More support for due process and Scott Stringer

Yesterday, to my irritation, the New York Times endorsed Kathryn Garcia in the NYC mayoralty primaries.

The endorsement was, in my mind, too early and way too knee-jerk.

No endorsement should be offered to any candidate who urged Scott Stringer to withdraw from the campaign because of a single, suspicious accusation of sexual harassment twenty years ago.

So I was very pleased to see that the Daily News, which hasn’t endorsed anybody yet, carried this sane, calm, clear opinion essay by two women with extensive experience in New York City governance and ethics.

I couldn’t have expressed my thoughts and feelings better. In fact, I didn’t. For proof, click on the above link. I don’t have the advanced skill to temper my anger when I’m so angered. Which is one major reason I could never be a public servant.

Believe women, but follow the evidence

In different ways, the two of us have dedicated our lives to public service, often in the public eye. As a result, we know well that there is a high set of standards and an elevated code of conduct for people like us, one that demands we behave not just legally, but morally and ethically, too.

This brings us to Scott Stringer and the recent allegations made against him last week by a former campaign volunteer. (Full disclosure: Both of us know Scott well. Ruth has endorsed his campaign for mayor; Sharon isn’t making an endorsement, but her wife has endorsed him, as has the UFT, the local home of her union.)

Like us, Stringer has dedicated his life to public service in the public eye. He knows the rules. And as far as we’ve seen, he follows them. We’ve both known him, for decades, as a man of upstanding character. He’s the rare politician motivated by passion and principle rather than ego. An all-in-all mensch. That’s why, when the news broke two weeks ago, we were shocked. Our gut reactions told us it wasn’t true.

But as women who have spent our lives fighting for the marginalized and the oppressed, for people on the fringes of society, for those who are too often ignored and even injured by the powerful, we also knew our gut reactions were irrelevant. We knew that our personal relationships might cloud our judgment, and that that wasn’t fair to the other person involved — a woman who had come forward to tell her story.

What mattered were the facts. If they turned out to prove that Stringer did what he was accused of, we would both see it as disqualifying for any prominent role in public life.

So, we waited for evidence. And we assumed others would too. After all, a serious allegation demands an equally serious investigation. As Maya Wiley put it so eloquently in an op-ed she co-authored one year ago about Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden, “Believing women doesn’t mean we don’t also ask for further information, context and clarification…Accepting the allegation and investigating it is what we mean when we say believe all women.”

With so much at stake, not just for Stringer personally but for our city and its future, we figured that same approach would be taken this time.

Tragically, for all parties involved, that didn’t happen. Instead, within a few short days, prominent politicians and political clubs that had endorsed Scott’s campaign withdrew their support. His opponents self-servingly called on him to withdraw from the race — including Wiley, who notably refused to follow the structure and process that she herself laid out in the Biden case.

Following the initial allegations, we now have a few more facts. While relitigating them here is unnecessary, it’s fair to say that every one we’ve seen supports Stringer’s denial of the allegation and his version of events. Of course, there may still be more details to be investigated, and over time, we will hopefully have a fuller picture of what happened.

For that reason, we refuse to cast aspersions on the person who made these accusations or question her character. We feel fiercely that she, like every woman, has the right to tell her truth. But the rest of us have an obligation to determine the truth, based on the information we have at the present time, and then tell it, too.

At that, we have failed. And as a result, “believe all women” has transmuted into something unrecognizable and definitively unjust: an immediate presumption of guilt based on one accusation, absent any evidence, corroboration or additional allegation. Originally intended as the first step of a long, thorough, and necessary journey toward the truth, the slogan is now being interpreted as a sole directive.

This isn’t just disappointing, especially from those who claim to prioritize facts over fiction and spent the last four years up in arms over fake news. It also sets a frightening and dangerous precedent: If one accusation is all it takes to bring someone down — if facts don’t matter and investigations are irrelevant — then we should expect more such accusations.

Forget about Scott Stringer, and forget about this race. Because even as accusations like this rear their heads in politics, proven to be useful tools in harming campaigns, they won’t be limited to one profession. And the people they hurt most won’t be people like Scott, a straight white man in New York City, but the already marginalized and oppressed, who will have fewer resources to defend themselves.

Is that really the world any of us want to live in?

— Sharon Kleinbaum, a rabbi, is spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Ruth Messinger is former Manhattan borough president and former CEO of American Jewish World Service.

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