Content warning: this post discusses a comment that describes sexual assault.
On Tuesday, June 16, state and national media reported that the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, Chris Janicek, had been asked by the Nebraska Democratic Party to officially exit the race. Janicek sent a text to a group of campaign staffers describing an argument he had had with one of them, a young woman employee, who was among those on the text thread. He asked if the campaign could pay to get the woman “laid” by three men, and explained he would want the men to penetrate her orally, vaginally, and anally. He added some typo corrections, blaming Siri–ironic, since the argument with the staffer was apparently over grammatical mistakes she had made–and later texted to explain to everyone that his gang rape comment had been a joke prompted by lack of sleep.
The staffer did not appreciate the joke and quit his campaign. According to her lawyer, Vince Powers, Janicek later appeared at her house uninvited and unannounced, and the staffer never accepted his apology. Powers says he has sent a no contact letter to Janicek.
The staffer officially complained to the Nebraska Democratic Party, which implemented a review of the matter based on rules of conduct that arose on the heels of the Me Too movement and unanimously concluded that Janicek needed to step down. If Janicek were to officially step down, which would include officially filing some forms with the state, the Nebraska Democratic Party could choose a replacement for him on November’s ballot.
Janicek won the primary by a plurality, not a majority, and the second and third place candidates, Angie Philips and Alisha Shelton, garnered votes that together dwarf Janicek’s total (64,993 to his 43,212). When the news about his text came out, Angie Philips immediately put her support behind Alisha Shelton as the replacement for Janicek.
But Janicek says he is not stepping down.
To be clear, his was a longshot campaign in a state that is solidly red. And now the Nebraska Democratic Party has officially ceased support of his campaign, which means he will get no material support from them going forward–no publicity, no volunteers, no voter data.
It’s hard to imagine why Janicek thinks staying in the race is a good idea.
According to Federal Election Commission data, Janicek’s campaign is almost $60,000 in debt. The majority of that debt, just shy of $55,000, is to Janicek himself. (The campaign has paid him back $2,000 on a $56,977.81 loan.) Does Janicek think he will make this money back somehow by staying in a race where he has become a completely nonviable contender?
Janicek has offered a few excuses for his text. Let’s take them one by one.
On Tuesday he said, “I’m an openly gay man running for senate against Ben Sasse, so it was not sexual harassment, it was something that had been discussed between her and a girlfriend.” Here Janicek seems to be claiming that gay men cannot sexually harass women and that the staffer had discussed this gang rape situation with a girlfriend, so bringing it up in a work text means that it is not harrassment.
Of course gay men are capable of sexually harassing women. Sexual harassment, like many other forms of sexual misconduct, is not necessarily about sexual desire. It’s about power. Janicek’s humiliating sexual comments about a female employee asserted his dominance by belittling and degrading her from a position of power. And if Janicek is right that he somehow overheard his staffer discussing triple penetration sex with a friend–doubtful! and Powers says this never happened–what does it say about the toxic climate of his campaign that this is the type of conversation that would be overheard and encouraged? If what he says is true, we can tell it was encouraged because he “joked” about it to the staff rather than shutting it down as inappropriate.
Janicek also reached out to Omaha activist Eli Rigatuso to explain the text. After claiming responsibility, Janicek wrote, “[The staffer] was with the campaign for about 11 days. I fully supported her and defended her from several accusations that had been made against her. The last thing I want is for her to be exposed to any of this.”
So according to him, 1) she was new, 2) she has had numerous allegations of some kind against her, against which he has been her champion, and 3) he is continuing to selflessly protect her even now.
Why Janicek thinks that her newness as an employee is a point in his favor is beyond me. Perhaps he thinks this casts her as suspect or inexperienced. In fact, if she were any of those things, it would only underscore that his comment was meant to be punitive. The best excuse Janicek may have been able to muster in this situation–which still would have been inadequate–is that he and the staffer have a long congenial history full of jokey sexual banter. Instead, he acknowledged that she was a new employee.
And now let’s take the “I have actually been the hero here” excuse. If you are a woman who has experienced sexual harassment, there is a good chance you have heard a line just like this one before. It is a form of gaslighting that both posits the abusive person as the victim and makes a vague appeal to unnamed masses of people who are on the abusive person’s side. People who use this tactic want you to think that they are actually valiant, a champion of an employee who is now seriously mistreating them by complaining about their documented abusive behavior. This kinds of employer devalues his victim by claiming that many other people think she is terrible. While it is certainly possible for an employer to be falsely accused of misconduct by a problem employee, what distinguishes the abusive boss is that when pressed, he materializes few if any specific names or substantive complaints to support the assertion that the employee had been widely regarded as a problem.
Why won’t Chris Janicek step down? Maybe there’s a financial motive. Maybe it’s psychological, and like the legions of toxic bosses before him he sees himself as the aggrieved party. In any case, this campaign is completely nonviable now and Nebraska deserves better.