LAS VEGAS — He was a powerful man brought down by the #MeToo movement, a local figure who hit on women he worked with repeatedly and who allegedly touched a woman on his staff without her permission. He ultimately left his job over it.
Just a year later, he’s trying to make a comeback. Crisaly Santos is furious.
“To do such a thing as sexually harass women and come back and think, Ah, it’s no big deal ... just overlook what I did because I’ve done so much for the community,” she said as she looked for the next door she needed to knock on in a residential neighborhood in east Las Vegas on Wednesday. “I think that’s a horrible way of coming back, and [horrible] to think so low of us that we would just oversee this.”
The man in question, former congressman Ruben Kihuen, is one of many who lost their jobs at the height of the #MeToo movement. At the time, his disgrace barely registered outside Capitol Hill, where he had not even served a full year when the story broke, and his home state of Nevada, where he had been a rising star.
Now Kihuen is trying to make a comeback unfettered by the elite gatekeepers that have prevented prominent #MeToo abusers in Hollywood and media from returning to prominence. Like Louis CK, he’s attempting a reset by appealing directly to his audience — in Kihuen's case, that’s voters in suburban Las Vegas, many of whom are unaware of the allegations against him.
Kihuen is perhaps the first national politician to test the limits of #MeToo’s power, and maybe even ride its backlash. And the results of his next election — for a modest city council seat representing a sprawling residential ward in the shadow of the Stratosphere Casino — may offer insight into the questions hanging over the nation. Questions like: What next? Can men accused of sexual harassment just move along to the next job? Will they have to leave the fields where they were once stars? And can the communities wrecked by the scandals forgive and forget?
On one side of the local battle over the future of #MeToo is Kihuen, who says he’s apologized and that public service is at his core.
On the other is a new — new here in Las Vegas, and perhaps nationally — force: women like Santos committed to enforcing the verdict of #MeToo.
Santos, a 22-year-old Latina activist, knocked on a door that same Wednesday. Santos has been canvassing along these streets for weeks ahead of the city council primary on April 2.
No one answered, which happens often while canvassing during a weekday. But there was a flyer on the door from Kihuen, who is running for the 3rd Ward seat. It included a personalized, handwritten note from the former congressman to the house’s resident: “I stopped by to introduce myself. I hope to earn your vote.”
Santos tucked in her own flyer right beside it. Hers had a black and white photo of Kihuen smiling down at his cellphone, overlaid with blue and white text message bubbles reading “What color are your panties?” and “Come sit on my lap.” These are actual text messages Kihuen sent women required to interact with him for work, made public in the course of a House Ethics Committee investigation into accusations of sexual harassment, which were first reported by BuzzFeed News in December 2017. The texts were first reported by the Nevada Independent when a second woman came forward to accuse Kihuen of unwanted sexual advances.
In the midst of the sexual harassment scandal, Kihuen decided he would not seek reelection. The one-term congressman, a DREAMer who was once a rising star in the Democratic Party and proud son of Nevada politics (a Harry Reid mentee), quietly finished his first and only term.
The door hit Kihuen on his way out in the form of a nearly 200-page report from the House Ethics Committee, saying Kihuen made “persistent and unwanted advances” toward women he worked with.
As Kihuen’s term wound down, the Nevada political community played a parlor game in which they guessed what came next for Kihuen. They wouldn’t have to speculate long: Days after his term ended, he announced he would run for a city council seat.
His decision did not sit well with many Democrats in the area.
“It’s just this attitude like he’s owed it,” said Annette Magnus, the executive director of Battle Born Progress, a progressive communications firm in the state. “I think that’s the thing I have the biggest problem with.”
“For me, the fact that he didn’t resign, he stayed in office, OK whatever. You finish your term. Fine. But then go away. ... Go back into the community that put you there and show that you actually care about these things. And he just— he didn’t do that,” Magnus added. “And to me that is unacceptable. And he shouldn’t just get a free pass on this. He should show some remorse.”
Kihuen’s decision to run galvanized a group to form in opposition, “No Means No, Ruben,” a PAC founded by Nevada Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, who described Kihuen as a former mentor. No Means No, Ruben, is backed by Nevada Values PAC (Battle Born Progress's state PAC), and has a small paid staff, including Santos.
And so it was that Santos was out knocking on doors nearly every day in residential areas of the ward, this time at a house where a woman did answer. Santos launched into a speech about how she was out trying to convince people not to vote for Kihuen.
It’s unusual to be out canvassing against a candidate rather than for one. But that’s the message: Vote for anyone other than Kihuen.
The woman at the door, Lynn Clifton, told Santos she spoke with Kihuen when he dropped by the other day. “He came across as very sincere,” Clifton said, but added that she will not be supporting him. She told BuzzFeed News she thinks there are other more qualified candidates who have been more involved in the community, and is leaning toward Melissa Clary, one of two women candidates who are viewed as viable Kihuen challengers.
Clifton said she does have some concerns about what happened with Kihuen in Congress that are in “part” guiding her decision. Kihuen, she said, did not go into detail about the sexual harassment allegations during his visit. “He said he’s made some mistakes and he’s learned from them … he said it was a humbling experience.”
Ask the people involved in campaigning against Kihuen and they’ll tell you how hard it was to actively fight against a man who, at one point, they all liked and supported. Ultimately, they feel, it’s a story of betrayal by the man who they long considered their champion.
“This has been one of the more difficult things I’ve had to do. I mean, it was not a comfortable path to take,” Swank said. “It wasn’t the thing that I wanted to do. But I do feel that, as elected officials, if we won’t stand up for women who have been sexually harassed, who are not in the same positions of power that we are, how can we ever expect women to come out?”
Swank, who is serving in the country’s first majority-women legislature, said Kihuen was a mentor to her when she first ran for office. She said he was good at public speaking, while she wasn’t, and having him around was helpful. She said it was “heartbreaking” to hear the allegations against him. The political community is so close that everything about this feels incredibly personal.
“It’s so hard to get our people to represent our community in these positions of power — it’s like, when we start to lose them, we kind of feel a little selfish. And I’m not saying that’s right. But I do see from just like some of our leaders that still support him, I see, like, their Facebook posts. They kind of feel like, this is our guy, they’re trying to take our guy from us,” Laura Martin, the executive director of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) said.
“So people are having a hard time reconciling that sometimes people just fuck up and they need to take their medicine and they need to apologize and they need to restart their lives or their careers over and deal with it.”
Kihuen also represented something many in the community can only aspire to achieve: the American dream. Perhaps Kihuen, in a Spanish-language radio interview he did last month, laid it out most simply: His parents arrived in the United States not knowing the language or anyone in the area. Less than 30 years later, their son was a United States congressman.
“Overall what a lot of us kind of sort of come to agreement on, is like, what he did was wrong,” Maria-Teresa Liebermann, the volunteer outreach lead for No Means No, Ruben, said. “There was a path to redemption. But that path is gone now. Simply by just trying to come back and run for office. And sort of ... in a way without the community’s buy in.”
“He really was sort of everybody’s rising star.”
The concern about Kihuen in this race is in part over how good he is at retail politics. In person, he’s handsome and charming, and he has name recognition — all of which could help him in a low turnout, off-year election.
That he’s Latino and is bilingual helps too, given that the ward has a large Latino population. It’s the community that helped propel Kihuen to his previous heights.
“Ruben is somebody who is charismatic. He loves talking and being with people. He connects with people. But that’s where the, I feel like the deception happens. And this [sexual harassment story] hasn’t been as public in Spanish as it has been in English,” said LaLo Montoya, political director for Make the Road Nevada, a nonprofit that works with immigrants.
Or, others are concerned, it’s an opportunity to spin or lie about what happened. In his radio interview, Kihuen, in Spanish, downplayed the allegations against him, saying he had not raped anyone — despite the fact that he was never accused of rape — and said he had merely gotten in trouble for flirting. Kihuen did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
“It’s interesting to see Ruben’s response or reactions to this in his own words in English versus Spanish, and especially back here in the community. You know, when he was still in Congress and this was all happening, he was a little bit more remorseful. I don’t know if it was sort of forced remorse,” Liebermann said.
“He’s doing that because that machismo, that part of our culture, is what people respond to. That ‘Oh that’s cool, he was just a guy trying to, you know, flirt with a pretty girl who’s playing hard to get.’ So this machismo certainly plays a role in it. And so there are a still a lot of men and women that see he did absolutely nothing wrong.”
In the Spanish-language interview, Kihuen said he was not sanctioned by the Ethics Committee, but merely grabbed by the ear and told not to do it again. It’s true that the Ethics Committee did not punish him and just reprimanded him.
And he argued that his campaign had been on the verge of firing Samantha Register — the campaign staffer who first accused Kihuen of sexual harassment in interviews with BuzzFeed News and said he touched her thigh without consent and propositioned her for dates and sex despite repeatedly rejecting him — for not doing quality work. (BuzzFeed News did not publish Register’s name at the time, but she recently wrote an op-ed for the Nevada Independent about her experience and identified herself by name.) The House Ethics Committee report shows Kihuen criticized her work performance to them as well. While the campaign’s manager told the Ethics Committee he was not “100 percent happy” with Register’s work, he expressed surprise that she resigned, and said that no one had talked to her about her work performance “or suggested that she should step down from her position with the campaign.”
To be “that unhappy with someone's job performance but never bother to relay that to them would show extremely poor communications skills at best,” Register told BuzzFeed News in a statement on Monday. “For Mr. Kihuen to suddenly have an opinion about my job performance three years after the fact in the context of a conversation about sexual harassment seems like a convenient way for him to distract from his poor choices and inappropriate behavior.”
After the radio interview, more people showed up to canvass with No Means No, Ruben, Swank said.
Two of the top-tier candidates in the race against Kihuen are both women, running against a viable male candidate with more experience and exposure who ended up in the race simply because he lost his last elected position over his alleged treatment of women.
“It’s definitely not lost on me, I’ll say that,” said Melissa Clary, a first-time candidate, who has been running for the seat for more than a year.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Clary said she’s tried to avoid making the race about Kihuen and is instead focusing on the issues, citing a training she attended for woman candidates. “They instill in you that you need to focus on your race and put blinders on to some of the chaos that goes on around you. And that for me has been the best advice. Because it is very chaotic, and especially in this race. You know, especially when I’ve been in it for a year and people get in at the end here, and it changes the … dynamics.”
Unless a candidate breaks away with more than 50% of the vote in next month’s primary, the top two candidates will move on to the general election. The race is a nonpartisan one for a position with a four-year term and $81,430 annual salary — a little less than half what Kihuen made as a member of Congress. Ahead of the primary, the election is widely viewed as a three-person race between Kihuen, Clary, and Olivia Diaz, a former member of the Nevada Assembly.
Both Clary and Diaz are banking on the turnout being made up of informed voters, the kind who would bother to turn out in an off-year race. Neither has made a big deal of the Kihuen allegations and they’re not coordinating with No Means No, Ruben.
“Is there noise around us? Yes,” Diaz said. “But we’re trying to be, you know, just super focused on getting the word out as to why we’re the best person for this race.”
Many of the voters No Means No, Ruben, canvassers have come across aren’t aware of the allegations against Kihuen. As they handed out flyers to voters last week, the response was often a raised eyebrow, a thank-you for bringing this to their attention, a promise that they will look into it some more.
“A lot of this Ruben Kihuen stuff has been played out on social media, and this is a working-class ward. This is, you know, union families. People just trying to get their kids out to school,” said Martin, the PLAN director. “I think sometimes the PLANs of the world, or the BuzzFeeds of the world can kind of think that, if it’s on social media, everybody knows about it. But there is still a huge community of folks that just aren’t aware.”
Diaz, a schoolteacher, is also noticeably similar in profile to Kihuen. She grew up in the ward, both attended the same high school, and they were both members of the Nevada Assembly. She carries two sets of campaign literature, one in Spanish and the other in English, and like Kihuen easily moves between both languages. Diaz notes how important it was to her as a high school student when her history teacher would talk about Jan Laverty Jones, the first female mayor of Las Vegas who has now endorsed her campaign, and how she valued having a woman in city government as a point of reference for herself. Now the conversations with her students are reminiscent of how a lot of local voters used to see Kihuen.
“I don’t bring it up in my class to my kids that I’m running, but it’s just been organically popping up. And so the kids are driving to this town and they see my face on the signs and they’re saying, ‘Ms. Diaz, we saw you. I recognized you. That’s you on the poster, huh?’” Diaz said. “Just to have the Latino children seeing the Latina face and saying, you know, we’re going for this and we want to achieve it, I think is so powerful that they can hopefully see themselves being presidents of this country someday too.”
Some of Kihuen’s high-profile former supporters have endorsed Diaz in the race, including two of his former congressional colleagues, US Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen.
The Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a powerful union in the area that has in the past backed Kihuen, is not endorsing candidates in the city council races “at this time,” Bethany Khan, a spokesperson for the union, wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News last week.
Diaz attended a meeting last week, held in Spanish, to accept Make the Road Nevada’s endorsement. And even though she didn’t bring up Kihuen in her remarks, he was nonetheless mentioned. While revealing the political committee’s picks for city council endorsement, Montoya said the committee had decided against even interviewing Kihuen for their consideration.
They argued simply that he did not represent the organization’s values.