Utah Democrats, sexual harassment, and accountability

by Jason Williams

The longer you are involved with politics the more obvious it is the inclination toward cliques, tribes, bullying, and fighting for or about identity we all learn in grade school stays with us into adulthood. Nothing exposes that sad reality like a controversy.

This isn’t a fun post to write. Empathy for Rob Miller, or anyone, having their past combed over and every personal flaw debated publicly makes me hesitant. Anger at those without clue or scruple condemning the women who signed the letter to leadership accusing him of sexual harassment compels me to. You’re reading it, so you know which won out.

Rob is a friend. I wish him no ill will. My intent here isn’t to pile on. My intent is to tell a single story for accountability. Accountability for Rob, for the party, for all of us who too often see a lot and say so little, and for those so quick to condemn the accusers when the accused is a friend.

The screen shots I’m including here are from an email sent by the spouse of a former candidate to the Utah Democratic Party’s judicial committee ahead of their meeting last week. She was compelled to tell her story after she read Rob’s response to the seven women who signed the letter, accusing them of a political stunt. She has given me permission to share these without her name but is aware many party insiders from those days reading will know who she is from certain details. She stands no personal gain from speaking out. Neither she or her husband are any longer involved in Utah politics. Neither is secretly working for or have ever met any of Rob’s political opponents in this race for chair. She was compelled to share her story with the committee and has agreed to allow me to post some of her story here. They detail several experiences with Rob between 2008 and 2010.

It may be easy for some reading — especially men — to discount the severity of those comments. But imagine being so uncomfortable being talked to or touched in this way you wanted to run (as this woman expressed to me when she first told me about these experiences years ago). Contemplate the anxiety of being approached this way and also realizing this person was a member of party leadership and your husband was, literally, in the other room begging for party support in a campaign he’d invested so much in already. Intentional or not on Rob’s part, that is sexual harassment defined. And I believe that Rob, if he’s reading, cannot credibly deny these exchanges took place.

Now imagine if, knowing the truth, Rob had instead of denying or attacking the women who signed this letter had said “Wow, this is a learning experience for us all. I want to apologize to anyone made uncomfortable by my words or actions.”

Accountability. But it shouldn’t stop there. Oh no.

Monday, the Utah Democratic Party chose to release a statement as the final word from the judicial committee charged with reviewing stories like this one above and others in support of Rob. You can click this link to read it if you choose, but I’m just barely exaggerating to paraphrase it as “Our hands are tied in this ultimately divisive issue and very serious matter. Nothing we can say or do, though. Everyone play nice, okay?!” Anyone involved in that statement should be ashamed. It’s disrespectful to everyone involved, discounts those affected who bothered to come forward, and does nothing to put the issue to rest. A pitiful excuse for leadership at a time when party apparatus should provide exactly that. The committee saw at least what I’ve included in this post and punted. Cowardly and irresponsible.

Wait, wait, there’s more. The protester. The one at the candidate forum with the big sign reading “WHY IS THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY HARBORING A SEXUAL PREDATOR?” You’re not helping anyone. Seriously. In fact, you might be making it worse for everyone, including victims, by overshadowing their story with your magic markers and hyperbole. But you were on TV, huh? Cool. Protest culture.

Sheesh. Get off my lawn!

But in all seriousness, there is one additional finger I want to point–at me, probably you, and a good number of people in and out of party leadership and campaign circles over the years.

We’ve all heard these stories or even witnessed something involving any number of names and faces. I would wager things are the same across the political aisle. It is so easy to chalk it up to a crass sense of humor, or that’s just so and so being so and so… they’re harmless. I know I’m guilty of that. It’s even easier to ignore or actively downplay that what might seem harmless off-color “locker room talk” can be a terrifying reminder to someone who’s been assaulted before and a cause of crushing anxiety even for those who haven’t. For every one woman like the author of the email above brave enough to come forward in this situation or another, there are many more who don’t in a multitude of settings. For every one time sexual harassment or even sexual assault falls into a spotlight there are thousands of times it never sees a single article in print. This isn’t specific to any particular political party or organization or profession. It’s cultural.

Hell, America just elected president a man who bragged about his prowess with unwanted contact.

Those too quick to condemn accusers or victim shame are just as often on the left as on the right, progressive or conservative, men and women.

We all have more responsibility in changing this culture. This incident in the Utah Democratic Party’s race for the chair is an opportunity for us all to be more aware, and welcome some accountability.

We can all do better.

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