As Democrats face an increasingly delicate political situation involving Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, progressive challengers to House incumbents are using the moment to bolster their case for change.
At least half a dozen insurgent candidates have started airing concerns publicly about the Democratic Party’s handling of the developing story, even as Biden and his campaign have emphatically denied Reade’s allegation that he forcibly penetrated her with his fingers in 1993 when she worked as a member of his Senate staff.
Mckayla Wilkes, who is competing against the No. 2 House Democratic leader, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, put it simply in an April 26 tweet: “I believe Tara Reade.”
Those exact words were echoed days later by Lauren Ashcraft, the democratic socialist challenging longtime Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, the chair of the House Oversight Committee. “I believe all survivors as default,” she tweeted.
Similar messages have come from other insurgent contenders. For them, the Reade story is compelling for a number of reasons—several candidates, for example, are themselves women who have spoken openly and candidly about #MeToo issues on the campaign trail. And many have simply never liked Biden in the first place, having supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or other presidential contenders.
What’s more, challengers are running against the party establishment as much as they are against any specific incumbent—and the Reade issue has provided them another opportunity to argue that party leadership is out of touch and in need of replacement.
Indeed, many of the comments and online sentiments from progressive challengers about Reade have zeroed in on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) defense of Biden, which she offered at a recent press conference on Capitol Hill. “The happiest day for me this week,” said Pelosi, “was to support Joe Biden for President of the United States.”
The speaker declared she was “satisfied” with Biden’s explanations, saying “there is also due process, and the fact that Joe Biden is Joe Biden.”
While those words may have been intended by Pelosi as a way to highlight what she sees as Biden’s integrity, several progressive candidates pounced on the phrasing. “Boys will be boys,” tweeted Lindsey Boylan, one of the candidates running to unseat Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York. “That’s what I heard in ‘Joe Biden is Joe Biden.’”
Biden, who had relied on his campaign to dismiss the allegation for weeks, addressed it himself for the first time on Friday, initially releasing a lengthy statement categorically denying Reade’s allegation and then in a cable news interview. “It is not true—I am saying unequivocally, it never, never happened,” he said in an interview with Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “And it didn’t.” Biden’s repeated denials were the first time he had personally addressed the claim by Reade, who worked as a staff assistant in his Senate office at the time.
But as Biden’s team was grappling with how to respond for days before the interview, public chatter had already started among challengers to some of the House map’s higher-profile members.
Rebecca Parson, who is running against Rep. Derek Kilmer in Washington state’s 6th congressional district, pointed out that her campaign has been among the first to urge Biden to answer for what she described as “very serious allegations.”
“I am a lot freer to speak about this stuff,” Parson told The Daily Beast in an interview. “Sexual assault should be a red line for us. We need to be able to distinguish ourselves from the Republicans,” she said. “We can’t win with hypocrisy like that.”
When asked about conversations she’s had with other left-leaning Democrats about the issue over the past few weeks, Parson responded candidly: “With other progressive candidates, they’re really disappointed and disgusted with how the Democratic Party is reacting.”
Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist who is challenging two-term Rep. Josh Gottheimer in New Jersey, said her instinct is to believe women.
“What feels frustrating about this, to me, is that we keep thinking that we’re making so much progress with MeToo,” Kreibich told The Daily Beast. “We’ve gone so far with how we respect women, how we handle their stories, how we give them space to speak, how we give them space to be respected, and how we as a society are able to handle these things. And clearly that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
“The past couple weeks have clarified for me, again, how much change is needed,” she said.
Another female challenger, Zina Spezakis, appeared to be dissatisfied with Biden’s public denial on Friday and said there needs to be more investigating. She zeroed in on what she described as Biden’s “history of inappropriate touching.”
“The outright dismissal of her story is a chilling wake up call to sexual assault survivors,” tweeted Spezakis, who is challenging another New Jersey Democrat, longtime Rep. Bill Pascrell. “The hypocrisy stinks sky-high. And I think most progressives are tired of hypocrisy from their own party after the last month.”
Other candidates, meanwhile, have called out Democratic politicians who are standing by Biden after having taken notable #MeToo stands in the past. “Believing women means we believe them even when it’s not politically convenient,” tweeted Melanie D’Arrigo, who is running against Rep. Thomas Suozzi in Long Island, New York.
D’Arrigo tagged her home-state Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the message: “you taught us that,” she tweeted at the senator. Gillibrand, of course, made waves in 2017 after leading a group of Senate Democrats to call for the resignation of former Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) when allegations of sexual misconduct piled up against him. Gillibrand has defended Biden amid the Reade controversy; she is hosting a virtual town hall for him focused on women’s issues and coronavirus on Thursday.
Few incumbent Democrats facing tough races are especially eager to wade into the charged environment around the Reade allegation. The most viable challengers, however, don’t appear to be either.
In progressive circles, some have noticed a palpable divide among which candidates are and are not putting the Reade comments front-and-center in their messaging. The candidates considered by operatives to have the best chances at unseating incumbents—who have raised the most money and have nabbed endorsements from left-wing kingmakers like Justice Democrats—have largely been silent on Reade.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who’s running a nationally-noticed campaign against Rep. Richard Neal in Massachusetts, has not tweeted or commented on the matter. Neither has Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx teacher who progressives believe has a good shot of defeating longtime Rep. Eliot Engel in New York. Neither campaign responded to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
To some, their caution is not necessarily a bad thing. “The most responsible actors on the left are still trying to figure out what to say,” a progressive operative said. “There’s a lot to weigh. Popping off to score points online doesn’t necessarily befit the complexity of the issue, or the gravity of it.”
While some down ballot Democrats are outspoken, key progressives in the House are still grappling with how to respond to the allegation, which is coming as the party’s left and center wings attempt to move past a bruising primary and onto the November fight against President Trump.
Progressive firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) caught attention for her comments about the Biden-Reade issue at a time in the presidential primary when the party was coalescing around the former vice president at a rapid pace.
On April 15, two weeks before Biden addressed the subject personally, Ocasio-Cortez—an insurgent challenger herself just two years ago—said the allegation was “legitimate to talk about” in an online conversation hosted by the women’s co-working space The Wing. “If we want, if we again want to have integrity, you can't say, you know—both believe women, support all of this, until it inconveniences you, until it inconveniences us,” she said.
And Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a former Sanders campaign co-chair, said “I encourage people to go listen to her and then give her a fair hearing,” adding “ultimately it's for the public to decide.” Khanna endorsed Biden’s bid in late April.
But progressives seem to broadly agree with the assessment that it is the responsibility of all elected officials to speak out in a way that addresses the complexity and nuance of the issue, even in a high-stakes political environment.
“If we can’t, then I’m not sure how we’re going to be able to lead,” Kreibich said. “If we can’t even make the effort and if we keep shutting folks down, and if we keep silencing women, and if we keep being afraid of challenge in this way, we’re not going to make real change happen,” she said.
While at least some progressive challengers are hoping their public push will help move the conversation among more moderate Democrats within Congress, they’re aware of the perception that it can be seen as politically motivated. That perception, they say, is misguided.
“One of the things that centrists and progressives share is that we want to beat Trump,” Parson said. “We are fully in unity and alignment. But what I believe and what lots of progressives believe is that we are not going to beat him by having a contest with who has fewer sexual assault allegations against them.”