What a staffer’s sexual harassment scandal means for Kirsten Gillibrand

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks at the 2019 Women's March in Iowa.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks at the 2019 Women's March in Iowa.
Michael F. Hiatt/Shutterstock.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks at the 2019 Women's March in Iowa.

What a staffer’s sexual harassment scandal means for Kirsten Gillibrand

New York’s junior senator had a reputation as a champion of victims. Will the allegations hurt her presidential bid?
March 12, 2019

On Monday morning, Politico published a story about sexual harassment allegations involving a top staffer to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York lawmaker who has earned a reputation as a champion of victims of sexual assault.

According to Politico, a young female aide accused Abbas Malik, the male aide, of harassment, then complained about the response by the senator’s office and ultimately resigned. Malik was kept on, but he was later dismissed after Politico reached out with additional instances of alleged misconduct. Gillibrand declined to speak with Politico, but provided a statement saying the office had taken appropriate steps to investigate the matter to ensure accountability.

In this week’s “Ask the Experts” feature, we explore what it all means for Gillibrand, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. We reached out to Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College; Doug Forand, a co-founder and senior partner of progressive consulting firm Red Horse Strategies; Bob Liff, a senior vice president at George Arzt Communications; and Bill O’Reilly, a Republican political consultant with The November Team. (City & State also reached out to seven female political consultants who declined to respond.)

What’s your takeaway from the piece?

Jeanne Zaino: The problem for Senator Gillibrand is that she has made a name for herself as the #MeToo senator and as someone who has been has taken a no-holds-barred approach to allegations, including those made against members of her own party (Al Franken and Bill Clinton). And now she is facing her own criticism that her public persona does not match up with her private actions when it comes to how her office handles harassment allegations.

Doug Forand: Reading this piece, it comes across like countless other similar allegations that result in victims feeling like they were not heard and that their claims were not properly investigated. Relying on staff to conduct the investigation was a fundamental mistake, not only because they have their own conflicting interests and relationships, but also because in all likelihood they have no training or experience in conducting these types of investigations. And the defense they offer for the way it was done reads like exactly the kinds of excuses Sen. Gillibrand has criticized in others.

Bob Liff: Writing as someone who is an admirer of the work Sen. Gillibrand has done, the story appears to be a fair recounting of the incident in her office, and is relevant both because of the incident itself and because of her apparent no-tolerance policy when it came to Sen. Franken.

Bill O’Reilly: After a mild fit of schadenfreude, I found this story oddly reassuring. Due process is most important in these cases – more so than political expediency at the end of the day – and it sounds like the accused got a fair shake from the senator's office which, frankly, surprised me. The question, of course, is whether he got too fair a shake, and that's something for which Senator Gillibrand will answer.
 

What (if anything) should Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have done differently? What (if anything) should she do going forward?

Bill O’Reilly: The senator and her staff clearly could have cast a wider net for witnesses to Mr. Malik’s alleged behavior. But that's a 20/20-hindsight observation if there ever was one. What the senator might want to discuss going forward is how such a thing could happen right under the nose of someone who considers herself champion of the sexually harassed. Showing that type of humility might serve her well; it might also help us understand as a nation that this can happen to anyone. Being genuinely blind to someone's misbehavior is not an indictable offense, and it shouldn't be treated as one. Hear-no-evil, see-no-evil is a bona fide human condition. That said, we might want to open our eyes and ears a little bit more in our daily exchanges.

Bob Liff: It appears her office responded appropriately in having the incident investigated, and all offices are somewhat hamstrung in being able to fully and publicly respond out of respect for the privacy rights of the victim.

Doug Forand: First and foremost, she should have had an outside entity conduct a full and independent investigation. She has proposed this as the standard in Congress and she should have voluntarily adhered to it when it involved her office. The argument that an independent investigation was not "realistic or viable" rings pretty hollow – if there’s a genuine interest in making something like an independent investigation happen, a senator can make it happen. Moving forward, she needs to acknowledge that this process did not work for the victim, and that she will require independent investigations for all similar circumstances in her office and in her campaign in the future.

Jeanne Zaino: She should make sure that her public rhetoric matches her private actions and if she finds areas in which this has not occurred she should be upfront of that. One example of that, she has advocated for third party investigations of allegations, and that should be the practice in her office as well. Going forward, she should be open about what she has learned from this case, promise to do better, and not be defensive.

What impact will this story have on Gillibrand’s presidential aspirations?

Doug Forand: This is definitely harmful to her. She’s based a lot of her campaign messaging on her own zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment among her colleagues and other Democrats and to have this out in the press as she’s trying to gain a foothold in the polls undermines one of the foundational pillars of her campaign.

Bill O’Reilly: This will be embarrassing to her, no doubt, but it's not something that can't be turned into a positive over time if she handles it forthrightly. The key is to crawl down from the high horse and launch into an honest discussion. We'll see if she's capable of that, and I suspect that she is.

Bob Liff: As far as her presidential aspirations, she will have to respond forcefully, as she appears to have done in the piece in accepting Mr. Malik’s resignation. I assume some of the other challengers will use this to try and undercut her, just as all of the candidates are subject to the same kind of scrutiny, especially Sen. Sanders’ thus-far inadequate response to allegations of analogous behavior in his 2016 campaign. At the risk of opening myself to criticism, I have to say that Democrats have a tendency to organize a firing squad in a circle when we should be firing out rather than inward, especially facing a grotesque lying, sexist, xenophobic, bigoted and economically illiterate administration headed by you know who.

Jeanne Zaino: At this point the impact is still minimal, but what happens going forward depends an awful lot on how Senator Gillibrand and her office handle the fallout, as well as if any other allegations or stories of this kind surface. Authenticity is key to a presidential race, and any indication to the contrary can be very difficult to overcome in voters’ minds.

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s editor-in-chief.
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