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When every vote counts US students engage Senator Collins days before Kavanaugh hearing

“Would you hire someone to your staff with a credible sexual assault charge?” 

The question, scrawled on an index card by Sam Klein Roche ’19, was aimed last month at Senator Susan Collins (R–Maine), who paused briefly before answering. 

“If it’s credible, of course not.”

The moment came halfway through a 50-minute talk with the senator at the New Hampshire Institute for Politics at Saint Anselm College on September 21. Radio host Virginia Prescott moderated the event, conversing with the senator from paired armchairs and occasionally weaving in selected audience questions before a packed auditorium of several hundred college students, faculty, New Hampshire locals, and members of the press, among them four Vanguard staff and five FemCo representatives. History Teacher Matt Turnbull chaperoned, trekking north with the group to Manchester to attend the event. 

While the talk’s theme was “Civility, Cooperation, and Compromise: Why Our Constitutional Republic Requires Them,” the conversation quickly turned to the prospect of Sen. Collins’ key vote on then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and to the ramifications of sexual assault allegations raised against him. It was two weeks before the senator would vote to confirm the judge and just six days before the Senate Judiciary Committee would question him and one of his accusers, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in turn triggering a limited FBI investigation into the allegations.

Controversy surrounding President Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court mounted when news broke that Dr. Ford had written a letter to her state senator, Dianne Feinstein (D–CA), in late July accusing the judge of having sexually assaulted her in high school. Just two days after Sen. Collins spoke in New Hampshire, The New Yorker published a story detailing a Yale University classmate’s sexual misconduct allegation against Kavanaugh. The next day, Michael Avenatti, attorney for adult film actress and Trump adversary Stormy Daniels, named a third accuser, and the next night, news broke that an anonymous woman had written to the office of Sen. Cory Gardner (R–CO) detailing a fourth incident of sexual misconduct.

“How do you assess credibility? It’s hard, but ultimately that’s the job that we’re going to have to do in this case,” Sen. Collins told the New Hampshire gathering. “I think you look at details, you look at what you know about the person, their background, [and ask] is there a pattern?”

“I feel strongly about seeing both of them, as opposed to just reading about the allegations,” she added. “I think you get a much better sense if you hear the person.”

Both Sam’s question and the senator’s response appeared in The Boston Globe on September 22, and within a week Sen. Collins and the general public would hear Dr. Ford’s emotional, quavering testimony and Judge Kavanaugh’s angry and adamant denial. As part of the eight-hour proceedings, the judge was questioned at length about his drinking habits and calendars and yearbooks in high school and college.

 FemCo Co-President Nilu Cooper ’19 said she felt Sen. Collins’ vote to confirm Kavanaugh indicated the senator’s decision did not genuinely take the hearings into account. 

“I can’t imagine a more compelling testimony on Dr. Ford’s side, so I really don’t think [the hearing] mattered either way for her,” Nilu said. “She can say she supports victims, but confirming him was just restating what we already know about the government: it doesn’t matter if a candidate has sexual assault allegations against them. It won’t affect the outcome of their political careers.”

Reflecting on the talk in New Hampshire, Mr. Turnbull said he noticed a shift in tone when Sen. Collins was questioned about the confirmation process.

“She was pretty candid about her own experience as a senator, but when she was pressed on what it would take for her to vote against Judge Kavanaugh, I kept having these moments where I remembered she was a Republican senator,” Mr. Turnbull said. “If she had voted against him, she would be going against her party.”

Sam said he thought Dr. Ford presented a strong case, with credible sources, such as friends Dr. Ford told at the time, and corroborating accounts, such as therapist notes logging the event six years before her more recent statements, according to The Washington Post.

One of the sources corroborating the story of the second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, was in fact James Roche, Sam’s uncle and Kavanaugh’s freshman year roommate at Yale. Mr. Roche was quoted attesting to Ms. Ramirez’s character and describing the future justice as “frequently, incoherently drunk” in the original New Yorker article published three weeks ago and a New York Times article published the next day. Mr. Roche spoke to The Vanguard about his interactions with Kavanaugh in college and his decision to come forward in support of Ms. Ramirez (see “Upper School uncle reflects on role in Kavanaugh debate,” page 11).

Sen. Collins told the group gathered at St. Anselm that she was unsure of the truth in Dr. Ford’s allegations, having spoken to then-Judge Kavanaugh the day after the news broke and before Dr. Ford’s name became public. Among the wide range of topics the senator said she and Kavanaugh discussed in their cumulative three hours of conversation in person and over the phone—longer than any other senator had with him, she said—was the letter from Dr. Ford to Sen. Feinstein.

“I asked him specifically about the letter, and he was very emphatic about his denial,” Sen. Collins told the New Hampshire crowd. “I asked him if he had any idea who could have written the letter and made the allegations, and he said that he did not.”

Reacting to a tweet by President Trump arguing that if Dr. Ford’s allegations were true, then they would have been reported to local authorities at the time of the assault, the senator emphasized multiple times that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the country.

FemCo Co-President Alice O’Neill ’19 said that answer was unsatisfactory because it stated the obvious and because it didn’t address actions that could be taken against sexual assault and harassment.

“I understand that most of the questions weren’t focused on that, but I would have liked for her to speak a bit more about the issue instead of just repeating the fact that sexual assault is underreported,” Alice said. “We know that already.” 

Justice Kavanaugh was an embattled nominee even before the allegations of sexual assault emerged. One reason is that many Americans—among them the school’s FemCo members—fear he will make good on President Trump’s campaign promise to repeal Roe v. Wade or will at least take steps to restrict abortion rights. 

Harry Golen ’19 addressed that fear in a question he wrote to the senator, which Ms. Prescott selected for part of the conversation at St. Anselm.

“You said that you would oppose a Supreme Court nominee that would overturn Roe v. Wade but that Brett Kavanaugh is not that nominee,” Ms. Prescott said, reading Harry’s words. “If you vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh and he later votes to overturn certain parts of that decision, would you resign?”

A murmur ran through the audience in reaction to the question, and Sen. Collins answered quickly.

“I said that I would not vote for someone who demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade because that would indicate a lack of respect for the established precedent of the court,” she said. “[Kavanaugh] said to me ‘I’m not a rock-the-boat kind of judge.’”

Harry said he felt Sen. Collins answered the first part of his question but did not address the possibility that Kavanaugh could still restrict abortion rights without touching Roe v. Wade.

“In my opinion, a lot of the threats to a woman’s right to choose come not in the form of overturning that particular decision, but in terms of interpreting it in ways that infringe upon that right,” Harry said. 

Asked about a crowd-funding campaign that began in mid-September to fund the senator’s opponent in 2020 if she voted to confirm the judge, Sen. Collins condemned it as a form of bribery. At the time of the New Hampshire event, the campaign had raised $1.3 million, but after the senator voted in favor of Kavanaugh, the total surged to over $3.7 million. 

Sen. Collins said this campaign and protests at her home and offices are the wrong way for constituents to make their voice heard to her.

“I don’t think protestors really convey much,” the senator said. “I think it’s much more thoughtful to do an email, a conversation, or a letter.”

Fem-Co member Cordiana Cozier ’19 said she felt the senator’s comment belittled the importance of the issue people are protesting.

“Shooting someone an email is less impactful than big protests and movements of people who believe in something,” Cordiana said. “Her pushing that away and basically saying ‘Don’t protest’ comes across like she’s not taking the issue as seriously as it is.”

The audience interrupted the senator with applause several times during the event, including when she emphasized her support for Roe v. Wade. The longest break was probably a 10-second round of applause when she spoke to how, if at all, the crowd-funding campaign would influence her vote.

“In the end,” the senator said, “I have to be able to look in the mirror and say I did what I thought was right.”

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