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As Biden rises, Lucy Flores watches from a distance

Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state legislator, accused Joe Biden last spring of smelling her hair and kissing the back of her head at a 2014 rally in Las Vegas. (Jenna Schoenefeld/For The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — Lucy Flores anticipated the scrutiny and harassment she might face when she accused Joe Biden of inappropriately touching her at a campaign event five years ago.

So before she went public, Flores fortified her life. She deleted her dating apps and increased her social media privacy settings, “getting ready for this storm I knew was coming.”

What Flores, a former Nevada state legislator, did not expect was friendly fire from her own party. Almost as soon as her story was published in New York magazine in March, Democrats, including those she considered close allies and friends, questioned her memory and motives for speaking out against the beloved former vice president. “What are you doing?” a Democratic acquaintance asked her. “Do you want to give this election to Donald Trump?”

Her Twitter feed soon filled with angry, sometimes threatening messages, targeting her looks, her career, her family. “You make women with real abuse look stupid,” one person wrote. Another said: “Your article just shows how desperate you are to stay relevant.”

Yet another brushed off her allegation as a “political hit job on a warm wonderful human being.”

“I usually stop reading when I get to the word ‘whore,’ ” Flores told The Washington Post, providing her most extensive account of the backlash she has experienced since leveling her allegation against Biden.

When Flores first told her story last spring, describing how Biden had smelled her hair and planted “a big slow kiss on the back of my head” at a 2014 rally in Las Vegas, it caused a furor. Other women came forward with similar stories, critics said it showed Biden’s cluelessness and some even wondered whether he would go forward with his presidential campaign.

But four months later, Biden sits atop the polls and is embraced by many Democrats as their best shot at defeating President Trump. He has joked about the allegations and defended himself as a tactile politician who uses the human touch to connect with people.

And Flores, 39, who moved to Los Angeles after a pair of failed political races in Nevada that strained her relations with the state’s Democratic establishment, said she feels as though she has been placed in a sort of political purgatory — still eager to help defeat Trump but ostracized by many of her former comrades.

The episode reflects how Democrats’ embrace of the #MeToo movement and a desire to highlight Trump’s alleged inappropriate treatment of women can lead to awkward political dynamics when the allegations are aimed at one of the party’s own.

Wounds still linger from the 2017 ouster of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) for allegedly groping women, and several Democratic senators who called for his resignation recently told the New Yorker that they regret their role in forcing him out.

Flores said she recognizes that Biden’s penchant for invading personal space is not as serious as what Franken allegedly did, nor does it approach the sexual assault and harassment allegations that have been lodged against Trump by 17 women. Still, she said she has been stunned by the response to her claims.

“It has been hurtful [and] disappointing to see so many people who claim to uphold this higher standard, who claim to be feminists, who claim to be pro-woman and yet will turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior if it’s done by someone they really like,” she said.

Flores has been especially stung by the criticism from old friends, such as Henry R. Muñoz III, co-founder of the Latino Victory Fund, who helped organize the 2014 rally. In a statement March 31, Muñoz said the incident Flores described could not have happened because she and Biden were never alone together.

Flores never said they were. Rather, she said Biden touched and kissed her in public as they were about to go onstage.

“He came out and called me a liar,” Flores said of Muñoz. “That was very hurtful, and it was very surprising because I don’t know why you would just put yourself out there in that way if you didn’t have to.”

Muñoz, who described Flores as a “good friend” and Biden as a “close friend” in his statement, did not respond to a request for comment.

In the midst of all this, Flores has found small pockets of support. At a May forum hosted by She the People, an organization of liberal women of color, Flores started to cry when she was introduced as someone with “the audacity and the courage to call out the person who is now polling as a front-runner for the Democratic Party.”

She fought to keep her composure as she told the crowd, “I had no idea that as many battles as I’ve had with the Republican Party, I would have as many, if not more, with my own party.”

The audience of 250 mostly black and Hispanic women gave her a standing ovation, and many lined up afterward to hug her as Flores dabbed at her eyes.

The tears surprised those in the room who know Flores as a tough politico who rarely shows vulnerability. In Nevada, she shrugged off death threats after disclosing that she had an abortion at age 16.

Asked why she cried at that event, Flores took a deep breath. “It’s very stressful to be accused of trying to throw an election for Donald Trump, of all people,” she said.

But in that room of minority women who also had probably faced “patriarchal behavior,” as she put it, “I felt understood.”

Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, said Flores is an important voice for minority women, and she predicted any Democratic attacks on Flores would backfire. “She spoke to a common experience among women, an experience of dealing with creepiness from men, even men who are supposedly supposed to be on our side,” Allison said.

Few of Flores’s former allies from Nevada, where she was one of the first Latinas elected to the state legislature, have leaped to her defense. Felicia Ortiz, a friend who serves on the Nevada State Board of Education, said that’s due to fear of upsetting the Biden campaign and alienating former U.S. senator Harry M. Reid, who remains a powerful figure in Nevada and became disenchanted with Flores.

“Nevada is very much like a small town,” Ortiz said. “People aren’t going to rock the boat. . . . They’re not going to risk the political capital of going against the Harry Reid machine to speak out for Lucy.”

Reid, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

Flores also felt wounded by criticism from well-known women, including MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and actress Alyssa Milano, a prominent #MeToo activist. Some commentators say they worry that Flores’s complaint will detract from women who have faced more serious traumas. Others have spoken up to say they were embraced or kissed by Biden, too, and found it charming.

Milano, who is friendly with Biden, said on Twitter that she respects Flores’s “decision to share her story. . . . But, just as we must believe women that decide to come forward, we cannot assume all women’s experiences are the same.”

Flores said she has not heard from Biden or anyone in his orbit, and since she went public, the former vice president has made light of the controversy. In a speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, he joked that he had gotten permission to hug the union members, a remark Flores found “insulting.”

“For him to go out in front of hundreds of old white men and joke about it and have them laugh — they weren’t laughing at his jokes,” she said. “They were also laughing at me, and they were laughing at the other women.”

Biden’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. In an appearance in May on “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” Biden’s wife, Jill, praised the “courage” of women who had spoken out about feeling uncomfortable after being touched by her husband. “It took a lot of courage for women to step forward and say, you know, you’re in my space, and Joe heard that,” Jill Biden said, adding: “It just won’t happen again.”

Still, some of Biden’s other behavior on the campaign trail has raised eyebrows. In May, he attracted notice for telling a 10-year-old girl at a Houston event, “I’ll bet you’re as bright as you are good-looking,” and later standing behind her with his hands placed awkwardly on her shoulders.

In June, Biden, meeting the 13-year-old granddaughter of an Iowa voter, told her brothers, “You’ve got one job here — keep the guys away from your sister.”

In a separate exchange that also went viral, Biden leaned in and wagged a finger in the face of an abortion rights activist who asked him about his positions.

Each time Biden makes news that way, Flores finds out almost instantly from a Google alert tracking mentions of her name in the media. “Every time, I’m like, ‘What has Joe Biden done now?’ ” she said.

“He doesn’t care,” Flores added. “He is just so nonchalant about it. The worst of the pushback, the worst of the outrage, is over. I think he feels like it’s died down to the point where he just doesn’t have to pay attention to it anymore.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told ABC’s “This Week” in June that Biden still had work to do on changing his behavior toward women. Ocasio-Cortez said she did not consider the complaints “incredibly severe” but said Biden’s behavior had given her pause and prompted female voters to feel “that it’s just not quite locked down.”

Biden, however, does not seem to be paying a political price. He continues to lead Democratic polls, a status that made him a lively target for his rivals at the recent Democratic debate.

Flores’s own political career is less than a decade old. In winning a Nevada State Assembly seat as a 30-year-old in 2010, she attracted voters’ attention with a raw honesty about her troubled past, recounting how she grew up the youngest of 13 in a family fractured by poverty and violence.

But when she ran for lieutenant governor in 2014 — her encounter with Biden was at a rally for that campaign — she lost in a landslide. The state Democratic establishment, including Reid, soured on her, and Flores said that was when the whispering began: People said she was a difficult person, an attention-seeker, a sore loser.

Some say Flores was self-promoting and hard to work with. Others say she showed herself to be a poor candidate, and still others — including Flores herself — contend her independence was threatening to party leaders. Whatever the case, when Flores sought a congressional seat in 2016, Reid backed another Democrat, and she got walloped.

“I don’t think it was personal — people were backing who the party told them to back — but Lucy took it very personally,” Ortiz said. “Some of these people were friends, and they just left her behind. … In politics, you have to play the game, and she just wouldn’t, and I think that’s why some branded her difficult.”

Flores returned to her hometown of Los Angeles to escape what she called the “toxic atmosphere” of Nevada politics. She joined the board of Our Revolution, a political group spun out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign. (She resigned in 2018, accusing the organization of ignoring issues important to Latinos.)

Last year, she founded the Luz Collective, a digital media and advocacy group that supports Latinas.

If Flores was shaken by her experience, Biden’s nascent campaign was also rattled when she came forward. Biden released a video promising to be “more mindful” of people’s boundaries and of changing “social norms.” And Democrats quickly gravitated toward him as the party focused on defeating Trump.

Flores said she will vote for Biden if he is the Democratic nominee, but she worries about her future. Although she has kept a low profile, she recently signed up to host a talk show aimed at Latina millennials. It’s meant to showcase Flores’s history as a politically successful Mexican American businesswoman, but in its write-up, the Hollywood Reporter described her as the “Joe Biden accuser.”

Would it always be this way, she wondered — everything she accomplishes boiled down to a single encounter with Joe Biden? If he wins the presidency, what then?

Even so, Flores said, she has no regrets. “This is a conversation we needed to have for a very long time.”