The backlash was swift eight years ago when Sharon Bialek came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct that helped sink Herman Cain’s bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Bialek received online death threats. Conservative pundits assailed her character. At one point, she says, a clutch of Christian female supporters of Cain harassed her at her door, telling Bialek she’d go to hell.
And it took three years for Bialek, a marketing specialist, to find full-time work in her field.
But Cain, 73, a tea party darling and restaurant industry executive, went on to further prominence. He took over a nationally syndicated radio talk show, and this month President Trump, calling him a “very terrific man,” said he wanted to nominate Cain to the Federal Reserve’s board of governors as one of the nation’s top economic stewards.
“He just seemed to keep prospering, even though he did what he did,” Bialek said in an interview. “He was never vilified the way I was.”
Bialek’s experience, after she accused Cain of groping beneath her skirt and pushing her head toward his crotch when she came to him in 1997 seeking employment advice, offers a rare glimpse of an often overlooked aspect of sexual misconduct allegations. What happens to the women who come forward with accusations against men in positions of power once the story has moved on?
Now back in the spotlight — this time in the #MeToo era when a number of prominent men have been accused of sexual harassment — Bialek said she expects her allegations to be part of Cain’s vetting process. She is willing to testify before the Senate Banking Committee if called upon. And she said Cain’s past behavior with women, including three others who have accused him of sexual harassment, should disqualify him from the Fed post.
“In some small fashion, I’m hoping that the risk I took made a difference in the way we view women in the workplace and powerful men,” said Bialek, now 57. “This happened a long time ago, and I want to make sure we don’t regress.”
Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the Banking Committee hope to avoid a hearing overshadowed by sexual misconduct allegations — as was the case with the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh — and are recommending that the women talk to the FBI, according to two people familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss senators’ thinking.
Even Cain expressed doubts he would pass the background checks, saying on his radio show Friday that his detractors were digging up “eight-year-old stuff.”
Cain had indicated he would not accept media requests during the vetting process, but in a brief interview with The Washington Post this week, he called the allegations “bull crap” and said, “I’m not going to address any accusations, founded or unfounded. And they were all unfounded.”
In November 2011, Bialek was the first woman to publicly accuse Cain of sexual harassment while he was chief executive of the National Restaurant Association from 1996 to 1999. Bialek had once worked as the marketing director at the association’s educational foundation in Chicago.
Two other women had previously settled sexual harassment claims against Cain with the restaurant association. One said Cain had made a “series of inappropriate behaviors and unwanted advances” toward her in 1999. A fourth woman who had worked with Cain at the association accused him of making sexually suggestive remarks and gestures but said in 2011 that she did not file a complaint.
Only Bialek agreed to speak on the record this month. Cain’s other accusers declined to be interviewed or could not be reached.
Cain has previously denied all the allegations, which he characterized on his radio show as politically motivated.
“You better believe that the people who hate me, who do not like conservatism and Republicans, are already digging up all of the negative stuff that’s in storage from eight years ago. So be it,” he said Friday on his show, a video of which is posted on social media. “I will be able to explain it this time, where they wouldn’t let me explain it the last time. . . . I’m just not going to let the accusers run my life or determine my career.”
Reached by phone Monday, Cain said: “This is supposed to be about monetary policy. This is supposed to be about the Federal Reserve. It is not supposed to be about eight-year-old accusations.”
He added: “I don’t want to explain anything else because I’m not going to drag up all this bull crap. I want to talk about monetary policy, period.”
The White House has yet to officially nominate Cain to the Fed. He is undergoing a lengthy background check.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the sexual harassment allegations. But Trump described Cain on Friday as a “friend of mine.”
Cain raised more than $347,000 last year through his America Fighting Back PAC to help Trump’s preferred candidates in midterm elections, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Shortly before Trump met with Cain in late January to discuss a potential Fed seat, Cain’s PAC spent $10,000 on TV ads in Ohio to help the president, according to FEC disclosures; it spent an additional $9,000 on Trump’s behalf in March.
Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, defended Cain in TV appearances over the weekend.
“There’s big disputes here. Mr. Cain disagrees with this point of view,” Kudlow said when asked about the sexual harassment allegations on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’ve seen, whether it’s Supreme Court justices or many other things, we’ve seen a lot of charges here. They don’t necessarily pan out.”
But Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), the ranking Democrat on the Banking Committee, called the allegations “deeply troubling.”
“If the president moves forward with nominating Cain to the board of governors, the committee will consider them,” Brown said. “In the meantime, the White House needs to take this seriously as the FBI conducts Cain’s background check and provide a clear process for victims of sexual harassment to be heard.”
Several former Fed officials expressed dismay that Cain could be on the central bank’s board because of his coziness with Trump and the message it sends to women.
“I’m concerned for the professionalism and reputation of the Fed,” said Alice Rivlin, the Fed’s vice chair from 1996 to 1999. “I doubt the Cain nomination will go through. It will be controversial on the Hill, including with some Republicans.”
Some economists expressed concern that appointing Cain to the Fed would send the wrong message in a field where women have reported widespread discrimination and sexual harassment and could derail the Fed’s efforts to recruit more women.
“It’s disheartening to see people with [Cain’s] kind of background not only not seeing consequences, but being rewarded with positions of public trust,” said Julia Coronado, a former Fed economist who is now president of MacroPolicy Perspectives.
Bialek decided to speak out in 2011 at the peak of Cain’s presidential campaign after hearing him deny press reports in which unnamed women accused him of sexual harassment during his time running the restaurant association. She said she wanted to offer her account to lend credibility to the other accusers.
“There were women out there who were not in a position to show their faces, to talk about what happened to them, and I knew that I was,” Bialek said. “I wanted to empower other women who may have been violated by him as well to come out. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to me in a workplace environment. We all go through it, and we just didn’t talk about it at the time.”
She said she also wanted to set a strong example for her son, who was 13 at the time. “I was trying to teach a young man values. My intention was to speak out against injustices as it happens to women in the workplace.”
Bialek said an ex-boyfriend who knew about her 1997 encounter with Cain encouraged her to contact women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, who represented her pro bono.
And so she spoke, at a nationally televised news conference with Allred by her side.
Bialek said she reached out to Cain in July 1997 shortly after she had been let go from her marketing position at the restaurant association, hoping for help in getting her job back because he had praised her work at a trade gathering in Chicago two months earlier.
Bialek met Cain for drinks in the lobby of her Washington hotel. He drove them to a Georgetown restaurant for dinner, where she said they discussed the association, its problems and the reason she sought his help. On the way back, she said, he parked at the association’s headquarters and pressed her on why she was really there.
“That’s when everything happened,” Bialek said. “He was making advances on me and saying, ‘Well, you want a job, right?’ ”
She told him to take her back to her hotel, which he did without further incident. Once she returned to her room, she said, she leaned her head back against the door and cried.
“I felt defeated. I went to a person who I trusted who was in a position of power, and he tried to use his power against me for his own personal satisfaction,” Bialek said.
Conservative pundits accused Bialek of trying to take down a presidential candidate and demanded the names of the other women so voters could assess their credibility.
A Chicago news anchor implied on air that Bialek was the aggressor in her encounter with Cain and insinuated that she had a history of promiscuity. Bialek filed a defamation lawsuit and lost.
Anonymous people wrote to her former fiance accusing her of being unfaithful to him. Rush Limbaugh made fun of her name on his show, mispronouncing it as “Buy-a-lick,” accompanied with a slurping sound. He called her son a “tattletale” for encouraging his mother to share what happened. Others criticized her appearance and chastised her for giving birth “out of wedlock.”
Cain’s campaign issued a statement on Bialek’s legal and financial troubles, highlighting her two bankruptcies and a paternity lawsuit. Bialek said she first declared bankruptcy to pay the medical bills for her mother who had died of cancer and again when she was fighting the paternity suit.
“Many people have financial woes,” Bialek said. “They were trying to use those things in my life to discredit me.”
At the time she came forward against Cain, Bialek was trying to reenter the workforce after a three-year hiatus taking care of her son and was interviewing at a conservative talk radio station. When no one would hire her, she eventually took a job as a waitress.
Bialek said she never filed any formal complaints against Cain and was not motivated by financial gain. She said she rejected offers from tabloids to buy her story.
“I just wanted him to realize what he had done and apologize,” she said.
She said she would like to think that things would be different now.
“Had he been running for president today, in the wake of the MeToo movement, one would hope I wouldn’t have had all the grief and anguish that I endured trying to get my life moving forward,” Bialek said.
But she’s also aware of how the women who accused Trump of sexual misconduct have been treated, as well as the vitriol directed at Christine Blasey Ford, who said she moved four times for her family’s safety in the months after accusing then-Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh of sexual assault when the two were in high school.
In 2017, Bialek moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., for a fresh start. She has a new job helping seniors find assisted living.
But Thursday, news about Cain reentered her life.
Her cellphone started buzzing with messages from friends. She turned on the television in her home office and saw reports of Cain’s pending nomination.
“My stomach turned,” she said. “Oh no, here we go again. If we let this happen, that’s just taking two steps backwards.”
And so when a Post reporter left a message, Bialek called back.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.