Wouldn’t it be something if control of the U.S. Senate turned on a couple of misinterpreted Facebook posts by an overzealous supporter of an obscure senator from North Dakota named Heidi Heitkamp?
Heidi, who I would have rated last week as having at least a 50-50 chance of holding her seat in the Senate, is in big trouble. A newspaper ad gone wrong. A staffer (who has since been fired), who didn’t oversee the work of a media consultant, who believed a volunteer, who apparently didn’t understand how Facebook works. A royal screwup at every level.
I think Heidi, being Heidi, is not going to publicly dump on anyone responsible for the screwup and is going to take the heat for this herself. I know Heidi pretty well. I helped on her 1984 campaign for state auditor, when she was a victim of sexual harassment — a Republican media consultant called her a c**t — and have been involved at least peripherally in most of her other campaigns (although not this one), and I understand Facebook pretty well, which I think is where the problems began, so I’m going to try to piece it together for you.
Heidi’s in trouble because a bunch of women — at least 22, from what I can tell — woke up Saturday morning to find their names in the paper as signatories on “An Open Letter To Congressman Cramer.” Except no one asked them if they wanted to sign the letter.
Worse, the letter was about a very sensitive subject — sexual assault. All of a sudden, these women, whether they had been sexually assaulted or not, found their names at the bottom of a letter saying they had been sexually assaulted. Some — maybe most — of them had not. But some of them had and were not excited about the whole world knowing about it.
If the letter had been about health care or soybeans rotting in the field, issues the Heitkamp campaign should be sticking to, this probably would not have been such a big deal. But it was about a very personal subject, a subject to which Heidi has paid careful attention to all of her political career — indeed all of her life.
So how’d it happen?
Well, first of all, someone in the campaign or at her media consultant’s office had a bad idea. The idea was to write a lengthy letter, which no one was going to take time to read on a nice fall Saturday morning, gather more than a hundred names, by hook or by crook, to put at the bottom, and buy a full page ad in the state’s daily newspapers. I think it was a case of a campaign having so much money it was looking for places to spend it, and somebody thought this was a good idea.
“We are here to let you know that we have all suffered from domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape …” the letter began. Whoa. That ought to get our attention. A quick glance down the page shows a list of more than 100 names. That’s not something you see very often. One hundred women stating that they had been the victims of sexual assault.
And that’s what’s got Heidi in trouble.
It appears that the campaign’s media consultant and someone on her staff relied on a “victim advocate,” likely a friend of Heidi’s, to gather names to put at the bottom of the letter. The victim advocate and the campaign staffer and the media consultant found some women willing to sign on and then got a bit overzealous and decided to make a run for big numbers. So the victim advocate asked some of the signers to reach out to other women and see if they could round up some more signers.
At least one woman, (we’ll call her Lexie — I’m changing names in this article to protect women who do not want to be named and will put the changed names in parentheses), wrote this on her Facebook page last week:
“Hey folks — this is urgent. Have you heard the recent comments from Cramer … there is a letter being circulated among survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape responding to Cramer’s comments. The letter would be run as a full page ad in all of the major North Dakota daily newspapers across the state. We are looking for women who are willing to sign there name (or initials) and list their hometown in North Dakota to include as part of the letter/ad. If that is something you are willing to do — please contact me ASAP, we need to gather signatures no later than 4pm tomorrow — Wednesday, October 10th. To validate your signature please PM (Shari).”
(PM means personal message, I think, and there was link to (Shari’s) Facebook page attached to her name (it’s called “tagging”), so all you had to do was click on (Shari’s) name and then you could tell (Shari) you’d sign on to the letter. Facebook technology still amazes me.)
So the process of gathering names started. Things happened fast. This was Wednesday, and the ad was scheduled to run Saturday, which meant it had to be e-mailed to the newspapers Friday. Things move fast in the waning days of a campaign, but this was way too fast, and things got out of control. Things that should be checked and double-checked didn’t get checked at all.
But (Lexie’s) friends swung into action, and so did (Lexie). In order to be sure that her Facebook friends saw the message, she typed two lists of names of her friends, and “tagged” them to be sure they got the message on their own Facebook pages. She tagged 22 people.
One of those tagged was (Shari), the victim advocate, and (Shari) wrote back “You ladies are my heroes. Thank you …More than 3 dozen. Keep em coming, girls.”
But it looks to me that (Shari) might have been a little unfamiliar with Facebook and misinterpreted (Lexie’s) list as women who had signed on to the letter, and so she forwarded all those names on to the media consultant. The 22 names all appear in the ad, in exactly the same order (Lexie) had typed them on her Facebook page. So it’s pretty obvious what happened.
Thing is, many — if not most — of them were not victims of sexual assault. They were just (Lexie’s) Facebook friends, who she wanted to recruit to sign on an ad supporting Heidi. And many of the names were not real names — they were Facebook names. To protect themselves, many young women don’t use their real names on Facebook — they adopt something else, either made up or often their just first and middle names. I know that because my stepdaughter does that.
(Lexie) was pretty clear about what to do. She wrote “ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS MESSAGE (Shari) saying your name and hometown.”
Well, some did, and some didn’t. But all their names ended up in the paper. Those who didn’t were surprised when they woke up Saturday morning and saw their names in the paper.
Some of them took to Facebook to complain, like (Annie) who wrote:
“To whom ever decided it was ok to put my name in this “open letter” for the Bismarck Tribune and possibly other newspapers for this Heitkamp campaign for sexual harrassment, I am DISGUSTED. I did not give any sort of permission for you to put my name in this. I’m FURIOUS.”
There were others like that. On Monday, someone called these to the attention of conservative blogger and Heidi nemesis Rob Port, who’s been on Heidi’s case for months, since she won’t appear on his radio show, and by Tuesday morning Port had a blog posted with the big story of women appearing in the ad without giving permission, and all hell broke loose. By Tuesday afternoon, it was all over the radio, by Tuesday night, it was all over TV, and by this morning, it is on the front page of every paper in North Dakota.
Well, that accounts for 22 of the 127 names appearing in the ad. Among the other 105, there were some prominent and recognizable names, including a few physicians, many of whom were victims. But I think a lot of those women were not actually victims of sexual assault, but thought they were just signing on to a letter supporting Heidi because of some outrageous statements made by her opponent, Kevin Cramer, about this issue.
Twenty of the women were identified by just initials, and that is completely understandable, that they wouldn’t want their full names used, but I have to wonder if the media consultant, when he or she saw a few coming in with just initials, didn’t decide to beef up the list by making up a bunch of initials and hometowns and adding them to the list.
Between the media consultant, the campaign staffer assigned to this and the victim advocate, they gathered a lot of names in a very short period of time. The availability of social media, like Facebook, allowed that to happen, but a crucial step was missed. When the names and hometowns of each signer were submitted to the staffer and media consultant, they should have been accompanied by contact information, and someone should have called or e-mailed every name on the list and verified their signature. That would just be standard campaign practice. But time was running short, and that step was skipped. And Heidi’s paying a big price for that. It might even cost her the campaign.
So Heidi’s taking the heat herself, not naming names of those responsible, even though technically, she did nothing wrong. Her staff and her media consultant screwed up.
But back to (Lexie). Here’s what she wrote on Facebook this week, although the post has now been deleted:
“Ok so I was already contacted about this and I apologize to everyone in advance. I was told about this letter and created a post and tagged most of the women on Facebook in it and they must have just took those names even though I clearly stated that if you wanted to sign you would have to contact the woman in charge and let her know. I have no idea why half of these names are on here, I didn’t not expect this to happen just by tagging y’all in a post! I feel so f**king terrible and I already have apologized for this. If you would like to reach out to the woman just let me know and I can give you her info. I never gave her anyone’s name or info, like I said I don’t know how this happened. And I personally signed this in support of women who have been assaulted not necessarily because I had been. I feel like the wording at the end made us all seem like victims and I know others are bothered by it too. Once again I am so f**king sorry this makes me never want to tag anybody in anything.”
Later she wrote:
“Like I totally understand that this is upsetting and I’m not trying to say anything otherwise but I do not think the names were used to be malicious I really think it was a mistake … Like I seriously feel like s**t and this is all on me. So sorry.”
To which one of the women on the list wrote back:
“That makes a lot of sense. I remember you tagging me but I never signed anything. It’s not your fault girl! You were trying to do the right thing! This women just so happened to take advantage of it. Don’t feel bad!”
(Shari), the victim advocate, wrote, somewhat casually, I thought, considering the situation:
“Hey, (Lexie). Thanks again for your help with the survivors letter. I understand there has been a mistake with some of the names. The senator wants to make sure we provide an explanation and let everyone know there names will be retracted. Meaning another article explaining they were named in error will be published. Can you help us? Please send me your # to discuss more detail. I appreciate you.”
That seems to be where the Facebook posts end. Fearing legal repercussions, I suspect, the campaign told these women to stop talking about this and delete previous posts.
But, as might be expected, other Facebook sites have lit up about this. At least one of the women on the list has said she is looking for a lawyer. I seriously doubt she’ll get anywhere with that, but those kind of threats aren’t good for campaigns in their final weeks.
On one site, former North Dakota Democratic-NPL Chairwoman Kylie Oversen, now in her own race this year as a candidate for North Dakota tax commissioner, is being blamed for some of this. Oversen indeed was gathering names for this ad, and her name appears in the ad, but she only submitted names that had agreed to be listed.
“Every name I forwarded to the campaign was given with their explicit permission,” Oversen wrote. “I am very sorry for those women who were inadvertently and wrongfully included and hope they can figure out what happened. And just as much, as one of the names on that list, I hope people are just as mad about how many women on that list have been victims of sexual assault or rape.”
To be clear, I haven’t spoken to anyone with the Heitkamp campaign about this, so this is all speculation on my part. I often joke that as an old retired blogger, I don’t investigate, I speculate. So I don’t know what will happen next. But I believe this is an accurate account of how some of the names appeared on the list.
It’s a sad story. If it ends Heidi’s political career, it’s even sadder. She’s our last hope for some sense of sanity and compassion in our congressional delegation. We need her to continue as our U.S. senator. I hope she survives this.