Congressional campaign workers who have experienced sexual harassment and want to hold their harassers accountable face a rocky path, according to a scathing editorial by a staffer who was the target of persistent unwanted sexual advances by former Rep. Ruben Kihuen.
“Campaign staff members who are being mistreated seemingly have no options other than either risk their careers and financial stability by quitting, or stay on a campaign and endure abuse,” wrote Samantha Register, a former staffer on the Democrat’s 2016 primary campaign, in the Nevada Independent this week.
Register faults the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for apparently failing to act on her claims before they came to light in the media.
Kihuen propositioned Register for sex and dates and grabbed her thigh twice without her consent when the then-25-year-old worked as the former Nevada congressman’s finance director, according to a BuzzFeed News report in December 2017.
That report prompted then-DCCC Chairman Rep. Ben Ray Luján to call for Kihuen’s resignation. But a DCCC staffer knew about Register’s claims 20 months before that, the House Ethics Committee said in its report on the charges.
The DCCC has never clarified to Register why the information she provided did not disqualify Kihuen from the party’s endorsement, Register said.
“Was the DCCC aware that Kihuen had threatened to ‘destroy me’ but decided to support his campaign for Congress anyway?” she wrote. “Did they decide internally that winning elections is more important than workplace safety?”
DCCC Deputy Communications Director Melissa Miller did not address those questions in a statement to Roll Call. Instead, she praised Register.
“Chairwoman [Rep. Cheri] Bustos and DCCC leadership stand united against the scourge of sexual harassment and applaud Ms. Register for her bravery in speaking out and demanding change,” Miller said.
When she worked for the campaign, Register regularly reported to the DCCC about Kihuen’s fundraising numbers. In April 2016, she told a then-DCCC staffer that she had resigned because “the candidate has been making me really uncomfortable, and I feel I can’t do my job if I feel uncomfortable being in the same room with the candidate.”
ICYMI: House and Senate Pass Sexual Harassment Bill By Unanimous Consent
Kihuen “would do things like comment on my appearance, or make suggestions that I should go on a date with him or have sex with him, that he touched my thigh a couple times,” she told the staffer, she didn’t identify in her piece, and who was not identified in the Ethics Committee report.
The staffer promised to relay that information to another DCCC employee. But it’s unclear whether her complaint was reported up the chain of the command at the Democratic Party’s House campaign arm.
And the former DCCC staffer ignored repeated phone calls and emails from the House Ethics Committee as it conducted a months-long investigation into Kihuen, according to its report.
When the Ethics Committee concluded that “Representative Kihuen’s pursuit of women was relentless and, at times, extended to women who either worked directly for or indirectly with” him in November, it did so without the aid of the DCCC.
Register said that after working on eight campaigns, she pivoted her career away from politics because it lacks worker protections against sexual harassment and other abusive behavior.
And because of her lack of experience in any other field, she struggled to land another job.
“Years later, I have yet to find a position that pays as well as when I worked on campaigns,” she wrote.
Campaign workers are vulnerable to harassment because they typically lack the human resources structure of a more traditional workplace and because employees are often in close quarters for long stretches of time. Lower level staffers are the most vulnerable.
“We want to systematically break down the culture in the campaign industry that makes sexual harassment almost a part of the work,” said Julia Ackerly, a member of the executive council of the Campaign Workers Guild, which pushes to unionize campaign staffs. “Particularly for campaigners who identify as women, this is a very pervasive reality.”
Miller said the DCCC has put in place procedures against harassment including requiring its campaigns to establish a “strong, written sexual harassment policy,” while all staffers must complete “an extensive online training in sexual harassment.”
Staffer’s criticism of Ethics Committee
Following the revelations about his behavior in the media, Kihuen bucked calls to resign from both Luján and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, triggering the Ethics Committee investigation.
The investigation was costly and took an emotional toll, Register wrote.
“Is the congressman also sorry that, instead of resigning as Leader Pelosi and Chairman Luján asked, he chose to drag Ethics Committee staff and multiple witnesses through a months-long investigation?” Register wrote.
Learning about the House Ethics Committee as a layman was difficult, she wrote, so she hired a lawyer. Her legal expenses topped $5,000.
Following the committee’s questioning — which included reading her text messages about Kihuen’s behavior aloud — Register felt emotionally drained and undignified. She traveled alone on her trip to to Washington to meet with the committee because her husband’s travel and lodging expenses would not be paid for.
Chief counsel to the House Ethics Committee Tom Rust declined to comment for this story.