News & Politics

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp Apologizes Profusely for Doxing Sexual Abuse Survivors in Campaign Ad

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., attends a Senate Banking Committee hearing on October 2, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

What in the world was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s campaign thinking? As part of an ad dinging her Republican re-election challenger, the North Dakota Democrat doxed a number of sexual abuse survivors. Conservative talk show host and blogger Rob Port has identified at least 13 women who were wrongly named by Heitkamp’s campaign. And they are not happy about it.

In an open letter to Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, which also serves as a campaign ad, Heitkamp’s campaign published the names and hometowns of 127 women and identified them as “survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape.”

The letter was a response to comments Cramer had made to the New York Times in reference to the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about how “you’re just supposed to believe somebody because they said it happened.” The candidate angered feminists because he spoke out against the #MeToo movement and the current “movement toward victimization.”

“They are pioneers of the prairie,” Cramer said of the people of North Dakota. “These are tough people whose grandparents were tough and great-grandparents were tough.”

Heitkamp said that her own mother was a sexual assault survivor and wrote in the open letter to Cramer that she and the other cosigners would show him what “prairie tough” looks like, using the term “prairie tough” repeatedly throughout the letter.

“We are here to let you know that you are wrong – this is not ‘a movement toward victimization’ it’s about being a survivor,” the ad reads. “We are here to let you know that we have all suffered from domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape – and that yes, we expect somebody to believe us when we say it. Because it happened.”

Incredibly, as many as thirteen of the cosigners whose personal information was exposed in the letter said that they never agreed to be included.

Heitkamp’s campaign released the following press release apologizing for the letter:

Sexual assault is a serious crime – and one that too many North Dakota women have experienced. In an attempt to bring awareness to this issue and push back against dismissive comments toward sexual assault survivors by Kevin Cramer, our campaign worked with victim advocates to identify women who would be willing sign the letter or share their story. We recently discovered that several of the women’s names who were provided to us did not authorize their names to be shared or were not survivors of abuse. I deeply regret this mistake and we are in the process of issuing a retraction, personally apologizing to each of the people impacted by this and taking the necessary steps to ensure this never happens again.

A 24-year-old hairdresser from Bismarck told National Review that her name was added to the list after a friend tagged her in a Facebook post soliciting signatures for the open letter.

The woman said her friend tagged her likely “because she was aware of her history as a sexual-assault victim.”

“I speak for myself and many of the women whose names were used without our consent. We are very publicly humiliated. Some of us were given a formal apology on this matter, but for me personally, the damage is done and my name is now out there forever. A simple ‘sorry this happened’ isn’t going to cut it,” she said.

The Facebook post asked potential signers to confirm their support for the letter by contacting Dr. Tami DeCoteau, a North Dakota psychologist who has worked with Heitkamp in the past.

The woman says she never contacted DeCoteau and never gave her permission to use her name.

Another North Dakota woman, whose name was included on the list against her wishes, told National Review that although Heitkamp’s letter was intended as a show of support for victims, it had the opposite effect.

“The ad is about non-consent. Why would they just go ahead and take our names without our consent? It’s the same thing, just different case,” she said.

The mutual friend who wrote the Facebook post soliciting signatures and tagged Lancaster and Zhorela claims that she doesn’t know how their names ended up on the open letter. When asked if she wrote the Facebook post at DeCoteau’s direction, the post’s author told National Review to “f*** off.”

The North Dakota Republican Party assailed Heitkamp for doxing the women:

“This is another example of Heidi Heitkamp exploiting whoever she can for political gain. With a campaign built on lies, misinformation, and manufactured controversy, it’s no wonder Heitkamp is the most vulnerable senator in the country,” said Jake Wilkins, communications director for the North Dakota Republican Party.

During her appearance on blogger Rob Port’s radio show Tuesday, the contrite Heitkamp apologized profusely, telling Port that while she disagrees with a lot of his criticisms of her campaign, today his criticism of her campaign was right.

“This is a huge mistake that anyone was included who should not have been included,” she said. “Some of the women who may or may not have been victims of sexual assault deserve their privacy… and I can’t say I’m sorry enough. I am so, so sorry that it happened.”

“All I can say is at the end of the day when I put my head on the pillow I know that I caused hurt… this was incompetent. This was wrong,” Heitkamp said. “This should have never happened.”

Asked if she felt her campaign had any legal liability for naming these women, Heitkamp said she wasn’t sure. “Some people who are lawyers would say the worst thing you can do if you’re worried about lawsuits is admit culpability or negligence and I’m admitting it right here,” she said. “This is a very flagrant error of the campaign and I own it.”

“There was a major failing… that’s as much as we know right now… these women in no way gave their permission nor did they want their names in the ad… I will not deny that in any way, shape, or form,” Heitkamp added.

Eve Lancaster, one of the women wrongly named in the ad, was also on Port’s show. “I had no idea that this open letter was open. I’m not even into politics,” she said. “I had nothing to do with this and I saw that my name was on there and obviously I got really mad.”

“It’s really messed up. I don’t know if I want to have her apologize to me,” she continued. “Wouldn’t you have the common sense to get in contact to get permission in order to prove your point on a serious subject like this?”

“It’s horrible. It really makes me mad,” she concluded.