Politics

Democratic Candidates Open Up About Sexual Abuse in Campaign Videos

Sol Flores and Mary Barzee Flores have made their stories part of their campaign messages

Sol Flores, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in Illinois’ 4th District, talks in a campaign ad about being sexually assaulted as a child. (Screenshot of Sol Flores ad)

When Sol Flores sat down with her campaign team to talk through the messaging of her story, she envisioned the Chicago apartment where she grew up, specifically her bedroom. 

The Illinois Democrat told her team about the man who lived with her family when she was 11 years old, who would come into her bedroom at night — sometimes touching himself, sometimes touching her. 

Flores also told veteran Democratic ad maker Mark Putnam about the wooden chest she built to put behind her bedroom door so that she would hear when the man pushed open the door.

“In sharing that story, I got very emotional, and I was moved and I was crying. My team said to me, ‘Sol, you can stop.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to complete this.’” 

That story became a central focus of the digital spot her team released Monday for Flores’ underdog campaign for the Democratic nomination in the open 4th District. It might be her only shot to break through in a March 20 primary, where a longtime local politician is the favorite.  

Watch: The #MeToo Impact on 2018

Sexual misconduct has rocked Congress this year, and the issue has permeated campaigns, with both Republicans and Democrats trying to score political points from alleged misdeeds on the other side. Members of Congress and some candidates have opened up about their own experiences of assault.

But Flores is among the first congressional candidates to tell her story of sexual abuse in an ad. Florida Democrat Mary Barzee Flores, who’s running for the Democratic nod in the open 27th District and is not related to Sol Flores, talked about her experience with sexual harassment in the workplace in a digital spot her campaign released last fall.

These candidates, both of whom are backed by EMILY’s List, have made their stories of sexual abuse an important part of their campaigns. It’s a subject that just a year ago wasn’t much talked about in public, let alone in campaign advertising.

Shooting the video

Sol Flores hadn’t shared her story widely before. But she knew it would be a part of her campaign message.

“From day one, even when I submitted petition signatures, I wanted to have it all out there just so that you know me instantly. We don’t have 10 years to get to know each other,” said Flores, who’s the executive director of a nonprofit organization in the 4th District that works to end homelessness. 

“And of course, this is the year, right? It’s been 2,000 years with male dominated voices. If not now, when?”

Flores contacted the landlord of the apartment building where she grew up. Her team wanted to film the video in her old bedroom. She hadn’t been back in 30 years.

“The imperative of any good political ad is to tell the story, bring the viewer in and make them care about what they’re watching,” Putnam said. 

Flores gave the ad maker and his team childhood photos so they could find “the young Sol.”

The 30-second digital ad opens with an actress playing Flores in school in 1984. She’s nailing and sanding a wooden chest in art class. She paints it purple with yellow flowers. And then she carries it home — on Chicago’s L and up the narrow stairs to her apartment. 

The real Flores provides the voice-over.

“My art teacher asked why I was building a chest,” she says. “I didn’t tell anyone that a man living with us would come into my bedroom when I was asleep and lift my nightgown.”

Twelve seconds into the ad, just as Flores is mentioning the nightgown, the ad cuts to the candidate standing in her childhood bedroom. 

“Well, I filled that chest with the heaviest things that I could find, and I put it against that door to wake me up so I could fight him off,” Flores says. 

Flores told Roll Call that just as much as she’s a victim, she’s also a survivor.

“There’s a sense of pride in this too,” she said Monday. “I did something about it. I protected myself when I was 11.”

Flores said the response from people she knew was overwhelming. “I’ve never had so many texts before 8 a.m.,” she said.

But for her candidacy to break through, Flores needs to get her story out to people who don’t know her. Her campaign has just over a month to do it. 

Flores is an underdog against Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, who received Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez’s blessing at the same November press conference where the 13-term congressman announced his retirement.

Garcia led a primary field of three named candidates with 59 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in a Garin-Hart-Yang poll conducted for his campaign in late January. Flores garnered 6 percent, with 19 percent undecided. 

Garcia ended 2017 with $163,000 to Flores’ $78,000. Besides EMILY’s List, which reached out to her about running, Flores has the support of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

The Flores campaign tried to buy TV time on the local ABC affiliate during the Academy Awards but said it was told that the network doesn’t permit political or issue advertising during the awards broadcast. Instead, the campaign bought time during the E! network’s red carpet show on March 4. It declined to characterize the size or scope of the buy. 

“I’ve heard it’s not your turn, I’ve heard that he deserves this,” Flores said of Garcia. “If I ever listened to advice like that I would not be here today.”

Right place, right time

Down in Florida, Barzee Flores’ campaign team had a script ready for her video before the Harvey Weinstein story even broke.

“It was right place, right time,” campaign manager Sam Miller said Monday. “All we set out to do was tell a piece of Mary’s story. The power and truth of that collided with the movement.”

Barzee Flores’ video also opens with a dramatization of a young woman. She’s unstacking chairs and tying an apron around her waist.

“As a woman who’s worked since I was 15 years old, I’ve dealt with handsy customers,” Barzee Flores says in the minute-long video, titled, “Power Trip,” which was produced by Three Point Media. Barzee Flores then alludes to a boss who assaulted her. 

She talked in more detail about her story with the Miami Herald in November. At 17, she was working the night shift at Pizza Hut, where her boss groped her in the walk-in freezer.

The video only lives online now, but Miller said any TV advertising will incorporate similar messaging. 

“It’s a story that’s not unique, and that is the power of the story,” he said.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.