2020 On the issues: Addressing the #MeToo movement

  • The N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence’s Victims’ Rights Series included a visit from presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Courtesy of Dan Ryan

  • Lyn Schollett, the executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, with former Vice President Joe Biden during an event at University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce Law School in November 2019. Courtesy of Dan Ryan

  • Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, takes a photo with sexual assault survivor Tina Smith following a roundtable discussion in Concord as part of The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence's FITN Victims' Rights Series. —Courtesy

  • Evelyn Yang, wife of presidential candidate Andrew Yang, left, with sexual assault survivor Tina Smith at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Concord in January 2020. —Courtesy

  • The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence's FITN Victims' Rights Series has included visits from 2020 presidential candidates Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, as well as Andrew Yang's wife Evelyn Yang. Courtesy of Dan Ryan

  • Concord resident Mary McGahan, left, with former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg at a coalition event in Concord. —Courtesy

  • Concord resident Mary McGahan, left, with former Vice President Joe Biden at an event at University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce Law School in Concord. —Courtesy

  • Actress and advocate Ashley Judd  —Courtesy

  • Actress and advocate Ashley Judd meets with advocates and survivors at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Concord as part of the victims’ rights series on Feb. 5, 2020. Judd is campaigning on behalf of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 2/6/2020 4:38:29 PM

Childhood sexual assault survivor Tina Smith is frustrated that issues central to the fight against domestic and sexual abuse – including economic empowerment, transitional housing and prevention education – are often absent from presidential candidates’ stump speeches and the national debate stage.

“My true passion is to make sure that what I experienced as a victim doesn’t happen to another little girl,” Smith said during a recent interview in her hometown of Concord. “I want to hear or know that they share my concerns.”

Smith has been attending a series of candidate forums hosted by the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence since last summer. She has asked pointed questions and offered a little education, too.

“Do they know that the federal constitution doesn’t provide equal rights for crime victims? They may not, and that’s okay, but they should be open to learning about it, and to having conversations with survivors about why that’s important,” she said.

While the #MeToo movement has served to raise awareness nationally about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in society, Smith said the topic of interpersonal violence is still hard for some people to talk about. The tide is changing, but it has been slow, she said.

“I don’t know if it’s a comfort level, lack of knowledge on the topic, or if because there is no ‘buzzword’ attached to it,” she said.

While sexual and domestic violence has historically been overshadowed by a sea of hot-button campaign issues, such as health care, the economy, education and foreign policy, advocates and survivors in the first-in-the-nation primary state have made it their mission this 2020 election cycle to bring it to the forefront and to actively engage candidates one-on-one, no matter their background or political affiliation. Since summer 2019, the coalition, which oversees the state’s 13 crisis centers, has held roundtable discussions and smaller briefings with 14 presidential candidates as part of its “First-in-the-Nation Victims’ Rights Series,” and additional events are likely.

Male versus female

Two of the candidates who have not attended are U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, two of the three women left in the Democratic race. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren didn’t attend either, but sent actress Ashley Judd as a surrogate on Thursday. Other candidates sent surrogates as well.

The voters attending these events said they are looking for a candidate with a proven track record and the follow-through to facilitate real change, regardless of if they are a man or a woman.

“Voters are looking to make sure that their candidate is going to engage in a respectful and meaningful way,” said Lyn Schollett, executive director of the coalition.

The purpose of hosting these discussions was partly for voters, but also for the candidates. One main goal was to increase all candidates’ understanding and awareness about the challenges survivors face and to get them to prioritize safety in the home, in the workplace and on school campuses across the country.

“The reality is that most of these candidates are not going to be elected president. But, if they leave these conversations with more information about how they can help people be safe and appropriately respond to victims in a trauma-informed way, we believe we’ve moved the ball forward,” she continued.

While some of the candidates who took part in the series have since dropped out of the race, including former U.S. Rep. John Delaney and U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, others – such as former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg – remain viable contenders for the Democratic nomination.

Biden, who served decades in the U.S. Senate, authored the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a federal law that aims to end violence against women by improving criminal justice and community-based responses to domestic and sexual violence, dating violence and stalking. His work on that law was the focus of a coalition-sponsored event this past November at University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law, where he also spoke about the importance of changing the culture that enables sexual and domestic violence, as well as strengthening access to support services for survivors.

Despite criticism of Biden for being “too touchy” with women and for his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, Smith and others feel he is a viable candidate who understands.

Smith said Biden fought hard for Violence Against Women Act and he’s going to continue to do so regardless of the outcome of the election in November. She said he is the prime example of an older, white male candidate who genuinely understands the issues most central to women and survivors. As an attendee of the Biden panel discussion, Smith said what struck her most is the personal story he shared about why issues of sexual and domestic violence are a priority for him.

“This has been the passion of my life,” Biden told voters at the law school that afternoon. “The press always thought that because I was so passionate about this, my mother must have been a victim, or my sister, or a family member. But I got here because I was raised by a really decent man who thought that the greatest sin that could be committed was the abuse of power and the cardinal sin was for a man to raise his hand to a woman or a child.”

The statement from Biden resonated with Smith on several levels. She said even though Biden was not personally affected by domestic violence, he has used his privileged position to fight for change.

“I feel men raising strong, respectful men with an understanding you never hit a woman is the first step in prevention,” she said.

Fellow Concord resident Mary McGahan, who has attended several of the coalition’s events with candidates, said what resonated with her was Biden’s interaction with domestic violence and sexual assault survivor Tiffany Roberts, who spoke as part of the panel about her experiences and the need for greater resources in more rural counties.

“He had such compassion in his face and in his body for what she went through,” said McGahan, who was previously a victim of stalking. “He sat at the table afterward and carried on a personal conversation with her and it was clear how much her story resonated with him.”

While Biden has been viewed as a leading candidate on these issues, whether or not women would give him their support has been a leading question since his campaign launched.

Smith said when she saw Biden put his arm around another survivor in attendance at the November 2019 event, it made her a bit uneasy. However, she felt it was a genuine gesture. She said she would encourage all of the candidates to be more cautious and to always ask permission first.

In addition to the Biden event in Concord, both Smith and McGahan attended the coalition’s conversation with Buttigieg and spoke favorably about his plan to close the gender pay gap and address economic disparities that disadvantage minorities and women. Buttigieg has also pledged to choose women for 50% of his cabinet and judicial appointments if elected president.

Although newer to the national stage, Buttigieg’s “Women’s Agenda” is one of the most thorough on women’s rights – something that Smith finds impressive.

“Because of my history and experience as a survivor, I can spot instantly if someone is trying to sell me,” Smith said. “I could tell right away he was genuine and did his homework.”

‘Considering theconversations’

Amanda Grady Sexton, the coalition’s director of public affairs, led efforts to reach out to each candidates’ campaign to invite them to join survivors and advocates in a conversation in New Hampshire. The topics varied depending on a candidates’ strengths and interests and ranged from economic empowerment to safety on college campuses to the co-occurrence of trauma, mental health and substance abuse. She said the Buttigieg campaign’s follow-up with the coalition after the event was particularly noteworthy.

“They were really considering the conversations that we had around that table and were committed to prioritizing these issues in their conversations with voters and in stump speeches,” Grady Sexton said. “That’s what we want to hear because this isn’t something that campaigns are traditionally talking about.”

Both Schollett and Grady Sexton said the coalition felt an obligation to do the victims’ rights series to help elevate survivors’ voices in the state, which is uniquely positioned with its first-in-the-nation primary.

“When we have our top politicians and leaders in the country talking about these issues in an important way, that’s when people break their silence,” Grady Sexton said.

When candidates themselves haven’t been able to attend, they’ve sometimes sent spouses or celebrity supporters in their place. Recently, Evelyn Yang, wife of entrepreneur and presidential candidate Andrew Yang, met at the coalition with voters for a roundtable, which included Smith. Evelyn Yang recently disclosed that she was sexually assaulted by her gynecologist in 2012, when she was pregnant with her first child.

“She wants to make sure that crisis center services and prevention efforts like we have in New Hampshire are available to survivors throughout the country,” Smith said. “Whether Andrew wins or not, that’s a path she will continue to pursue, and I really value that and was impressed by her.”

In recent days, Warren sent Ashley Judd, who was the first famous actress to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, making her an early face of the #MeToo movement. Warren has spoken in support of the movement and federal laws that protect access to reproductive care.

The coalition said that they’re still in conversations with the campaigns of Klobuchar and Gabbard, who have yet to visit or send a surrogate in their place.

Klobuchar, like Buttigieg and Biden, has expressed support for closing what is known as the “boyfriend loophole” to enhance VAWA and stop people who have a history of abusing their partners from owning guns. She has also presented a plan to combat sexual harassment in the STEM fields, and, like the other candidates, supports paid family leave affordable childcare and closing the gender pay gap.

Gabbard, who has made her military service a key part of her presidential bid, has spoken about the importance of addressing and preventing sexual assault and harassment in the military.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, has been a strong advocate for women’s rights, including equal pay, a woman’s right to access contraceptives and the right to choose a safe abortion. Like others in the field, he has called for the reauthorization of VAWA and the strengthening of domestic violence and stalking laws. Sanders met with advocates in the backdrop of Dartmouth College in Lebanon last year to discuss campus safety.

But Sanders, too, has faced criticism since Warren accused him of saying he did not think a woman could be elected president.

Deval Patrick, who served as governor of Massachusetts between 2007 and 2015, and his wife will be meeting with the coalition at its downtown office on Monday, the day before the first-in-the-nation primary vote.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)

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