Then Nevada Rep.-elect Ruben Kihuen in November 2016
Photo: Cliff Owen/AP

A former Nevada congressman ousted over allegations of sexual harassment was looking to make his political comeback in the race for Las Vegas City Council on Tuesday. He missed his chance—barely.

Former Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen came just five votes away from winning a spot on the June general election ballot in the race to become a councilman for Ward 3. The top vote-getter, Olivia Diaz, got 33 percent with 1,016 votes, while the first runner up, Melissa Clary, narrowly beat Kihuen with 28 percent and 866 votes, meaning both will appear on the general election ballot in June, according to the Nevada Independent. Kihuen got 861 votes.

In 2017, three women who worked with Kihuen said he sexually harassed them. In 2018, the House Ethics Committee found the women’s allegations to be credible. According to Roll Call, the committee reported Kihuen “made persistent and unwanted advances towards women who were required to interact with him as part of their professional responsibilities.”

Kihuen refused to resign after the allegations surfaced, but announced he wouldn’t run for re-election one day after the Ethics Committee launched its investigation into his conduct.

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He announced his campaign for Ward 3 in January, when he told the hosts of a Spanish radio show that “nobody accused me of raping anyone, they didn’t accuse me of…sexual assault.” As Roll Call reported:

“The Committee didn’t sanction me, they didn’t penalize me, they didn’t fine me,” Kihuen told the hosts “Frente a Frente” — or “Face to Face” — in Spanish last week. “The committee gave me a letter that says ‘reprimand,’ that is basically … a slap on the wrist — ‘don’t do this again.’ They found that the fact I had told [the three women] things — piropos — they found that it was credible.

The Spanish word “piropo” is a compliment to someone’s physical appearance. Kihuen also characterized his actions with the three women as flirting, using the Spanish word “coquetear.”

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Kihuen was right. No one did accuse him of raping them—an exceedingly low bar to clear to be considered fit for public office. But he was accused of repeatedly touching colleagues without their consent, sending sexually suggestive and probing text messages, and more. From Roll Call again, emphasis mine:

The [ethics committee] report details Kihuen’s actions toward a D.C. “firm employee,” a campaign staffer and a Nevada lobbyist.

While serving as a member of the House, according to the report, Kihuen repeatedly kissed the firm employee’s cheek, touched her shoulders and back and commented on her physique. He also inquired about her relationship status and asked if she lived alone.

Kihuen insinuated that he would help the D.C. firm employee with her career in exchange for a romantic relationship, according to the Ethics report.

The campaign staffer testified that Kihuen made unwanted advances toward her by touching her thigh while they were driving back from a meeting and by grabbing the back of her thigh as she stood up to check her computer. He commented on her physical appearance on multiple occasions, she said, and once asked her “weird questions” like if she ever cheated on her boyfriend.

The female lobbyist, who worked with Kihuen in Nevada between 2013 and 2015, testified that he slid his hand under her dress and onto her thigh, grabbed her buttocks, asked her to sit on his lap. He also inquired what color her panties were and suggested that she would look good naked. The report also says the lobbyist testified that he sent messages suggesting — through emojis — that they make a sex tape together.

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God give me the confidence of a male public official attempting to jump back into the game after being ousted for sexual harassment.

In his run for city council, Kihuen’s campaign literature made light of the allegations against him. Nevada Independent editor Jon Ralston highlighted the materials on Twitter, in which Kihuen offered up his mother and sister as vouchers for his reputation and described them as the “women who have spent the most time with Ruben” and who “know he has a good heart.” The literature also stated he “will be a leader who mentors our young people, helps them avoid the same mistakes I made.”

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The election was also uncannily timed, coming days after Lucy Flores and Amy Lappos said that former Vice President Joe Biden made them feel uncomfortable with how he touched them.

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Ward 3 voters likely remember Flores—she represented Nevada’s District 28 in the State Assembly, a district which partially encompasses Ward 3, from 2010 to 2014. In 2016, Flores ran against Kihuen for the House of Representatives seat for Nevada District 4. She lost to Kihuen in the primary, taking home just 25.7 percent of the vote to Kihuen’s 39.9. After the three women accused Kihuen of sexual harassment, Flores gave interviews in which she “recounted witnessing flirtatious, inappropriately close behavior by Kihuen toward other women,” the Washington Post reported after Flores spoke out against Biden.

According to the Clark County, NV, website, Las Vegas’ Ward 3 has 35,804 active registered voters. And yet, only five votes in an election of just more than 3,000 broke Kihuen’s chances of continuing his latest run for public office. Yes, it’s a local election—primed for notoriously low turnout—but the figures speak volumes. Kihuen nearly made it to the general election. Even amid the public accounts of the three women who described how Kihuen used his position as a House of Representatives member to touch them inappropriately, suggest they should date, and make a sex tape together. Even as Flores, a public figure from the Las Vegas area, and now two more women, recounted how another Democrat with significantly more power made them feel uncomfortable with his physical behavior.

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Still, the No Means No, Ruben PAC—formed to oppose Kihuen’s campaign—framed the razor-thin election margin as a victory for his accusers.

“This is a victory for the women that Ruben harassed. It shows that voters in Las Vegas believe them, trust them and that sexual harassment will not be tolerated,” the group said in a statement to the Las Vegas Sun.

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I wish it were that clear.

Kihuen was a whisper away from securing his a spot in the runoff election and sending the message to the women he harassed, and the many other women who have been harassed in similar ways, that even if you put yourself through the strain of going public, and even if a government body finds your stories credible, none of that might matter to voters.

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All told, if Kihuen’s margins emphasize anything, it’s that while public awareness of systemic abuses of power might be on the upswing, change—particularly in electoral politics—comes slowly. Last night’s results feel less like a celebration of what has changed, and perhaps more of a harbinger of what’s to come.