Lindsey Davis Stover has made sexual violence prevention a focus of her campaign for Congress from Northern Virginia because she was assaulted as a young woman.
And it may cause her to stand out in a crowded race, as she vies with seven other Democrats in Virginia’s 10th District for the right to challenge Rep. Barbara Comstock, who has taken a leading Republican role in addressing sexual misconduct on Capitol Hill.
But Stover says Comstock, who is seeking a third term in a swing district carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, is vulnerable on the issue because she is part of the GOP majority in Congress that had been slow to address the problem until this year.
“This is an issue I’ve always been passionate about, but it’s also deeply personal for me,” she said recently.
Now 39, Stover was a freshly minted graduate of Baylor University and in her first job 18 years ago when she attended a two-day conference in Corpus Christi, she said.
The Houston native was unfamiliar with the area and asked a hotel clerk to recommend a safe route for an early morning run, she recalled.
A half-mile into her run, a man grabbed Stover from behind, she said. “One hand held me under my rib cage, one hand grabbed my left breast,” she said. “I saw his face as he jammed it into my neck and held me in a tight grip.”
“I remember I threw my head back and it hit his shoulder. We were tussling. Then somehow I slammed my right elbow pretty hard into his stomach,” she said.
The sharp jab cracked a space between them, just enough to wrench herself free, she said.
She ran back to the hotel, where the clerk shrugged off her alarm.
To the best of her recollection, he told her words akin to: “You’re okay, it’s not like you were raped.” She retreated to her hotel room and sat in the shower for a half-hour, sobbing, she said. A conference organizer she later told also dismissed the matter.
Stover’s eyes brimmed with tears briefly as she recalled the experience during a recent interview in the McLean home she shares with her husband, Jeremey Stover, and their two daughters.
She never reported the incident to law enforcement, deciding that it was just something she would have to accept. “If I had been the more mature woman I am now, I would have gone straight to the police,” she said.
Stover’s parents, John and Marlece Davis, and her then-friend and now-husband confirmed that Stover called each of them shortly after the incident and told them details that match the account Stover gave to The Washington Post.
She has continued to jog almost daily but has an unpleasant jolt of memory every time she laces up her shoes, and is sometimes wary of being approached from behind, she said.
The #MeToo movement bubbled up as Stover launched her run for office.
She said she was outraged by reports that lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been paying off sexual harassment settlements with tax dollars.
“Taxpayers have a right to know when they have been footing the bill for the coverup of sexual misconduct and harassment in Congress,” said Stover, a former Hill staffer who has filed a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking all records and communications since 1997 related to the use of taxpayer funds to settle complaints of sexual misconduct by members of Congress or their staff members.
She also challenged Comstock over her role on the House Administration Committee, which approved the settlements.
Until now, only the committee’s top Republican and Democratic members have been involved in any settlements; Comstock had no role and was not privy to any details, including the dollar amounts paid or the identity of the complainant or offender.
But late last year, Comstock drew national attention during a committee hearing when she recounted a story she had heard about a young Hill staffer who abruptly quit after a congressman exposed himself.
Comstock co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution that passed in November that requires all members of Congress and their staff to complete anti-harassment training.
She backed a rule change, unanimously approved, that prohibits sexual relationships between House members and their employees and bans the use of taxpayer funds to settle harassment complaints.
And she co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that fundamentally changes the way sexual harassment complaints are handled on Capitol Hill to strengthen victims’ rights. That bill, which also passed the House unanimously, now goes to the Senate.
Comstock also unsuccessfully pushed for disclosure of past settlements against members of Congress, many of which have been shrouded by confidentiality agreements.
Stover says the congresswoman should have acted sooner.
“Comstock has been in the position for almost three years to change the culture in Washington for women,” said Stover, who worked as a Veterans Affairs department staffer in the Obama administration. “There could have been many moments, much earlier, that Comstock could have spoken out on this issue. It’s important that she’s talking about it now, but real courage is speaking up when it’s hard, not when it’s easy.”
Stover, who worked as chief of staff to former Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), was among about 1,500 other former Hill aides who signed a Nov. 13 letter to congressional leaders, urging them to revamp the way sexual misconduct is handled on Capitol Hill.
Jeff Marschner, Comstock’s deputy chief of staff, said she has been working across the aisle in a sharply divided Congress. “Congresswoman Comstock is working on a bipartisan basis to stop sexual harassment in the workplace . . . establish zero tolerance and disclose past wrongdoing,” he said.
“This is a watershed moment that should be free of partisanship as . . . men and women on Capitol Hill and all around the country come together to change the culture,” he said.
So far, eight Democrats are running in the June primary. The district includes all of Loudoun County and parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, as well as all of Frederick and Clarke counties to the west.
It is one of the most competitive districts in the country and the focus of both national parties. President Trump is unpopular with the suburban women who make up a significant voting bloc in the district. Clinton carried the district by 10 points, but Comstock outperformed Trump by about 15 points and won reelection easily.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Stover is fourth in fundraising behind anti-human-trafficking activist Alison Friedman, Army veteran Dan Helmer and state Sen. Jennifer Wexton.
Stover says she has worked on issues affecting women in the workplace throughout her career.
As an aide to Edwards, she said she advised him on policy relating to reproductive rights, equal pay and violence against women. As a White House liaison and senior adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs from 2011 to 2013, she said she worked to expand resources for female veterans, especially those who had experienced sexual violence related to their military service. As a result, coordinators were placed in VA health-care systems for the first time to help victims of sexual trauma access special programs and services, she said. She also helped develop policies to prevent sexual harassment and violence within the department.
Stover says she wants an automatic Ethics Committee inquiry whenever a congressional staffer reports misconduct. And she says mandatory prevention training should be conducted with anti-violence organizations “that have been doing this work for decades.”
Stover told almost no one about what happened to her as a young woman until last summer, when she was participating in a training held by Emerge Virginia, a nonprofit group that encourages Democratic women to run for office.
She had been spurred to join the program and run for Congress by her opposition to Trump, particularly after the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump was recorded bragging about sexual misconduct.
At the last training session, Stover told her 24 fellow trainees about the attack and its lasting effect on her.
“I had always been so private about it, but I felt a different level of strength inside me that day, and they were so supportive,” she said, adding that a handful of the other women later contacted her to say they also had been sexually assaulted.
“There’s been a culture where women have had to keep quiet, keep their heads down and just deal with it,” she said. “But if we don’t capture this moment and fight for zero tolerance of sexual harassment and violence, then we’ve missed an opportunity.”