Using sexual harassment as a weapon
I put in a call to Barbara Boxer to get her take on the sexual harassment complaint brought against Montana Sen. Max Baucus by his former chief of staff, Christine Niedermeier. I’m still waiting to hear back from California’s junior senator.
I thought I might have better luck with Patty Murray or Barbara Mikulski. But, alas, both the Washington state and Maryland senators dissed me.
I found this quite disconcerting. Because Boxer, Murray and Mikulski are the soi dissant consciences of the Senate when it comes to matters of sexual harassment.
Indeed, who can forget how determined Boxer, Murray and Mikulski were to get their former colleague, Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, expelled from the Upper Chamber for sexual misconduct in office?
“They’re just protecting one of their own,” Boxer thundered, when the Senate leadership (male-dominated and Republican) resisted holding public hearings.
“It reminds me of a trial where only one side is heard,” she added, “a miscarriage of justice, any way you slice it.”
Mikulski chimed in. “When women are assaulted and battered,” said she, “they themselves are made to look like the problem rather than the victim.”
So that brings us back to Niedermeier. Baucus hired the attractive, unmarried fortysomething lawyer in May 1998 and began making overtures toward her, she says, a month later.
Some of it was innocuous – like commenting on what Niedermeier was wearing or inquiring about her boyfriends. Some of it less so – like comparing her to the senator’s wife (his second). And some was overt – like asking his chief of staff to accompany him on a weekend trip.
Niedermeier says her repeated rejections of Baucus’ advances, as well as the senator’s fear that she was going to file a sexual harassment suit, led to her recent termination.
Baucus says she’s lying. “Let me state unequivocally that I have never, under any circumstances, sexually harassed Christine Niedermeier,” he declared in a written statement.
The reason he fired his chief of staff, Baucus explained, was because she had bad relations with the office staff. And to substantiate his claim, the senator mentioned a grievance petition against Niedermeier signed by 36 members of his payroll, er, staff.
This is, of course, another “he said, she said” dispute that cannot be proven or disproven beyond a reasonable doubt. And for most senators, this is, arguably, sufficient grounds to give their colleague Baucus the benefit of the doubt.
But Boxer, Mikulski and (to a slightly lesser degree) Murray are a different story. They have consistently rushed to the defense of women claiming sexual harassment when the Senate has been involved in any way.
Indeed, they spoke out on behalf of the women claiming harassment by former Sen. Packwood. And they voiced their solidarity with sister Anita Hill when she aired her harassment claim against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.
Yet, not one of these crusading senators has offered a word of support for Niedermeier. Which leaves her to fend for herself against a man occupying a powerful position.
Boxer, Mikulski and Murray could get away with withholding their support from the likes of presidential accusers Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey. Neither of these women was pedigreed. And both were accused of being unwitting tools of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that aimed to bring down the Democrat in the White House.
But Niedermeier is an altogether different case. She’s a credentialed professional. And she’s a faithful Democrat (who actually sought to represent her party in two Connecticut House races).
That Boxer, Mikulski and Murray have given Niedermeier short shrift reveals their hypocrisy. For had she accused a Republican – particularly a conservative – they would be standing by her side. But inasmuch as she has accused a Democrat, the lady senators have chosen to stand by their man. Niedermeier be damned.
If there is one positive aspect to all this, it is that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives and women and men may finally agree, if only tacitly, that sexual harassment should no longer be used as a weapon to attack and destroy political foes.
That’s the way it should have been going all the way back to Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. And that’s the way it should be with Max Baucus and Christine Niedermeier.
Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.