Bruce Braley and Joni Ernst debate

State Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, takes part in a debate in Sioux City on Thursday. 

DES MOINES | Iowa Democrats on Monday criticized Joni Ernst for her response to a lawsuit that claims a former state Senate Republican staff employee was sexually harassed. Ernst’s campaign said the criticism is an effort by her opponent to “smear” Ernst shortly before the Nov. 4 election.

Ernst is running for Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat against Bruce Braley, a Democratic U.S. House member from Waterloo.

Former Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell, Iowa Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, and Connie Boesen of the Des Moines school board on Monday criticized Ernst, a state senator from Red Oak and Republican candidate for Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat, for her response to a lawsuit filed last week by former Iowa Senate Republican Caucus staffer Kirsten Anderson.

In the lawsuit, Kirsten Anderson claims she was fired after repeatedly complaining about a fraternity-like environment in which men openly talked about women as objects and says Ernst witnessed such behavior but failed to respond.

Ernst last week issued this response to the lawsuit:

“As a mother of three daughters and someone who has been sexually harassed myself, I take sexual harassment allegations very seriously. Sexual harassment should never be tolerated. If I had witnessed any sexual harassment in the state legislature, I certainly would have put a stop to it. If anyone had brought accusations like this to my attention at the time, of course I would have acted immediately. Frankly, I am shocked to learn that I’m even referred to in this suit, and as a former colleague I hope she is not being exploited ahead of the election.”

On Monday, Campbell said she was “very disturbed” by Ernst’s response.

“Rather than express concern for a young woman who worked under her, she immediately attempted to impugn the integrity and motivation of that young woman,” Campbell said. “This is, in the world we inhabit, classic blaming the victim.

“I think the most offensive thing is the suggestion that this young woman, who has done something very courageous — whether in the end she is right or wrong — should not be assaulted and have the suggestion made that her lawsuit — a difficult, difficult thing to do — was politically motivated by secret outsiders and that she didn’t have either the intellect or the integrity to make her own decision about whether to file such a very serious lawsuit.”

Kirsten Anderson said her lawsuit was not politically motivated.

Ernst campaign spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel called Campbell’s criticisms “an obvious effort by Bruce Braley to smear Joni Ernst two weeks before the election.”

Braley’s campaign was not involved with Monday’s news conference, but it was organized by and hosted in the building that houses Link Strategies, a political consulting firm that consults with Braley’s campaign.

When the three women were asked why they were just now speaking out about an issue that was first raised by Kirsten Anderson in May 2013, Marti Anderson said she had been respecting Kirsten Anderson’s right to privacy but felt compelled to speak out once the lawsuit was filed.

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