Our society is in the thick of a long overdue reckoning with a troubling legacy of sexual harassment and abuse that has put countless people in harm’s way, most of whom are women. The sexual harassment scandal that put New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s predatory actions under the microscope is but the latest and most prominent example of the indisputable truth that women have been exploited and victimized by powerful men for a very long time.
Acknowledging this painful reality is the first step toward eradicating sexual harassment from our society. Creating a system that supports victims and encourages them to come forward is essential to holding offenders accountable for their actions. Accountability can look like what happened to local public relations consultant T.J. Bucholz, whose business imploded after numerous former employees described a toxic work environment and Bucholz’s relentless sexual harassment. Former mayor Virg Bernero’s attempted comeback was challenged by anonymous allegations of groping and unwanted sexual overtures and ultimately derailed by a credible accusation of sexual harassment by a former employee.
Now comes the case of Kathie Dunbar, a four-term member of the Lansing City Council who announced her mayoral candidacy as Bernero exited the race. Immediately she faced a 15-year-old allegation from a former friend that Dunbar had sexually propositioned her and used racially charged language. Dunbar’s accuser, Rina Risper, is the longtime publisher of a Black community newspaper in Lansing. She’s also an avowed supporter of mayoral candidate Patricia Spitzley.
We’re not convinced that Risper’s allegations are true. We note that the alleged incidents she describes are private, personal interactions between consenting adults. Even if they are true, we’re not convinced that they rise to the level of sexual harassment. And, there is no connection to a workplace that could implicate unequal power dynamics between a supervisor and employee. There is, however, evidence to suggest that Risper’s claims are motivated by a longstanding personal beef between her and Dunbar. Based on what we know now, we’re not willing to throw Dunbar under the bus over Risper’s claims.
We believe that truth is just as important in the court of public opinion as it is in a court of law. When someone breaks the law and is charged with a crime, our system of criminal justice affords them a presumption of innocence until credible evidence is presented that proves their guilt. In today’s version of the court of public opinion, people can be convicted and canceled based solely on the recollections of the accuser. Allegations that are confirmed by contemporaneous witnesses have added strength. During a recent Facebook podcast, Risper claimed “she doesn’t need proof” and repeatedly referred to Dunbar as a “monster.” This sort of hyperbolic language strains the credibility of the accuser. Harvey Weinstein is certainly a monster. There is no evidence to suggest that the same term can remotely be applied to Kathie Dunbar.
Nor are we losing any sleep over Dunbar’s former side hustle as a standup comedian. Her routines definitely ran toward the raunchy side, and for those who are easily offended there’s plenty of ammunition to cast her as a depraved person. This aspect of her past is also being used against her in the mayoral campaign. We’re not buying it: We have watched how Dunbar comports herself on the political stage for 16 years. She knows and respects the difference between her two audiences.
Make no mistake: We’re firmly in the camp of those who believe that survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault should be heard. Where we part company with the most strident supporters of the #MeToo movement is unquestioning acceptance of every allegation as fact. We still believe in truth, fairness and justice. Accordingly, we’re not willing to blindly accept that every accusation is credible, especially in the heat of a political battle where false allegations are more likely to surface as part of a campaign’s attack strategy.
This is tricky terrain. Speaking truth as journalists often comes with significant risk that we will be attacked for our views. In this case, we almost certainly will be excoriated by #MeToo activists for hedging on the proposition that every accuser must not only be heard but believed — every time. We think this leaves far too much room for false allegations, and the concomitant negative consequences for people who are unjustly accused.
Sadly, this is what our politics has become. If we accept that every allegation is automatically true, the door opens to all manner of false allegations as a campaign tactic. No matter how flimsy the claim, campaign operatives and those who pay them to deliver a win will take advantage. That’s why we need to be especially discerning when judging accusations of sexual harassment in the midst of a heated political campaign.
In the end, the claims against Dunbar will be adjudicated by the voters of Lansing. That’s as it should be. But voters also need to be aware, if they aren’t already, that political attacks may or may not be true. Voters should consider the evidence and the credibility of the accuser, just as a jury would. They should consider the character and track record of the accused: Are the claims consistent with what you already know to be true?
It would be a miscarriage of justice if a qualified, experienced, progressive woman like Kathie Dunbar was denied the chance to continue her laudable public service career because we have allowed the bar to drop so far that any allegation, true or not, is good enough. It’s not good enough for us.