By the end of this past weekend, Herman Cain seemed poised to survive a tough week that started with Politico's report on vague, anonymous allegations of sexual harassment from Cain's time at the helm of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in the 1990s. The response from the campaign of the GOP presidential frontrunner had been widely panned, as Cain and his team made several revisions to Cain's recollections and accused Rick Perry's campaign of leaking the story to Politico (only to later withdraw the accusation). But when neither of the two women who filed complaints, nor a third who came forward anonymously later in the week with another ambiguous claim, agreed to come forward and tell their stories publicly, and with polling showing little damage among Republican primary voters, the Cain campaign confidently asserted that it would no longer answer questions on this particular topic.
Unfortunately for Cain, the story got a lot less vague and much more substantial on Monday. News broke in the morning that Gloria Allred had called a press conference in New York for a new client from Chicago who would personally attest to sexual harassment from Cain in 1997. Sharon Bialek, who worked at the NRA's education foundation for six months, told the media that she asked Cain for some assistance in finding a new job after the foundation eliminated her position in June 1997. When they met in D.C., Bialek says Cain groped under her skirt and pulled her head toward his lap, asking her, "You want a job, right?"
This latest allegation against Cain leaves Republican voters with the unpleasant choice that confronts all managers who have to deal with sexual harassment complaints in the workplace: Who to believe?
Conservatives had defended Cain and castigated Politico for its reporting with no on-the-record sources. Howard Kurtz challenged reporter Jonathan Martin over the decision to publish the account, as had journalism watchdog ProPublica earlier in the week. No one knew what prompted the complaints in the first place, which made it impossible to judge how seriously anyone should take it. Republicans already distrust political coverage of their candidates — not without reason — and are not inclined to trust a reporter that the complaints consisted of substantial wrongdoing when the reporter won't reveal the source or describe the actions involved.
Those concerns certainly do not apply to Bialek's allegation. She described actions that — if true — leave no doubt of their impropriety.
"At that time I had on a black pleated skirt, a suit jacket, and a blouse. He had on a suit with his shirt open. But instead of going into the offices, he suddenly reached over and he put his hand on my leg, under my skirt, and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it towards his crotch. I was very, very surprised and very shocked. I said, 'What are you doing? You know I have a boyfriend. This isn't what I came here for.'
"Mr. Cain said, 'You want a job, right?' I asked him to stop, and he did. I asked him to take me back to my hotel, which he did right away."
This accusation leaves no room for misinterpretation, and no possibility of misunderstanding. There is no media filter for conservatives to criticize. A married man should not put his hand up the skirt of another woman under any circumstances, nor pull the head of another woman toward his lap, especially not when that action is unwelcome. Doing so as a condition of granting assistance in finding a job may not constitute sexual harassment in a workplace environment, but it undeniably would equate to demanding sexual favors by exploiting a serious power differential.
Cain vehemently denies that any of this took place. His campaign issued a statement that said, "All allegations against Mr. Cain are completely false. … [A]ctivist celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred is bringing forth more false accusations against the character of Republican frontrunner Herman Cain." Allred's track record of political shenanigans includes a spurious charge against Meg Whitman during her gubernatorial race in California that she fired her maid before the election, despite allegedly knowing for years that the maid was an illegal immigrant. The charge was based on evidence so flimsy that even Allred admitted she couldn't win the case.
Still, this latest allegation against Cain leaves Republican voters with the unpleasant choice that confronts all managers who have to deal with sexual harassment complaints in the workplace: Who to believe? Most people don't want to condemn anyone without solid proof of guilt. Conservatives have a good deal of affection for Cain, who has spent the last few years as a popular activist for conservative causes. It might be easy to make up a story about a politician, and those who do not make a firm contemporaneous record of the event through a formal complaint have little actual "corroboration" to offer. On the other hand, we now have four women who could potentially go on the record, and at least two of them do have contemporaneous records of complaints about Cain's behavior — the settlements that Politico revealed last week. Cain's inconsistencies on those agreements, and his dismissive claims as to what prompted them, could still come back to haunt him and his supporters if the women come forward and show any kind of documentation that disputes Cain's accounts.
Republican voters may well decide that they don't need to settle this to a moral certainty. They like Cain. But is Cain so indispensable that voters will be willing to risk more shoes dropping in a general election? We may already be seeing evidence that they will cut Cain loose and look for another candidate. Peggy Nance of Concerned Women for America put out a statement late Monday calling for Cain to "address these new allegations head on," clearly unsatisfied with the terse denial from him earlier in the day. Nance wrote that "Ms. Bialek appeared credible and I was very disturbed by her characterization" of the alleged incident. The Des Moines Register's Jennifer Jacobs reported that while Cain's most passionate supporters are remaining loyal, some of them are also calling for Cain to be more forthcoming. Bob Vander Plaats, president of the social conservative activist group Family Leader in the state and a Republican candidate for governor in 2010, called this a "tipping point for the viability of his campaign."
In court, Cain would not have to prove his innocence, but on the campaign trail, he has to prove his superiority over the other choices. Cain's argument for winning the nomination has always been novel — that his lack of electoral experience would be eclipsed by his problem-solving abilities and his expertise at rescue strategies in the private sector. Voters who might have been tempted to take a risk on Cain could decide that the inability to foresee or effectively handle the crises of the past several days makes that argument moot, or just figure that they don't need to take that much risk of more scandal with an untested novelty candidate.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- How Scotland's independence movement lost the vote and still won everything
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Mike Huckabee's head-scratching advice to Christian voters
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Adrian Peterson and our misguided debate about spanking
- The American middle class is no longer safe from poverty — and that might be a good thing
- The Tea Party has its own immigration problem: Cuba
- 10 things you need to know today: September 19, 2014
Subscribe to the Week