The survivors of sexual assault often feel that their voices and their stories go unheard, prompting the recent Me Too Movement. This year one Virginia woman made her #MeToo experience the focal point of her political campaign, telling potential constituents that she knows what it’s like to feel voiceless, and now she’s speaking out.
Claire Russo is a 40 year old combat veteran. She served in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning home and eventually running for Congress in southern Virginia. She is also a rape survivor. That was the story she told to her potential constituents in a campaign video released in May 2020.
In 2004, while serving in the military, Russo attended the Marine Corps Ball where she was drugged and raped by a superior officer. The Marine Corps refused to charge her abuser, or allow her to transfer to another military base. She spent years trying to bring her abuser to justice. She took her case to civilian court with the San Diego district attorney’s office. Eventually, her attacker pleaded guilty to sodomy and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Even that conviction wasn’t enough to get the military to treat Russo’s sexual assault seriously. About halfway through his prison sentence her abuser received an honorable discharge from the Marines, even while she continued to serve her country.
When Ms. Russo decided to run in a southern Virginia congressional race, she could have focused on her military service record, her role as a mother, or any other part of her history. Instead, she chose to make the story of her rape the center of her campaign. She created a video that told her story, starting with a black screen and the year, 2004, and very quickly telling viewers, “I was raped.”
She sees this story as a crucial part of what she would bring to the office. Ms. Russo used a significant portion of her advertising budget to distribute the video, hoping to connect with voters who felt excluded and unheard.
“I have been someone whose voice has been silenced. I have been someone who was denied justice,” Ms. Russo [told the New York Times]. “It is important to show the voters in this district that we can win and that we can take power back.”
Ms. Russo’s video was the first time a political candidate featured her personal recollection of rape. Ms. Russo lost her 2020 election primary on June 23, 2020, pulling just over 18% of the vote. However, her campaign shows the influence the Me Too movement has on politics, and casts a light on sexual harassment among and against the nation’s elected officials.
Ms. Russo’s campaign ad is part of a long line of sex assault stories within politics. When the Me Too movement went viral in 2017, there were several politicians accused of sexual harassment:
Sexual harassment also played a significant role in the 2016 presidential campaign. After video was released showing now-president Donald Trump openly talking about sexual assaulting women, his opponent, Hilary Clinton made it a campaign issue, saying:
"What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women -- what he thinks about women, what he does to women."
Following that debate, a number of women came forward, saying “me too”, raising their own allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior against the current present.
By the 2018 midterm elections, the Me Too Movement was in full swing, and the Democratic Party had made its messages part of the party platform. Democrats running for office set themselves apart, contrasting themselves with the allegations of sexual assault against the President, and his Supreme Court nominee, Brent Kavanaugh.
Even though Ms. Russo is no longer in the race, sexual assault and harassment promises to remain a hot topic in the 2020 election cycle. Earlier this year, before Ms. Russo’s ads aired, Tara Reade accused Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden of inappropriate sexual touching. Ms. Reade worked as a staff assistant in Biden’s Senate office. She said that Mr. Biden had sexually assaulted her in 1993, pinning her against a wall and reaching under her clothing to touch her. Others have also come forward saying that Mr. Biden had kissed, hugged, or touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. The New York Times investigation into the issue “found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden.”
However, the way the Democratic Party has addressed Ms. Reade’s allegations have caused some to claim hypocrisy. In the three years since the Me Too movement Biden and other Democrats have expressed a zero-tolerance position against sexual misconduct, positioning the party as “for women, by women.” That position paved the way for Ms. Russo and other political candidates to come forward and tell their stories of sexual abuse and harassment. Now that there are allegations of the same nature against the presumptive head of the party, gender issues, sexual abuse, and the Me Too Movement promises to play an important part of the campaign leading up to November 3.
Political staffers and federal government employees face sexual harassment and abuse just like in any other part of society. At Eisenberg & Baum, our sex abuse attorneys take every story seriously. If you have been the victim of sex abuse by a superior, colleague, or anyone, we will listen to your story and help you get justice against your abuser. We can meet with you at our headquarters in the heart of New York City, or conference with you remotely, to help navigate the criminal, civil, and regulatory processes needed to help you find justice. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to a sexual abuse attorney.