One of the more hopeful developments to take flower in American culture during the Trump era is the #MeToo movement. While women have been calling out and resisting predatory and inappropriate behavior by men since the beginning of time, there’s no denying that the emergence of Trump – that paragon of misogyny, sexism, malignant narcissism and exploitative inequality – has provided a huge injection of life into the movement.
From the high energy women’s marches that sprang up almost spontaneously at the time of Trump’s inauguration, to the promising growth in the number of female political candidates nationwide, to the sudden and long overdue demise of the “boys will be boys” defense when it comes to claims of predatory or boorish male behavior, the change has been obvious and inspiring.
Unfortunately, for all of the progress we’ve been witness to, there’s still a very long way to go. This is especially evident in the world of politics where many leaders have gotten the message, but many others have not.
Aside from Trump, two exemplary incidents stand out at the national level.
The first was the stunningly rapid demise of former Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who despite having been accused of behavior that paled in comparison to the allegations against Trump and so many other prominent figures, was quickly and appropriately cast aside by his fellow Democrats.
The flipside to Franken, of course, is Brett Kavanaugh, who was not only not punished by Republicans when credible allegations of truly predatory behavior came to light, but rewarded with a lifetime job on the U.S. Supreme Court.
It would be wrong to cast this issue exclusively in partisan terms – there have, after all, been Democratic men who have wormed their way out of punishment for inappropriate action toward women and Republican men who have not – but it’s hard not to see some partisan (or, at least, ideological) aspects to this debate. After all, polls indicate Republicans are more skeptical of the #MeToo movement and, of course, there is the matter of Trump himself.
Here in North Carolina, this divide has, sadly, been on display of late as Gov. Roy Cooper and House Speaker Tim Moore demonstrated the right and wrong ways to deal with inappropriate behavior by public servants.
The good example came from Cooper, who made sure that state Board of Elections chairperson Robert Cordle was out of a job within hours of his having told a crude, sexist and wildly inappropriate joke to a gathering of several hundred election officials last week.
This was not the first time that Cooper has taken such decisive and nonpartisan action. Early in 2018, Cooper spoke out quickly and forcefully when multiple individuals came forward to accuse a state lawmaker of his own party of inappropriate behavior.
Too bad House Speaker Tim Moore didn’t employ similar standards in a case involving much more serious allegations.
I speak, of course, of the case of former State Rep. Cody Henson, who was accused by his estranged wife of multiple wrongful acts – some involving perceived threats of violence. Back in March of this year, a judge ordered Henson to turn over all of his firearms to law enforcement officials after a prosecutor informed a judge that Henson – who has been accused of repeatedly sending his wife harassing texts after being asked to stop – “posted an image of firearms to social media the morning after a heated argument with his wife in early 2018, which she perceived as a threat of violence.”
Unfortunately, despite this remarkable state of affairs, Speaker Moore took no public stance on the matter and Henson remained in office – offering only a lame pledge to leave office in January of 2021. In early July, Henson even abstained from a vote on proposed domestic violence legislation that came before the House – an act that made clear he was not in a position to properly represent his constituents.
After several lengthy delays in his trial, Henson ultimately pled guilty to criminal cyberstalking in late July and was sentenced to 18 months of probation. A day later, he resigned from office.
It shouldn’t have taken that long. Moore and other House GOP leaders were clearly in a position to demand Henson’s resignation much earlier in the year and should have done so. Their failure to act would have conveyed a terrible message and constituted a serious dereliction of duty in any era, but it was especially egregious in 2019.
The bottom line: Gov. Cooper is right that there must be zero tolerance when it comes to inappropriate and abusive behavior. Harsh as it may seem in some instances, public service is a privilege, not a right, and the common good is far more important than the future of any individual politician or political appointee.