Claire Russo was attending the Marine Corps ball in 2004 when she was drugged and raped by a superior. And that’s the first thing many voters in Virginia’s 5th District will learn about her, because the Democratic candidate talks about it in a 30-second television ad released Thursday.
“I refused to let him stop me from serving my country in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Russo says in the ad, which describes her efforts to get the rapist jailed after the military declined to prosecute him.
Russo, a former Marine intelligence officer, has spoken publicly about the assault before, including at an Air Force base during Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. She also mentions it in the biography section on her campaign website. But it is among the first times such an ordeal has played a prominent role in a campaign ad, indicating the strides that female candidates have made in recent years to turn personal experiences once considered inappropriate or unimportant into central issues of their campaigns.
Russo, who is running in a crowded primary for a seat her party sees as flippable, lays out the disturbing details over a piano soundtrack and a picture from the night in question. In it, she is smiling, surrounded by female friends in formal clothes whose faces have been obscured.
“I was determined to find justice,” Russo says to the camera, over a newspaper clipping with the headline: “They thought it would go away.”
She goes on to say that she would bring the same fighting spirit to Congress.
“When I reported my assault 16 years ago, I faced a military system that was broken and unresponsive,” Russo said in a statement. “And when I look at Washington now, I see a system that is unresponsive to the concerns of the people of my district.”
She said she was running “to fight for affordable health care, to make sure women are in charge of their own health care decisions, and so that everyone feels safe from gun violence."
Russo is one of four Democrats competing in the June 23 primary in the GOP-leaning 5th District, where Rep. Denver Riggelman is battling to keep his seat against a fellow Republican who is challenging him at a June 13 convention.
Russo has been endorsed by EMILY’s List and had $273,000 in the bank on March 31 after raising almost $431,000. Leading the Democratic field in fundraising was Marine veteran R.D. Huffstetler Jr., who had $340,000 after raising $808,000. Others running include physician Cameron Webb, who had $209,000 after raising $511,000; and Marine veteran John Lesinski, who had $74,000 after raising $260,000.
A handful of other women running for Congress have talked about their personal experience with sexual assault in recent campaigns.
Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican who is one of the 10 most vulnerable senators on the ballot this year, mentions her own military sexual assault in a video she released when she launched her campaign in February. Democrat Usha Reddi, who recently ended her campaign for an open Senate seat in Kansas, talked to CQ Roll Call about her decision to prosecute her father for raping her as a child. He pleaded guilty shortly before she launched her campaign.
Criticism of how the military deals with sexual assault is not new. CQ Roll Call reported last week that despite promising to do so, the Pentagon had not implemented recommendations made in 2011 by the Government Accountability Office to establish a department-wide system to monitor how military leaders were combating harassment and assault.
On May 15, the chairwoman and ranking Republican on the House subcommittee overseeing Pentagon personnel matters called for “immediate action” on the recommendations.