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Women’s rights PAC asks candidates seeking endorsements to air sex harassment accusations

Mandatory Credit: Photo by PETER FOLEY/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9266008d) A protester hold up a sign at a #MeToo rally in front of the Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle in New York, New York, USA, 09 December 2017. MeToo Rally New York, USA - 09 Dec 2017
Peter Foley/EPA/Shutterstock/File
A protester held up a sign at a #MeToo rally in front of the Trump International Hotel in New York.

Candidates who hope to win the endorsement of a leading Massachusetts women’s rights group this election cycle should be prepared to answer this question: “Have you ever been formally accused of sexual harassment? If so, please explain.”

The provocative query appears on a questionnaire circulating among state candidates that’s believed to be the first instance nationally in which an interest group is demanding such disclosures as a condition of its endorsement.

“I think our biggest hope is to help elevate the conversation about sexual harassment and make clear that one of the values of reproductive freedom is being free from harassment in the workplace,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, whose political action committee produced the questionnaire. “As uncomfortable as it can be to have these conversations, I think they’re really critical to advancing women’s role in society and also in politics.”

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The questionnaire shows how much the political discourse has changed since the 2016 presidential election, and how much further women’s rights groups hope to push it in the #MeToo era. Eighteen months ago, voters sent Donald Trump to the Oval Office, dismissing his hot-mike bragging about grabbing and kissing women. But in the seven months since a wave of women began divulging their stories of being sexually assaulted or harassed, the commonality of their experience has driven men out of positions of power. The language used by NARAL makes it clear that the movement is far from over.

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“It’s very stark,” said Scott Ferson, a Boston-based political and public relations strategist. “This is now the new standard. You have to meet this standard. I think it’s going to cause a lot of self-reflection in campaigns.”

Yet the question may make the average voter wonder: In what scenario would a candidate be advised to answer “yes”? With so many titans toppled by harassment allegations, who would offer up one of his own?

“They’re not even asking if you’re guilty of anything,” said Will Ritter, a former Massachusetts Republican campaign operative who founded a national ad agency in Virginia. “They’re asking if you’ve been accused, which puts you in a position that even if you were falsely accused, you have to explain yourself, how the situation unfolded, and hope they understand.

“If you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s no harm in saying no,” Ritter added. But he wondered where the interrogations would end. “What’s next?” he asked, wondering whether candidates would be prodded for more information on their sexual histories.

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Interest groups and voters alike are indicating they now take sexual allegations seriously — and they intend to do so at the ballot box. Last month, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation released a poll that found 81 percent of voters see sexual harassment in the workplace as a serious problem. Fifty-two percent of voters said they would never vote for a person accused of sexual harassment.

NARAL maintains that an admitted allegation would not be an immediate disqualifier for a candidate. Instead, the group would invite the person for an interview before reaching conclusions.

“We believe that as we work to shift the culture, some of our critical allies in this fight must include people who have recognized that they have behaved inappropriately in the past and have a clear track record of changing their behavior and creating safe work environments for all,” Holder said.

The political action committee intends to keep the questionnaires confidential. But in the hothouse of the #MeToo era and a contentious election cycle, few campaigns would be reassured by that.

“There’s always a risk that enough people are going to see it, it’s going to get out,” said Kevin Franck, a Massachusetts Democratic political operative.

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NARAL’s form is among the flurry of questionnaires being sent to candidates from a variety of interest groups, from the Sierra Club to the National Rifle Association — what Franck calls the “Questionnaire Industrial Complex.”

Such questionnaires typically suss out candidates’ ideological and policy stances — and are not as personal and probing as the NARAL question. They’re intended to elicit distinctions between candidates for endorsement purposes and to pin down politicians on policy positions so they can be held accountable if they veer from their promised paths.

But practically speaking, Franck said, the groups often don’t punish incumbents or hold them accountable for their actions. The NARAL questionnaire could portend a switch in tactics, Franck said.

“This thing by NARAL might be a new front in the questionnaire wars, trying to use them as a research tool into a candidate’s background,” he said.

Even so, political operatives said their campaigns should not be blindsided by such a question.

“After last year, it is now a question I ask candidates: Would this be a problem?” said Ferson.

On any campaign, opposition research begins in-house — by hiring someone to investigate your own candidate to dig up any problems that might arise during a campaign.

Political campaign operatives said they would advise a candidate with whispers of sexual harassment allegations in his past to not answer the questionnaire. Better to give it a miss and hope for the best. Most candidates don’t answer all the questionnaires they receive anyway, selecting only the organizations best aligned with their priorities.

The one scenario in which a candidate could safely divulge his case, they said, is the one that has already been reported.

“If you have a candidate where a case has been public and is easily findable, you could disclose that,” said Ferson.

On the opposite end, some newcomers see the question as an opportunity.

Darryn Remillard, a candidate for the Legislature from Woburn, used the question to highlight his own unwillingness to tolerate sexual misconduct. In 2005, as a Marine corporal serving in Iraq, he reported two fellow Marines for videotaping their female servicewomen in the shower, he revealed on his NARAL questionnaire.

“So much about the #MeToo movement is eerily familiar to me,” he said in an interview. “I still struggle with how to talk about it in an intelligible way as a man.”

When she saw the question about sexual harassment, legislative candidate Kate Albright-Hanna had to laugh. No, she answered, she had never been accused of sexual harassment, but she had faced harassment herself and added a #MeToo hashtag to her questionnaire. She is pleased that male candidates are now being forced to think about it.

“I love it that these guys are being confronted with that in black and white and having to search their souls and roll the dice or decide it’s not worth it,” Albright-Hanna said.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.