Melissa Richmond is vice president of Running Start.
I’ve always been proud of the ways I’m independent. So when a middle-aged man stopped me in a parking garage and asked me to jump-start his car several years ago, I was happy to help. As we worked to get his car running, we talked. I mentioned I was a first-year law school student who had worked in politics. He said he was impressed that I had jumper cables (he didn’t) and that I knew how to use them. He also said he was a member of Congress and asked me to follow up with him if I wanted a summer internship.
I half-expected that the person I had helped wasn’t really a congressman. But, sure enough, he was. I called the number he gave me (it was his cellphone) and said I would like to be considered for an internship.
For first-year law school students, securing a summer job is stressful. Naturally, I was excited when I was invited to the congressman’s office to interview with his senior staff. For a 23-year-old, I had extensive political experience. I had worked in a governor’s office, on a PAC and on a presidential campaign. After the interviews, the congressman’s office offered me a summer internship focusing on his Judiciary Committee work.
Several weeks went by. Then something unusual happened. The congressman called me on my cellphone — from his cellphone — late on a Sunday night. He mentioned that his family wasn’t home and asked me whether I could come over that night for a “final one-on-one interview” with him.
I was stunned. Senior members of his staff had interviewed me weeks before and offered me the position. After speaking with my family, I called the congressman back and told him I didn’t feel comfortable going to his house. In that case, he told me, the internship offer was rescinded.
I should have marched back into the congressman’s office the next morning and demanded that they honor their offer. Or I should have gone to House leadership and made a formal report. But I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, and, at that point, I didn’t want to work for a member who would rescind a job offer because I wouldn’t go to his house alone late at night.
Eight years later, that lawmaker — Arizona Republican Trent Franks — has resigned, in the wake of reports that he asked two female staff members to be a surrogate mother for his child. In his resignation letter, Franks said, “I have absolutely never physically intimidated, coerced, or had, or attempted to have, any sexual contact with any member of my congressional staff.” I can’t say for certain what would have happened had I gone to his house that night. I do know that I never should have been put in that uncomfortable position or been penalized for refusing.
Looking back, I’m struck by my own lack of action. An opportunity was taken from me because I declined to put myself in a situation that felt wrong and dangerous. But I also didn’t demand that the opportunity be reinstated, nor did I report the behavior that made me uncomfortable.
I have spent the past five years at Running Start, a nonpartisan nonprofit that trains young women to run for political office. The research that underlies our mission finds that women win at the same rates as men when they run but that there aren’t enough women running and that women lose their political ambition and confidence in their qualifications in high school and college. Congressmen such as Franks aren’t helping young women feel politically ambitious or confident in their qualifications.
At the time, I think I felt simultaneously that the harm done to me was not enough to report and that I was not powerful enough to report it. I’m thankful to, and inspired by, the women who did speak up. And I am especially cognizant of the additional barriers to speaking up faced by some women, such as women of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, mothers, immigrants and others.
So, to all young women who want to run for office, you also inspire me. I hope to one day have daughters who will look up to elected leaders such as you. To my future daughters, here’s my advice: If something feels wrong or unsafe, speak up. Speak up even if it makes you seem unlikable. Speak up even if you’re young or if the other person is far more powerful. Speak up even if, in doing so, you are perceived as less credible. Speak up even if you think it will hurt your political career. Speak up because you deserve to be heard and because, in speaking up, you will make it easier for other young women to run for office someday.
Former representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) provided the following statement via text message to The Post in response to the account in Melissa Richmond’s op-ed: “I can categorically state that I have never invited any person applying for any job in my office to be interviewed in my home.” Asked whether he recalled meeting Richmond, discussing a summer job with her, inviting her to his home or withdrawing an internship offer, Franks responded, “With all due respect, my statement was unequivocal and will have to stand as my final response to the query.”