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Commentary: Heitkamp has yet to answer serious questions about campaign ad victimizing sexual assault survivors

MINOT, N.D. — "I own this."

That's what Sen. Heidi Heitkamp told me during an interview on my radio show this week, referring to her campaign's awful decision to identify perhaps as many as two dozen sexual assault survivors in a campaign ad without their knowledge or consent.

Heitkamp has, rightfully, gotten a lot of initial credit for accepting responsibility for this travesty perpetrated on those women, but words count for little if they're not backed up with action.

So far the only action we've seen from Heitkamp and her campaign is the firing of a staffer whose identity they're not releasing to the public.

Which means this unnamed staffer is being afforded more protection for his or her identity than the victims of Heitkamp's ad were.

Now that this firing has happened Heitkamp and her staff are back on the campaign trail with renewed attacks on her opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, as if they're hoping the news cycle will turn over and this ugly episode will be behind them.

That's not owning this, senator.

If Heitkamp and her campaign are truly dedicated to being accountable for this, there are questions we need answers for.

Such as Heitkamp's claim made on my show and elsewhere that her campaign had assistance from "advocates" for victims of sexual assault when compiling the list for her ad.

Who are these advocates?

Why were they working with a partisan political campaign?

Did these advocates violate any laws or ethics code in disclosing these names?

We don't know, and that's a problem, not least because of the damage potentially done to the reputation of groups who advocate for victims. Should victims be afraid of identifying themselves to these groups lest they find themselves used as cannon fodder in a political campaign?

We must also know the name of the staffer who was let go, so we can understand what that person's role was in the campaign and whether or not their dismissal was a genuine accountability move or a scapegoating.

It's hard to imagine this ad was organized and approved by just one member of Heitkamp's staff. Did some intern or volunteer take a figurative bullet for a higher-profile member of the campaign?

Again, we don't know.

None of this is really about politics, but we can't ignore the political considerations either. In November, in just weeks, voters will be asked to make a decision in the Senate race between Heitkamp and Cramer. Among their considerations will be the character and competence of the two candidates. Heitkamp and her campaign certainly didn't display much competence in this fiasco, but the senator did show some character by taking ownership of it in the immediate aftermath.

She'll lose that credit, though, if she doesn't do more.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort and listen on WDAY AM 970.

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