When sexual misconduct allegations surface in the private sector, a boss can say, “You’re fired” — as Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and others can attest. In the political world, it’s never that simple.
Rep. John Conyers has refused to step down even after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged the veteran Democrat from Detroit to do so. Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota faces a Senate ethics investigation but plans to stay on. And Republican Roy Moore is pressing ahead with his Senate candidacy in Alabama despite allegations he sexually assaulted two teenage girls decades ago.
In the recent cases where the alleged harasser worked for a major media organization, the firings have been depicted as necessary to uphold the company’s reputation.
But elected officials “are their own brands,” said Gayle Goldin, a Democratic state senator from Rhode Island. “It’s up to them to decide how they’re going to respond to pressure on them to step down.”
Members of Congress can, as a matter of fact, be expelled by their colleagues. But lawmakers historically have been loath to do that. Since the Civil War, only two have been expelled; they were ousted in 1980 and 2002, both of them for corruption.
Politicians often try to hang on by retaining the support of their base, and cling to the notion that in a democracy, the voters are the ultimate bosses.
In Moore’s case, elements of the national Republican Party have repudiated the fiery religious conservative, but the Alabama GOP — and many voters — remain supportive as he faces Democrat Doug Jones in a Dec. 12 special election.
Debra Katz, an attorney in Washington who specializes in sexual harassment cases, noted that Moore doesn’t need nationwide good will to the extent that TV personalities like Rose and Lauer do.
“With politicians, there’s a spin machine that immediately goes into place — and a different constituency they are playing to,” Katz said. “They’re assuming their political base will allow them to continue in their roles, and they can continue to slap at the press and brand any continued reporting as fake news.”
The Rev. Robert Franklin, professor of moral leadership at Emory University’s school of theology in Atlanta, said an accusation against a politician can play out differently than one against someone in the private sector.
In the political arena, “an alleged transgression often triggers protection, loyalty, and ‘circling the wagons,’ rather than abandonment,” Franklin said by email. “In Roy Moore’s case, the transgression plays into a narrative of persecution of the courageous, righteous leader, even when he has obvious flaws.”
Conyers similarly has a loyal base of supporters in the Detroit area who have been electing him to Congress since 1964. Conyers’ lawyer, Arnold Reed, said Friday that the congressman has done nothing wrong and will “defend himself until the cows come home.”
However, Reed noted that Conyers, 88, was recently hospitalized with health problems and said he will decide in the coming days whether to resign or stay in office.
“John Conyers will be the one to decide,” Reed said. “It’s not going to be Washington.”
One of the factors complicating sexual misconduct cases in politics is the power of partisanship. Attorney Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, said some voters would rather retain a flawed politician from their own party than run the risk of yielding a seat to someone from the other side.
“If you’re a consumer-facing industry, you don’t want to alienate any segment of your audience,” Martin said. “A lot of politicians don’t care if they alienate a big section of the public as long as they keep their core group.”
Some politicians have been toppled by sexual misconduct allegations. A state representative in California and two lawmakers in Minnesota recently announced their resignations. And Kentucky Rep. Jeff Hoover stepped down as state House speaker, though he remains in the Legislature.
In Congress, even when members initiate action against one of their own, ethics investigations can drag on and on. After 19 women accused Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., of sexual harassment, it took three years for the Senate Ethics Committee to complete its investigation. He resigned in 1995, a day after the panel recommended expulsion.
To some members, the traditional approach by Congress is no longer acceptable.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., cited the recent firings of media figures and told reporters, “We don’t do the same, and I think it’s a disgrace.”
Goldin, the Rhode Island legislator, shares some of those frustrations, saying she and other female lawmakers have to contend with “a toxic mix of power and sexism in a heavily male-dominated field.”
“I can’t fire people,” she said. “I can’t change who is in the room, beyond encouraging other women to run for office.”
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