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The #MeToo Primary

What will Democratic voters accept — or reject — in 2020?

Former Vice President Joe Biden reacts while addressing the International Association of Fire Fighters conference in Washington, DC, USA, 12 March 2019.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, accused this week by two women of inappropriately touching them, is not the only candidate negotiating the thorny topic in the first post-#Me Too presidential primary.

JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutte

Back in 2014, when former Nevada state assemblywoman Lucy Flores was campaigning for lieutenant governor, she got a bit of good news: Vice President Joe Biden was interested in joining her on the trail. But her initial optimism over Biden’s appearance at a rally in Las Vegas curdled upon his arrival. Flores recently recalled in a piece for New York that Biden approached her from behind, smelling her hair before planting a “big slow kiss” on the back of her head.

Flores revealed that Biden’s actions left her feeling embarrassed, shocked, confused — like she wanted to disappear. “There is a Spanish saying, ‘tragame tierra,’ it means, ‘earth, swallow me whole,’” Flores wrote.

In an initial statement responding to the story, the former VP and likely 2020 Democratic candidate said he did not “believe” he had ever acted inappropriately, adding, “If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.” Two days later, though, after a second woman came forward with a similar story — Amy Lappos told the Hartford Courant Biden rubbed noses with her at a campaign event for her former boss, Rep. Jim Himes — Biden’s team changed its tone.

“These smears and forgeries have existed in the dark recesses of the internet for a while. And to this day, right wing trolls and others continue to exploit them for their own gain,” Biden spokesman Bill Russo said in a statement that circulated Monday.

The inconvenient fact for Biden is that the “others” in this case both happen to be Democratic women who are active in the party, and their concerns won’t be dismissed easily. Primary voters are reckoning with what is and isn’t appropriate behavior, and if Biden is intent on running in the first post-#MeToo presidential primary, he is going to have to reckon with it as well. 

But Biden isn’t the only one who will be grappling with these thorny questions as we slowly approach the first Democratic primary debates. Three other candidates — Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand — have been forced to examine their own campaigns and offices in the wake of accusations of sexual misconduct. The way a candidate and his or her campaign responds in such situations may be as important an insight into their values and priorities as any policy proposal. It’s clearly an issue voters care about: A poll conducted last fall found an overwhelming number of Democrats — 81 percent — would not vote for a candidate accused of sexual harassment. 

After accusations surfaced about sexual harassment and unequal pay during his 2016 campaign, Sanders acknowledged that his team did not “do everything right, in terms of human resources.” He has since personally apologized and vowed to institute “the strongest protocols” possible on his 2020 campaign, including mandatory harassment training and the option, for individuals who feel they’ve been harassed, to have an independent firm investigate the allegation.

In December, Harris accepted the resignation of longtime aide Larry Wallace after it was revealed that he had been accused of sexually harassing and retaliating against a colleague while working under Harris in the California Attorney General’s office. As part of a 2017 settlement, the victim signed a non-disclosure agreement — the same kind Harris has since introduced legislation to ban. The state of California was forced to pay $400,000 in that case; the Los Angeles Times has since reported that California’s Department of Justice paid out a total of $1.1 million in such settlements with employees during Harris’ tenure. Her campaign has said Harris was unaware of the accusations against Wallace, who had worked for her for 14 years during her ascent from San Francisco D.A. to the Senate.

Gillibrand, a longtime advocate for victims of sexual assault and one of the most outspoken members of Congress throughout the #MeToo movement, lost a staffer in July because, according to a letter written by that woman, the senator’s office bungled an investigation into her harassment claims. Gillibrand’s office did not initially respond to the letter, but the accused staffer was later dismissed when additional allegations surfaced against him.

Each of those instances involved accusations of illegal behavior, and none of them reflect particularly well on the candidates involved. But the recent stories about Biden are different. Neither woman is accusing him of a crime — they’re engaging prospective voters in a broader conversation about what constitutes appropriate and acceptable behavior. As Flores wrote in her piece, “Even if his behavior wasn’t violent or sexual, it was demeaning and disrespectful. I wasn’t attending the rally as his mentee or even his friend; I was there as the most qualified person for the job.”

And Biden happens to be a particularly useful example, as his history of boundary-encroaching  behavior is so well documented it’s practically achieved meme-status. For years, photographs have circulated of women and girls looking uncomfortable as Biden rubs their shoulders, touches their faces or leans in for a kiss. (At least one of the women in those photos — Stephanie Carter, wife of a former defense secretary — has defended Biden and said she was not troubled by the encounter.)

Defining expectations for acceptable human interaction is going to be a long-term project, but one of the positive results of the #MeToo movement is that it’s a project that more people — Democratic voters in particular — seem invested in. In his initial statement, Biden said it was never his intention to act inappropriately, but he would “listen respectfully” if someone thought he had. It seems like that is the only thing these women are asking for — and it seems their account of their interactions with him are something he needs to hear before setting out on the campaign trail again. Biden clearly sees himself as qualified to run the country. But the candidate who wins in 2020 will be the one who can see how the country has changed.

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