Note: This opinion piece is in response to the Nov. 13 My Turn called “Choose Respect,” written by Rep. Mike Chenault.
The week after the Harvey Weinstein scandal rocked Hollywood, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said it would be “naïve” to think sexual harassment isn’t a problem in Congress or any other American institution. The only way to interpret that is he must have been aware of the problem, but like almost all men in powerful positions, chose not to anything about it.
Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, is one of those men. He’s served in the state Legislature since 2001 and was the longest serving Speaker of the House in Alaska history. But because he’s running for governor, he needs people to believe the reason he never acted is because he knew “absolutely nothing” about “the prevalence of sexual abuse and the dehumanizing behavior that women routinely face” until now.
Like Ryan, Chenault’s public career began a few years after President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his sexual affair with Monica Lewinski. After that we’d learn how, as a candidate in 1992, Clinton lied about an extra-material affair he had with Gennifer Flowers while he was governor of Arkansas. And three other women accused him of sexually inappropriate behavior.
“Sexual harassment is a subtle rape,” a psychologist from the University of Washington told a New York Times reporter in 1991. It’s “a way for a man to make a woman vulnerable.”
Sounds like Clinton perhaps, but that story followed Anita Hill’s testimony during the Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings. That’s the event that brought sexual harassment into public consciousness.
It’s highly improbable anybody elected to public office over the next decade was unaware of Hill’s testimony or Clinton’s infidelity. Or that, for obvious reasons, Congress mandated sexual harassment training for federal employees years ago. It’s required for state workers too.
Weinstein’s story is a reminder, not a revelation, that powerful men have abused women and gotten away with it for years. More than a few of them roamed the halls of Congress. Certainly Chenault has heard of Anthony Weiner, Eric Massa, and David Wu. While he was Speaker, they all resigned from Congress after credible sexual harassment complaints were made against them.
More recently and closer to home, the University of Alaska reopened 23 sexual assault and harassment complaints last year.
In 2015, an investigative report about the Alaska National Guard scandal stated there were 10 reports of sexual assault or harassment between 2010 and 2014, and possibly many more which went unreported because victims didn’t trust their superior officers to help them. Legislators should have read that report because its findings led to reforms to Alaska’s Code of Military Justice, a bill which, as Speaker, Chenault presided over.
The U.S. military has a bigger problem. In 2014 alone, the Army demoted Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair for sexual misconduct, its lead prosecutor for sexual assault cases was accused of committing the crime himself, and a dozen sailors on a submarine reportedly made numerous videos of female shipmates undressing in the shower.
That last story is similar to one about President Donald Trump. In 2005, on a nationally syndicated talk show, he told Howard Stern how he got away with walking unannounced into the dressing rooms of beauty pageant contestants while “they’re standing there with no clothes” on.
Chenault may not have listened to that interview 12 years ago. But he couldn’t have missed when Trump’s self-incriminating statement was confirmed by five former contestants during the campaign. Despite that, he endorsed him for president. And continued to even after the Billy Bush video further displayed Trump’s disgusting behavior toward women.
Now Chenault wants to apologize for “society’s cultural and callous indifference” to the problem. Yes, society shares the blame. But the real callousness here is how has he has the nerve to play the naïve card despite the evidence he chose to ignore while serving in our Legislature.
What Chenault’s silence has really done is enable the behavior he’s now condemning. That’s why he’s unqualified to tell anyone we need a “a zero-tolerance policy” against it. And why he’s not a good candidate to be our next governor.
I don’t think that’s an unfairly harsh judgment. But if it is, and he’s really had his head buried in an oil well all these years, then that proves Chenault is unfit lead our great state anywhere.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.