In theory, there should have been some justice for Samantha Register.
In December 2017, Register claimed to BuzzFeed that a freshman congressman, Democrat Ruben Kihuen of Nevada, had sexually harassed her while she served as finance director for his 2016 campaign. The story appeared as dozens of sexual harassment allegations were cascading through statehouses and the wider political world, and the Democratic establishment unreservedly took her side. There were immediate calls for Kihuen to resign. Later, a congressional ethics investigation determined that Register’s story was credible — and not an isolated case. Kihuen didn’t run for a second term in Congress and has since receded from national politics.
But then again, so has Register.
“I gave up on finding a full-time job after a while,” she told HuffPost. She quit Kihuen’s campaign in April 2016 over his alleged harassment, and, realizing how vulnerable workers are on the campaign trail, quit politics. For a year she tried without much success to transition to a career in nonprofits. She took a steep pay cut; she paid an onerous fine for breaking her lease in Las Vegas. Finally, she decided to go to graduate school.
Register’s disenchantment with the systems she encountered shows how the political world is still struggling to enact sufficient protections for people who make harassment complaints. And it exposes the reality that politics is a messy agglomeration of staffers, contractors and party officials who are co-workers in practice but officially lack common supervisors.
“What do you think is going to happen here?”
Register had joined Kihuen’s campaign as director of finance in December 2015. Over her repeated objections, she claimed, Kihuen propositioned her for dates and sex and touched her legs. In April 2016, she quit.
At the time, Kihuen was neither a sitting member of Congress nor even the Democratic nominee; he was simply a candidate for the Democratic nomination. That left Register unsure about who had oversight of Kihuen’s conduct. In reality, no one did, but Register contacted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the national body charged with electing Democrats to the House.
The midlevel DCCC staffer Register dealt with didn’t believe she wanted him to escalate her complaint, according to text messages they later exchanged, or that the DCCC had a mechanism for doing so.
“It’s not our purview,” he wrote.
When she chided him months later for not sending her complaint up the chain, he barked that she couldn’t expect the group to do much of anything about such complaints.
“What do you think is going to happen here?” he wrote. “You’re not an employee. We’re not supervisors of campaigns. And we’re not the police.”
“I’m still having trouble understanding what even the point of that was.”
More than a year later, Register spoke with BuzzFeed. The House Ethics Committee launched an ethics investigation.
The nine-month investigation had more procedures than the DCCC did, but felt no more humane. The committee strongly encouraged her to hire an attorney, whose fees added up to $5,000. In the hearing in which she was called to testify, without warning her, members of Congress discussed private messages between Register and her husband that she had turned over as evidence.
Register understood the committee was striving to be dispassionate and fair, but she struggled to see the ultimate benefit. The committee released its findings late last year without first notifying her — she found out over Thanksgiving when reporters began to contact her — and issued Kihuen a reproval, its least serious form of reprimand; it doesn’t carry any material punishment.
“I’m still having trouble understanding what even the point of that was,” she said. She decided that if another person asked her whether to testify before the same committee, she would tell them they didn’t have to if they didn’t want to.
Register has yet to be approached privately by many of the people offering public plaudits for her bravery. “People in the party haven’t reached out to me to say, I’m sorry this happened, can you tell us what happened?”
“We strongly urge campaigns to take harassment allegations extremely seriously.”
Today, the DCCC has an internal policy and procedure for sexual harassment and requires its own staff to become familiar with the policy via an online course. It offers campaigns examples of sexual harassment policies and employee handbooks and requires the campaigns it works with directly to put a sexual harassment policy in writing. The candidates in those campaigns and their staffers must also undergo the online training.
“When complaints come to our attention,” a DCCC spokesman said, “we strongly urge campaigns to take any harassment allegations or other employee concerns extremely seriously and take immediate and effective action to ensure a safe and professional workplace.”
“Unequivocally,” he added, “staff is trained and instructed to pass abuse reports up the chain.”
But just as in 2016, campaigns remain largely autonomous, with no one exercising the final authority that a human resources department would have. Short of filing a lawsuit, or working for the rare campaign with an HR department, a person harassed during a political race has no ultimate arbiter for their complaints.
The spirit of the response to a person like Register is just as important as the procedures, said Alexis Ronickher, an employment and whistleblower attorney with the Washington law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks.
“If there’s more faith in the internal mechanisms of the party caucuses or the party campaign arms, that a staffer could go to them and say, ‘This is happening to me,’ and there would be action, that would make a difference,” she said.
A system that feels set up for the sake of having a system and lacks buy-in from the organization around it is not enough to truly prevent and address problems, she continued. “They should want to do it just as a politically smart move, to say, ‘Let’s not buffoon our way into another scandal.’”
This November, the House Ethics Committee, having interviewed a dozen witnesses and read thousands of pages of texts and emails, determined that Kihuen “made persistent and unwanted advances towards women” — three of them — “who were required to interact with him as part of their professional responsibilities.” One woman, a political consultant, testified that Kihuen hit on her and suggested he could help her career if she reciprocated. A Nevada lobbyist testified he slid his hand under her dress and implied they should make a sex tape. (Kihuen, who did not respond to a request for comment, has said he didn’t agree with aspects of the report but extended his “sincere apologies.”)
This month, he launched a campaign for Las Vegas City Council.