Dems struggle to vet candidates in fast-moving #MeToo moment

Participants rally outside CNN's Hollywood studios on Sunset Boulevard to take a stand against sexual assault and harassment for the #MeToo March.
Participants rally outside CNN's Hollywood studios on Sunset Boulevard to take a stand against sexual assault and harassment for the #MeToo March. AP

Democrats have spent months boasting about a surge of anti-Trump activism that has driven thousands of progressives to run for public office.

But they didn’t prepare for what came next.

The early exit on Friday of a leading Democratic candidate in a key congressional race – a woman backed by the deep pockets of liberal EMILY’s List – underscored both how unprepared these new candidates are for the unforgiving political scrutiny of a battleground campaign and the difficulty of fully vetting so many recruits.

Andrea Ramsey, a retired human resources executive and employment attorney, announced she was leaving the race on Friday after the Kansas City Star asked her about allegations in a 2005 lawsuit filed by a male subordinate, Gary Funkhouser. He accused Ramsey of making unwelcome sexual advances and firing him after he rebuffed her. She denies the allegations.

Ramsey was one of more than 22,000 women who approached EMILY’s List about running for public office after the election of President Donald Trump last year. Like Ramsey, many of these candidates are new to politics.

That presents a challenge for Democratic leaders in Washington who are trying to harness the surge of enthusiasm in their base while balancing the need to vet candidates and make sure they know what they’re getting into. The background checks have become even more necessary as the politically explosive #MeToo movement to expose sexual harassment reaches every corner of society.

“In the past, both parties were able to use their research departments to conduct a thorough vetting of their own candidates in competitive districts,” said Steve Israel, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But the recent pace and visibility of sexual harassment complaints means that those researchers will have to dig deeper and look wider. It’s going to be much harder to find every bone in every skeleton in every closet.”

For Ramsey, who’d been inspired to run at a protest on the day House Republicans repealed Obamacare, the plunge into what she called the “dirty and rough sport” of politics left her shaken.

“As a first-time candidate, I am disappointed and disillusioned by the political process,” she said in a statement announcing the end of her campaign on Friday.

Democratic women in particular have been motivated to run since Trump’s election. A total of 374 women are running for the U.S. House next year, 305 of them Democrats. Forty-two women are running for U.S. Senate and 75 for governorships, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which runs training sessions for female candidates.

The center’s training highly stresses the need for candidates to vet themselves, Walsh said.

“The questions you need to ask yourself: What are the things in your closet, what are the things that could be misinterpreted about you, and what are are the things that are true about you that could come out — and frankly that will come out?” she said. “There are no secrets anymore. Everything will come out, so you need to do a really hard look at yourself, just as your opponent will take a hard look at you and journalists will take a hard look at you.”

When Ramsey decided she wanted to run for public office, she approached EMILY’s List, which has a vaunted reputation in Democratic politics and over the years has raised tens of millions of dollars to help female candidates who support abortion rights.

In August, Ramsey won the group’s coveted endorsement.

She told the Star that she was “completely transparent” with the group about the existence of the lawsuit, which did not name her as a party. Funkhouser had filed the suit against Ramsey’s then-employer LabOne. Individual supervisors are not named as defendants in federal sexual harassment law suits because they are not considered employers under the law. The suit was dismissed permanently with the agreement of both parties in 2006 following mediation. Multiple sources told the Star LabOne and Funkhouser settled out of court.

EMILY’s List did not respond to questions from the Star about the group’s vetting process for new candidates in general or Ramsey’s case in particular.

The president of EMILY’s List, Stephanie Schriock, had singled out Ramsey as an example in an interview with Cosmopolitan in October about the group’s “Run to Win” initiative for women candidates.

“She says, ‘I’m so mad, I’ve gotta run for office, I would run for anything, I will even run for dogcatcher.’ ... We’re like, OK, Andrea Ramsey. Keep in mind, she said she’d run for dogcatcher. So we do a quick review and find out that that not only is she a former executive of a Fortune 500 company, she left that executive position to go help run a free health care clinic for children. I could write those ads and I’m not even an ad maker.”

On Friday, the group issued a statement saying it supported Ramsey’s decision to end her campaign and quickly removed its endorsement of her from its website.

The nature of the #MeToo movement — women coming forward to tell for the first time their stories of harassment and assault — makes vetting candidates for those sorts of accusation all but impossible.

“Not all of these come out in a vet process, particularly in cases where it's only public if somebody makes it public,” said Mike Bocian, a Democratic pollster. “Most of these, there’s not a document you can find in a vet process or an opposition research process that will bring this out.”

One veteran Democratic operative said parties conducting extensive research on all of their own candidates isn’t feasible. For one, thorough opposition research takes months to finish, the source said, and campaigns — pressed to raise money and build support — don’t have mcuh time to waste before getting started.

“There’s always rumors, and some of them are outlandish, and some of them are ridiculous,” the operative said. “And even then, it’s not always easy to track down.”

Often, the only way a political committee finds out about something in a candidate’s past is if the candidate discloses it.

“And then you’re counting on them telling you the truth,” said the operative. “And more often than not, candidates won’t do that.”

One Democratic strategist said if Democrats want to hold Republicans, including Trump, to account for sexual harassment, they need to pay more attention to these problems in their own house.

“If Democrats want to make a clear contrast with Republicans on this issue, we're going to have to be doubly attentive to our backyard,” the strategist said. “With 1,000 candidates running for Congress, that’s easier said than done.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6078, @Alex_Roarty