On sexual misconduct, Gillibrand keeps herself at the fore

When the floodgates opened on Wednesday to cast Sen. Al Franken aside, following a half-dozen accusations of sexual misconduct, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had positioned herself at the crest of the wave. 

“Enough is enough,” she wrote on Facebook, becoming the first of Franken’s Democratic colleagues to call for his resignation on Wednesday morning. By lunchtime, more than a quarter of Democratic senators had concurred; by evening, a solid majority. Franken has now scheduled a public announcement about his future for Thursday. 

It was the second time in a month that Gillibrand, of New York, widely considered a possible presidential candidate in 2020, stepped to the forefront of the national debate about sexual harassment and powerful men. 

In mid-November, she told The New York Times that President Bill Clinton should have resigned after his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, emerged two decades ago. 

That remark set off an unwelcome round of backward-looking questions for a Democratic Party that has tried to focus on the multiple women who have publicly accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct, and the current Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore, who is accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls as young as 14. 

“I think when we start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping you are having the wrong conversation,” Gillibrand said Wednesday at a Capitol Hill news conference when asked about calling on Franken to resign. “You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is OK. None of it is acceptable. 

“And we, as elected leaders, should absolutely be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard, and we should fundamentally be valuing women, and that is where this debate has to go,” she added. 

Since her arrival in the Senate, where she was appointed to replace Hillary Clinton when she became secretary of state in 2009, Gillibrand has constructed a brand as an advocate for women’s issues in general and sexual assault victims in particular. 

On Capitol Hill, she has made addressing the epidemic of rape in the military a central pursuit, including sparring with military brass in congressional hearings. She has pushed legislation to address campus sexual assault, as well. In November, she became one of the lead co-sponsors of the “Me Too Congress Act” to improve the process for whistleblowers and victims inside Congress. 

Politically, she has created a political action committee to raise money and encourage women to run for office. She calls the PAC Off the Sidelines, the same name she gave her book. (Hillary Clinton wrote the foreword.) 

“I’m not surprised at all that she wants to be on the leading edge of these discussions,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. “It certainly follows what her interests have been in the Senate.” 

While some people have embraced her stances on Franken and Bill Clinton, others have questioned the timing, especially on Clinton, after he and his wife have exited the political stage. 

Matt Canter, a former aide to Gillibrand who remains in touch with the senator, said, “Many people are proud that, at a time like this, she is providing moral clarity both among people in public office and within the Democratic Party. 

But Holmes noted: “It’s one thing to be critical to Bill Clinton. It’s another thing to be critical after his relevance is done.” 

For years, Gillibrand has been politically allied with the Clinton family. Hillary Clinton was one of Gillibrand’s early and most important calls when she first considered running for Congress. When Bill Clinton campaigned for her ahead of her 2006 congressional election, she wrote in her book, “That day still seems like a dream.” 

Gillibrand’s allies have tried to smooth matters over with the Clinton world since her resignation comment. They have noted that her statement about Bill Clinton’s resignation came after she was asked the question more than once, that she paused before answering and that she noted Bill Clinton had served in a different era. 

Philippe Reines, a past adviser to Hillary Clinton and a fierce loyalist, still excoriated Gillibrand on Twitter. “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite,” he wrote. “Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.” 

When the initial allegation of groping and kissing without consent emerged against Franken, Gillibrand was among the first to announce that she was returning Franken’s past donations to her campaign, redirecting them to a group that is focused on sexual assault in the military. 

In the following weeks, Gillibrand and other Democratic female senators have engaged in a sustained conversation about what to do about Franken — on the phone, in person and, at least once, in a women’s restroom on Capitol Hill. 

Gillibrand has visibly struggled with how to treat Franken, a close political ally in the Senate whom she described in Wednesday’s Facebook posting as a “friend” and as “a colleague I am fond of personally.” 

Just the day before, at a women’s conference sponsored by Politico in Washington, she had refused to say whether she thought Franken should step down, even as she said she was “angry,” called for “accountability now” and said his behavior was “wrong” and “can’t be tolerated anywhere.” 

“I’m not going to say that today,” Gillibrand said on Tuesday of Franken’s possible resignation. 

On Wednesday, while others penned short tweets calling on Franken to resign, Gillibrand expounded for more than 600 words about what she called “this moment of reckoning.” 

“At this moment,” she concluded, “we need to speak hard truths or lose our chance to make lasting change.”

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