Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) took the stage at an MSNBC town hall on Monday night to reaffirm her position as a #MeToo champion, defending her criticism of other lawmakers accused of sexual assault and her own office’s handling of the issue.
Gillibrand, a longtime leader on combating sexual assault in the military and in Congress, recently faced blowback over the handling of a sexual harassment allegation in her office. According to a Politico report, a female aide in her mid-20s resigned over the way harassment allegations she had raised about a senior male colleague were ultimately treated.
During the town hall, Gillibrand emphasized that she “believed” the aide who had come forward. “In terms of my own office, the woman who came forward, she was believed, her allegations were taken seriously,” she said. “This employee was dearly valued. I told her that she was loved, by us, by our office, by me personally.”
The report and the aide’s concerns raised questions about whether Gillibrand’s private handling of harassment allegations matched up with the public persona she’s aimed to project. Gillibrand’s office had previously argued that senior staffers responded to the allegations in an expedient fashion. On Monday, the senator added that the incident “did not rise to sexual harassment, but we did find evidence of derogatory comments,” and that her office “punished” the senior aide who allegedly made unwanted sexual advances. Politico says he was dismissed after reporting from the publication brought even more allegations of inappropriate conduct to the office’s attention.
Gillibrand also stood by her decision to call for then-Sen. Al Franken’s resignation after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct in 2017. While Gillibrand was the first senator to speak out against Franken and suggest that he should step down, more than 20 other senators ultimately joined her. Gillibrand, however, has borne the brunt of the criticism since then.
“The truth is we miss him and people loved him, but he had eight credible allegations against him of sexual harassment for groping, two of them since he was a senator, and the eighth one was a congressional staffer. And I had a choice to make whether to stay silent or not, whether to say, ‘That’s not okay with me,’ and I decided to say that,” she said.
Certain members of the Democratic Party, who saw Franken as a promising leader, have said Gillibrand spoke out too swiftly (with some even threatening to withhold their donations) — even though the direct cause of Franken’s resignation was his own actions in the first place.
I know the issue of Sen. Franken is hard for many Democrats. But he had eight credible sexual harassment allegations against him, and I had to choose whether to stay silent, or not. If some megadonors have a problem with that, that's on them. pic.twitter.com/POLWcTQUsY— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) March 19, 2019
“Now, Sen. Franken was entitled to whatever type of review or process he wanted,” Gillibrand added. “He could have stuck it out, stayed in the Senate, gone through his ethics committee investigation ... he could have sued all of the eight women — those were his choices. But I had to make my choice.”
She also described a conversation she had with her eldest son on the subject, which served to illuminate why she had made this decision.
“As a mother, I have to be very clear. It is not okay for anyone to grope a woman anywhere on her body without her consent. It is not okay to forcibly kiss a woman, ever, without her consent,” she said. “It was not okay for Sen. Franken and it is not okay for you, Theo. Ever.”