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Rep. Debbie Dingell On Sexual Harassment Allegations Against Conyers


The House Ethics Committee is formally investigating Congressman John Conyers, the latest lawmaker to face accusations of sexual harassment. The Michigan Democrat admits that he settled a case with an aide. She says she rejected his advances and was wrongfully fired. Conyers says, though, he did nothing wrong. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell is on the line. She is also a Democrat from Michigan.

Welcome back to the program.

DEBBIE DINGELL: It's good to be with you this morning.

INSKEEP: So you know Congressman Conyers. Were you surprised when this story broke?

DINGELL: I'm going to use the words that I was deeply disturbed. You know, I've heard stories about many people over the years. There are thousands of names out there. And I think we may be at a breaking moment. It won't be a breaking moment, it will not be a tsunami, it will not be that watershed moment until it's real for every woman across the country, whether you're a waitress or on a factory floor, et cetera.

But you - there cannot be - we simply cannot tolerate this kind of sexual harassment - if it's true - in any way. But every man, every person is entitled innocent until proven guilty, so the right thing has happened. This has gone to the Ethics Committee for investigation.

INSKEEP: Does it bother you that public money was apparently used for the settlement that Conyers approved?

DINGELL: It deeply bothers me. I did not know that there was a fund that was being used to fund any of this until it was testified about at the House Administration Committee about 10 days ago. I have been one of the loudest and the clearest that we must change these rules. We must be transparent, and no public money should ever be used to pay off somebody for inappropriate behavior.

INSKEEP: Should Congressman Conyers resign, based on what you know now?

DINGELL: I think he's entitled to his day at the Ethics Committee. I want to be very careful. You know, we've heard about bots out there making accusations against people that aren't true. But there's clearly - the stories we're hearing are disturbing. Let it go to the Ethics Committee. I hope that they will act fairly, transparently and quickly.

INSKEEP: What about Al Franken, senator from Minnesota, also a member of your party? What do you want to happen to him?

DINGELL: Exactly the same thing - it's going to Ethics Committee. As these things go to Ethics Committee, if there're more stories, people are feeling more comfortable - you know, people are really afraid. I think people don't really understand what it's been like to be a woman in this country that had stories. I mean, I don't know anybody of my generation that doesn't have many stories, but what's - has stunned me since I talked about it a little more openly last Friday is the number of young women.

You know, I thought, oh, it's going to get better; the millennials are going to not have to deal with some of things that we did or some of the consequences. But the number of young people that came up to me in the course - I went home right after the CNN interview, and I must have had 50 women talk to me. You know, people called me, came up to me, reached out to me. And I am hoping that this is raising people's consciousness in its awareness. And it can't just be women.

INSKEEP: Well...

DINGELL: It has to be men and women together.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned your statement from the other day. You said that a, quote, "prominent historical person" groped you. I think that was the phrase that you used. Also, the former senator...

DINGELL: I didn't use the word grope. Someone else did. But the hand kept going up the leg, and I kept taking it off.

INSKEEP: OK, more than once, all right - and a former senator acted inappropriately, but you haven't named...

DINGELL: I'm not going to name them because, quite frankly, I don't want to make the national - I've already done it. I didn't plan on making national news that morning. But, you know, people are - people do not understand what it is like to be a woman, especially - for me, the most scarring experience was the very first one that I had. In my very first job, I had never met John Dingell. I was just...

INSKEEP: Your husband, we should mention, yeah.

DINGELL: My husband - I was just a first-year at a job when my supervisor actually almost stalked me, threatened me, found out about my father long before I was willing to talk about him or - you know, in those days, if you had a father that did what mine did, you would've been - you know, people just didn't react to it. What happened in the home stayed in the home. And it really traumatized me.

And I went to somebody - a lot of people knew. We didn't even hide it. And I said to somebody, this - I am scared. And he said, look, 14th floor likes him, which was our executive floor - deal with it or leave. That gave me a backbone that's made me have other women's backs since then. The other stuff - for me, it was a fact of life. If you were a professional woman trying to go up the ladder 30 years ago, you just had to deal with it, and if you said anything, you were going to be a troublemaker. You weren't going to get ahead. That was a fact.

INSKEEP: Some people will be curious, though - why not just say the name?

DINGELL: I'm not going to say the names because I don't want to become part of it. I've already - more in the news than I wanted to - I don't wish to create sensationalist - but what I want to draw attention to is that if I'm afraid to do it, think about - look at all the women that are even in the stories in the last few days.

INSKEEP: Is that the word? Are you afraid? That'd be different than if you were just reluctant for whatever reason. Are you afraid?

DINGELL: I'm probably afraid. I don't want the consequences. And for too many women, there are consequences. You know, and I'll even - the story I use right now to talk about a young woman - there's a young woman from Lansing, Mich., that I've gotten to know in the last year who was raped in her high school. The school complied with Title IX, reported it to the law enforcement.

But she then get ostracized by everybody in the school. She couldn't go back. The school wouldn't help her. She got bullied online. People don't understand the consequences for - look at the women that wanted to remain anonymous. The Washington Post did a story of eight women that reported sexual harassment. They got fired. They got put in probation. People don't understand. There are too many negative consequences for women who say something.

INSKEEP: Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan - thanks very much for the time this morning, really appreciate it.

DINGELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.