replied, “Her own words.” She repeated that point in a testy post-debate exchange with former MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews, telling him, “I believe the woman, which means he’s not telling the truth.” She later told Rachel Maddow the attacks were aimed at bringing down Bloomberg’s campaign, because he was “the riskiest candidate,” as his “history with women,” among other things, meant “he could never launch any of those attacks against Donald Trump.”
In an interview with Hill.TV’s Rising, Reade alleged that when news outlets ignored her, she went to senators Harris and Warren with her story. She got no response from Harris’s office, she said, while Warren’s office sent her a contact form letter telling her to get in touch with her local representative. Despite multiple requests for comment, Warren has not yet issued a response to Reade’s allegation, nor commented on this particular charge.
Also silent has been Bernie Sanders, the only one of Biden’s challengers left in the Democratic contest. In the midst of the Franken allegations, Sanders had initially put out a statement calling sexual harassment “completely unacceptable” and calling for an Ethics Committee investigation into the first accusation against Franken. As the number of allegations piled up, he called on Franken to do “the right thing” and resign, and later said Trump should “think about doing the same thing” due to the assault allegations against him. Sanders’s DC office declined to respond to questions about Reade’s allegation, saying all questions about Biden should be directed to the campaign, which hasn’t responded to multiple enquiries.
Others who are silent now may have reconsidered the notion of automatically believing the stories of sexual assault accusers since pushing Franken to leave the Senate. Last year, seven of those senators expressed regret for having called for Franken’s resignation, including Tom Udall (D-NM) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), both of whom have endorsed Biden, and Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, who called it “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made.”
Even so, Leahy has expressed sympathy with women on the other side of sexual misconduct in recent times, saying more senators “should have believed” Anita Hill when she came forward with sexual harassment charges against now–Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, and calling for delaying Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote, as “we cannot brush aside these extraordinarily serious allegations in an unseemly rush.” Yet Leahy’s office did not appear to take the allegation against Biden seriously, his spokesperson asking if Jacobin was “a right-wing screed” before saying Leahy was busy with Appropriations Committee business all weekend and there was little chance he would have a statement by today. An email forwarding an interview with Reade and recent mainstream news coverage of her allegation went unreturned.
The response from Leahy’s office may reflect the dynamics of media coverage of the race. While Reade’s allegation was the talk of social media and some left-wing outlets, like many real but unflattering stories about Biden, it has primarily been covered by the right-wing media sphere, going almost completely unmentioned in most mainstream reporting on the race, including during Biden’s Friday town hall on CNN and his Sunday appearance on Meet the Press. Krystal Ball, who interviewed Reade on Rising, has said she offered Reade’s story to reporters in the mainstream press, but “heard back crickets.”
Biden has a fraught history on gender issues. He’s been on the receiving end of decades of feminist criticism for his support for abortion restrictions, and he has long tried to shake off the stain of his handling of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations, where he didn’t believe Hill’s story, blocked witnesses from corroborating it under oath, and generally assisted Republicans in neutering the effectiveness of her testimony. Upon launching his campaign last year, a series of women came forward to accuse Biden of inappropriately touching them, including Reade herself, who now says she wasn’t ready to tell her full story at the time.
As Reade’s allegation slowly filters to the mainstream press, Democrats are in a tricky position. On the one hand, Biden is the overwhelming favorite to clinch the Democratic nomination, and speaking out against him, particularly in an election year, means not just facing the wrath of powerful Democratic donors and party leaders, but potentially alienating the next president.
On the other hand, since 2016 — driven by the deep, bipartisan outrage at Trump’s own history of sexual assault and misogyny, and the #MeToo moment in late 2017 — the Democratic Party has rebranded as the party of women and believing survivors, accompanied by a genuine realignment that has seen women voters increasingly flock to the party. Democrats have made winning over the kinds of conservative suburban women disgusted by Trump a key part of their electoral strategy. They have done so by taking well-publicized stands against Republicans accused of sexual misconduct, including alleged pedophile Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, and Trump himself, but they have also earned themselves credibility by forcing Franken’s resignation, showing that not even high-profile Democrats could get away with such behavior.
If the party elects not to speak out on an identical allegation facing the Democratic front-runner, or even chooses to stand by him and dismiss the story out of hand, they risk not only damaging that credibility, but undermining the ability of any future accuser, whether victimized by a Democrat or Republican, to have their stories heard and be believed. Democrats face a choice between principle and partisan hypocrisy. We may be watching them make their choice in real time.