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Elections Have Consequences: The Last Word on the Rise and Fall of Ruben Kihuen (and What This Might Mean for the Future of the #MeToo Movement)

A decade ago, then Assembly Member Ruben Kihuen (D-Las Vegas) had embarked on his meteoric rise to power. Two years later, he’d make it to the State Senate. In another six years, he’d land in Congress. And by the end of that year, he was already entertaining dreams of the U.S. Senate.

Fast forward to last night: Kihuen not only failed to secure a seat on the Las Vegas City Council in yesterday’s primary, but he may not even make it to the June runoff. I’ve been wondering when actions have consequences, and today I’m reminded that elections actually do have consequences.

Then: The “ladies’ man” was a “rising star”
Photo by Andrew Davey

When I first met Ruben Kihuen in 2010, he appeared so charming and so charismatic. Back then, there were so many jokes about how “irresistible” he was as a “ladies’ man”. And at least when I was around, the conversation centered around women allegedly enjoying the experience of “being touched” by Kihuen.

For the next half-decade, I’d hear the same thing about Kihuen in political insider circles: “Oh, he’s such a ladies’ man! Women are just falling for him left and right! He’s just so cute and charming!” And yes, back then, I foolishly accepted that spin on Kihuen.

At the time, Kihuen had the blessing of then U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D), the almighty Culinary Union, and several other Democratic Party power players. It’s unclear what, if anything, they knew about Kihuen’s unwanted advances to Samantha Register and the several other women who’ve since come forward to share their stories of Kihuen abusing his power with them. When Kihuen did publicly engage in what we’d now call out as inappropriate conduct, it was just categorized as him “being flirty”.

Let’s pause here: When did “flirty” become “creepy”? (Queue Joe Biden.)
Photo by Andrew Davey

For all the talk of how the Democratic Party and the overall nation have advanced on civil rights, and more specifically women’s rights, over the last 50 years, it seems like we’ve only experienced a massive sea change in perception of abuse of power since the election of President Donald Trump and the rise of the #MeToo movement. What was then dismissed as “innocent flirtation” or “expression of warm personality” is now being re-examined as potential violation of personal space and abuse of power.

On Monday we examined the case of another former “Democratic rising star”, former Assembly Member Lucy Flores (D-Las Vegas), who recently came forward to share her story of then Vice President Joe Biden invading her personal space right before a November 2014 campaign rally. Since then, three more women have come forward to speak about how Biden abused his power with them. Amy Lappos recounted to the Hartford Courant how Biden grabbed her by the head and rubbed noses with her at a Greenwich, Connecticut, campaign fundraiser in 2009, and The New York Times has just run a story featuring two more women, one of them being fellow Nevadan Caitlyn Caruso, who was a UNLV student when Biden gave her an unusually long hug during an event featuring her and other survivors of sexual violence.

Photo by Andrew Davey

To this day, Biden’s still described as an “old-school backslapper whose greatest strength was his ability to connect”. And to this day, some Democratic Party insiders continue to defend Biden’s actions as “very emotional” and “overly tactile friendliness” while human resources experts increasingly view these types of actions as inappropriate conduct.

Though Biden’s and Kihuen’s respective actions may not be considered anywhere near as serious violations as Trump’s boasts of sexual assault, there’s still the matter of whether “not necessarily illegal” should suffice. Just because the District Attorney won’t consider an unwanted kiss, unwelcome sexual advance, or uncomfortable touch as a “slam dunk” sexual assault prosecution, does that somehow make it acceptable workplace conduct? (Once more with feeling, most HR managers will probably answer in the negative.)

Now: Elections have consequences
Photo by Bret Simmons, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr and the University of Nevada, Reno

Ruben Kihuen and Lucy Flores briefly served in the Legislature together early this decade, then ran against each other for Congress in the Fourth District (NV-04) in 2016. Now they’re once again making news together, albeit on opposing sides of the same issue. Flores’ New York Magazine op-ed has forced the national media and the Democratic Party to reassess Biden’s “expressions of his warm personality”, while Kihuen’s campaign for Las Vegas City Council has forced political and media insiders in this state to reassess the one-time “rising star” and his rise to national prominence (that’s since turned into infamy).

As of this morning, a mere 3,065 votes have been counted in Las Vegas Ward 3. Kihuen won 861 of those votes, just five votes behind Melissa Clary and 155 votes behind former Assembly Member Olivia Diaz (D-Las Vegas). Unless Kihuen demands a recount and that recount results in significant change to the official tally, Kihuen’s attempt to revive his political career via a detour to Las Vegas City Hall appears to have failed. And on that note, another Las Vegas City Council candidate who’s been accused of abusing his power (in his case, domestic violence) will not be advancing to the June runoff, as Dave Marlon finished third behind Brian Knudsen and Robin Munier in Ward 1.

Though a mere 8.67% of City of Las Vegas registered voters turned out for this primary, these “few good voters” may understand the ramifications of Kihuen’s and Marlon’s respective abuses of power far better than the local and national pundits who still want to parse their way through Biden’s actions, Trump’s actions, and the many other #MeToo scandals that continue to reverberate through our public sphere. I’ve been asking for some time when actions will finally face proper consequences. Thanks to last night’s municipal elections, we finally have an answer.

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