Facing a spirited challenge from a woman half his age who is determined to turn out female voters to defeat him, Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell is portraying his role in resolving a sexual harassment scandal in the 1990s as evidence of his feminist bona fides. “I think I demonstrated 19 years ago, in the toughest possible position, how this ought to be handled,” he says, referring to his vote to oust Republican Bob Packwood from the U.S. Senate over allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
In a video distributed by the McConnell campaign, he explains, “I was chairman of the Ethics Committee charged with the responsibility of dealing with a member of my own party as chairman [of] the most important committee in the Senate. After investigating the case and bringing together all of the evidence I moved to expel him from the Senate. And the Senate on the verge of expelling him, he decided to resign.”
Most voters today barely remember Packwood, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was a long time ago, back when Congress functioned, and bipartisanship was real. McConnell tells only part of the story, the part that’s favorable to him, where he looks like a stand-up guy for women. He leaves out the nearly three years he and his colleagues spent protecting Packwood, and his sparring with newly elected Senator Barbara Boxer, who wanted public hearings into Packwood’s behavior. He dismissed her efforts as “frolic and detour,” and warned if she didn’t back off, the GOP, which controlled the Senate, would retaliate with public hearings into any and all Democratic indiscretions.
Packwood chaired the Senate Finance Committee and as McConnell notes in the quote above, was one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill. He had a reputation as a womanizer, which wasn’t uncommon for men of his generation in the Senate at the time. He was also having an affair with his chief of staff, who would later become his wife, and that wasn’t unusual either. “There were plenty of members having relationships with senior women, but they weren’t doing it with multiples of people all the time,” recalls a woman who held key staff jobs for several Republicans during this era and spoke to the Beast on condition of anonymity. “There were senators in the early 1990’s who fired women who wouldn’t have sex with them,” she said, “and because he (Packwood) knew other senators were doing these things, he couldn’t understand, ‘Why are they coming after me?’”
Sexual mores were changing. The all-male Judiciary Committee’s brutish grilling of Anita Hill over her accusation of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas blew the lid off the frat-club behavior on Capitol Hill and helped elect a record number of women to Congress in 1992, including Boxer. Her push for public hearings on Packwood irritated her Democratic male colleagues along with the Republicans. The humiliation of the Hill-Thomas hearings was still too fresh for them.
Two weeks after the 1992 “year of the woman” election, The Washington Post published a front-page story documenting ten women who’d had unwelcome approaches from Packwood. A women’s group put up an 800 number, and 27 more women responded. Many had worked for him over the years; he had been in the senate since 1969. “Until the women’s groups turned on him, which they did after that article came out, he’d been a champion of women,” says the former GOP staffer. She recalls lawyers poring over definitions of sexual harassment, a relatively new term, educating members and staff about power relationships in the workplace.
"The concept of a hostile work environment was being discussed, it was a new thing," she says.The Republican leadership circled the wagons, wanting to believe partisanship played a role. Asked about McConnell’s threat to hold hearings about Democrats, even dredging up Senator Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, Majority Leader Bob Dole said that wasn’t too long ago, “It was ’69, the same year as the first allegation against Packwood.”
A month before the Ethics Committee vote that McConnell boasts about today, he and Dole were publicly defending Packwood. “It’s hilarious to think these are his feminist bona fides,” says a Democratic Senate aide, who doesn’t want to be quoted by name so close to an election that could return McConnell to office for another six-year term, this time perhaps as majority leader. “It’s so long ago, he thinks he can get away with it,” says the aide. The legislative maneuvering once so vivid blurs with the passage of time, and all that McConnell wants voters to know is that he finally did the right thing after all else had been exhausted.
“For McConnell it actually was a vote of conscience against his party and against his friend,” says the GOP staffer. She remembers that minutes before the full Senate was scheduled to vote on whether to accept the Ethics Committee recommendation to expel Packwood, he resigned. Additional revelations about how he altered his diaries, which had been subpoenaed, plus an additional underage woman stepping forward made it likely that the senate would reach the necessary two-thirds majority.
McConnell is an institutionalist; he likes to keep things secret. He is described as having been “appalled” by Packwood’s behavior, but he dragged his feet so long on bringing this scandal to a close that the statute of limitations long ago ran out. “I’m not sure anybody gets credit for a vote that passes with a majority,” says Jennifer Duffy with the Cook Political Report. “Even if he was ahead of his time on this, I’m more interested in what he’s done since.”
The Kentucky Senate race is rated a toss-up, but most insiders think McConnell has it. “He’s not likeable; she’s likeable,” says Duffy. “But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about who do you trust, and they (voters) know he will go to the mat for them on coal. They have questions about her.”
Refusing to say who she voted for in 2008 and 2012 has hurt Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. The coming days will test whether her campaign has the smarts to counter McConnell’s dubious claim that a single vote in September 1995 should inoculate him from all the anti-woman votes he’s taken since then.