October 17, 2018
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For sexual assault survivors, Collins’ stance on Kavanaugh goes beyond politics

Seth Koenig | BDN
Seth Koenig | BDN
Rape survivor Dini Merz, left, foreground, holds up a poster-sized letter to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, signed by 50 sexual assault survivors from Maine urging the senator to vote against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, or to insist on an investigation into sex assault claims against the judge before a vote is held. A group of approximately 50 demonstrators delivered the letter to Collins' Portland office Monday afternoon, where a member of the senator's staff received it and took notes about what individual demonstrators had to say.

For sexual assault victim advocates in Maine, the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh demonstrate the limitless reach of the #MeToo movement. But they worry that Sen. Susan Collins’ possible vote to confirm Kavanaugh could stymie true progress and compromise her earned position as an ally to victim survivors.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s emotional and tempered testimony on Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee was in sharp contrast with Kavanaugh’s ire-filled and at times caustic defense of himself, predicated on the notion that he was the victim of a coordinated effort by Democrats to derail his nomination.

“We act like survivors owe us this coming forward, and then we lack the ability as a culture to respond to them appropriately and at a minimum, respectfully,” said Cara Courchesne, communications director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“We’re still so stuck in the, ‘Why don’t survivors come forward?’ and my response to that is, ‘Why would they?’” she said. “This is something I haven’t really dealt with in my career before, because it is so partisan.”

As one of three potential swing votes, Collins bears the weight of Kavanaugh’s nomination — and the direct and implicit messages that will be conveyed to sexual assault survivors. In recent weeks, she has become a stalwart in her refusal to disclose whether she will support Kavanaugh. She indicated again Wednesday that she will only decide how to vote after the FBI report is complete later this week.

While she has given short responses to specific questions about aspects of the confirmation, Collins, too, continues to withhold statements about the broader implications of what her vote could mean for survivors of sexual assault.

Ford’s allegations, which date back to the early 1980s when she and Kavanaugh were both teenagers, were made initially public against her wishes earlier this month. Her testimony, which the FBI is investigating, threatens to upend Kavanaugh’s nomination to the high court. Yet if the Senate votes to confirm Kavanaugh, Ford’s proponents argue the gesture will undermine her testimony.

“It would be very hard for victims to feel validated if Sen. Collins votes to confirm him,” said Amanda Cost, executive director of Partners for Peace.

In a process that has become a political thicket, a yes vote from the 65-year-old moderate Republican threatens to weaken her standing, earned in both in policy and behavior, as a bipartisan defender of assault survivors and champion of women’s rights.

“I really do think this will be a moment that will cement her legacy,” University of Maine political science professor Rob Glover said.

Collins, who often touts her bipartisan voting record as a point of pride, voted in 2013 with a Republican minority to expand the Violence Against Women Act, a bill she co-sponsored with Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats. The bill provided $5 billion in funding to state and local organizations that provide services to domestic abuse victims. Later that year, Collins submitted a bill to overhaul the military justice system, following a rash of sexual assault cases by female soldiers against many high-ranking military officials.

“More broadly than Sen. Collins having a reputation as an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse and sex assault, she has a reputation as an advocate for women,” Glover said.

Collins’ belief in a woman’s right to choose an abortion earned her an honor last year from Planned Parenthood as a champion of women’s reproductive rights.

She hasn’t historically been dissuaded by her party affiliation from chiding its leaders, either, including on Wednesday, when she criticized President Donald Trump for mocking Ford Tuesday night at a rally in Mississippi. Since Ford’s allegations were made public, Collins has defended her opportunity to speak before the Judiciary Committee, even if it meant stalling the nomination process.

Indicating a sincere desire to weigh the ramifications of her decision, Collins has consulted with staff from the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault throughout the Kavanaugh confirmation process.

“We have been in close contact with [Collins’] staff, helping to provide context as they consider the sexual assault allegations and Judge Kavanaugh’s suitability for the court,” Courchesne said.

Collins will meet again with the the group Wednesday afternoon, Annie Clark, Collins’ spokesperson, confirmed.

Since Anita Hill was insensitively questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 about her sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, “I do think there has been some progress and some change,” Cost said.

“We have to recognize the fact that things have come a long way. If [Collins] voted no, it would be the ultimate affirmation of that,” she said.

On Friday, before the Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to send Kavanaugh’s nomination to a full Senate vote, Collins opened her schedule to meet with five sexual assault survivors who implored her to vote against Kavanaugh.

One of them, Catherine Perreault, said afterward she felt Collins took her perspective seriously.

“I wanted her to feel the enormity of that. I hope that affects her decision-making,” Perreault said. “All we can do is to share with her, to tell our stories and ask her to represent us, her constituents.”

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

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