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For Many, Packwood Case Has Extra Sting of Betrayal : Scandal: Oregon senator, facing sexual harassment accusations, had long been champion of women's causes.

December 06, 1992|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — For more than two decades, Sen. Bob Packwood was a rare commodity in politics: a Republican abortion rights advocate who championed women's causes and won the support of feminists across the nation.

But today, women who were once among his strongest backers are calling for his resignation. Shocked by allegations that the four-term senator has long made unwanted sexual advances toward women, leaders of the women's movement in Oregon say they feel betrayed, deceived and angry.

"I've got to believe that we ought to be able to trust people--and we did trust him," said Diane Linn, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League's Oregon chapter. "We just feel betrayal at this point."

Across the state, many Oregonians were surprised and distressed to learn of the charges against Packwood, just three weeks after electing him to a fifth term in the Senate.

Some voters believed their state held politicians to a high ethical standard and were stunned by reports that Packwood stonewalled the press to prevent the allegations from surfacing before the Nov. 3 election.

"I think there's a lot of anger," said Denise Miller, a toy-store owner in Portland. "Obviously, if it had come out before the election he would not have been elected. He's always gotten the support of Democratic women. To have him turn around and do this is really disgusting."

Much like the Clarence Thomas-Anita Faye Hill hearings last year, the Packwood case has brought the issue of aggressive sexual behavior to the forefront in Oregon. People who have never met find themselves discussing the allegations in stores and restaurants. And the charges have triggered a debate on radio talk shows about the nature of sexual harassment and Packwood's political future.

"People who aren't really into politics are discussing this," said James Meade, a retired psychologist who voted for Packwood last month and thinks he should resign. "People really feel lied to."

Among Oregon political insiders, rumors of Packwood's alleged womanizing had been told with relish for years. To hear the stories now, Packwood was depicted as someone who had approached women on airplanes and in other public places as well as in the privacy of his Senate office.

But the general public here never heard such tales until the Washington Post reported on Nov. 22 that the senator had allegedly made unwanted sexual advances toward 10 women between 1969 and 1989--allegedly grabbing, fondling and kissing female staff members and, in one case, an abortion rights lobbyist. Julie Williamson, one of the 10, said that when she worked for Packwood in 1969 the senator once stood on her toes, pulled on her pony tail and tried to remove her clothes.

Before the election, Packwood denied the allegations and gave the Post material challenging the credibility of some of the women. And when the Portland Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper, got wind of the Post's investigation and asked about it, the senator's chief of staff denied that Packwood was in contact with the Post--on the same day that the senator met with Post reporters.

But after his victory at the polls, he said he would no longer "make an issue" of any of the specific charges and apologized if his behavior had caused anyone "discomfort or embarrassment."

Last Monday, his office announced he had checked himself into a private Minnesota clinic for evaluation of a possible drinking problem. The Oregonian reported Saturday that he returned to Washington, D.C., Friday night, telling reporters, "I don't have anything to say to you right now."

The day after Packwood went to Minnesota, the Senate Ethics Committee said it would conduct a preliminary inquiry into allegations against him. And on Wednesday, the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence filed a complaint with the committee alleging five additional victims and predicting that more will come forward.

In Oregon, the uproar over the Packwood affair was so great that the Oregonian ran a detailed story explaining its failure to report the charges, saying that even one of the paper's reporters--a 64-year-old woman--received an unwanted kiss on the lips from the senator.

On its own front page, the Oregonian reported that it "failed to pursue the story aggressively enough, and to devote the time and resources needed to delve into the rumors, which had swirled around Packwood for years."

Outrage over Packwood's alleged behavior has quickly given rise to a movement seeking his resignation. Many of those favoring his ouster were backers of veteran Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin, who narrowly lost to Packwood last month.

"It's not an issue of sexual harassment. It's about abuse of power," said Betty Roberts, a former Oregon Supreme Court Justice who ran against Packwood and lost in 1974. "The guy deceived us. It wasn't a fair election. We didn't have all the facts."

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