Are there different standards for men and women when it comes to political criticism?

It is not a new question, but it was raised again recently when a dozen women including state Rep. Della Au Belatti held a news conference on this subject: “Hawaii Women Stand Up to Misleading Tactics Employed by Ige.”

At issue is a television commercial from Gov. David Ige’s campaign that says “criticism isn’t leadership,” as it shows an unflattering image of Colleen Hanabusa, the U.S. representative who is trying to unseat the incumbent in the Democratic primary Aug. 11. 

“When a male candidate points out flaws in an opponent’s work, he is viewed as strong, passionate and confident,” Belatti said, according to Hawaii News Now. “But when strong words come from a woman, even one with decades of experience, it is described as ‘too critical.’”

The criticism about criticism gained fresh currency when Belatti, who happens to be the House majority leader, took a big swipe at the governor in an email last week that was widely distributed on Hanabusa campaign letterhead.

“It’s a flat-out double standard: women who speak up for what’s right are too often told to sit down and shut up,” Belatti says in the email, which solicited donations for Hanabusa. “And now Colleen’s opponent is using that double standard to try to silence her valid critiques of his leadership.”

Rep. Della Au Belatti and other women leaders speak at a press conference July 22 to call attention to what they see as a double standard in the race for Hawaii governor. 

But other women see it differently, including Sen. Laura Thielen, like Belatti a member of the legislative women’s caucus.

Women in Hawaii face real discrimination,” she said to me in an email.

“Governor Ige’s statement to Congresswomen Hanabusa saying ‘Criticism isn’t leadership’ isn’t discrimination,” said Thielen. “It’s a fair statement for one candidate to make about another in a political race.”

Thielen questioned the outspokenness of Belatti and other Ige critics now when there was near absence of official comment from women leaders when former House Speaker Joe Souki was forced to resign earlier this year after the state Ethics Commission found him to have sexually harassed women.

Several of the leaders stepping forward to accuse Ige of discrimination … were deafeningly silent several months ago, when a prominent legislator was accused of sexual harassment and ultimately resigned office,” Thielen said. “They did not demand action to protect women; they did not demand legislative policies on harassment be changed to protect victims of harassment; they provided vapid excuses for silence and delay.”

Thielen also levied criticism about local leaders “unwilling to take strong action forcing the DOE to address its years of failure to comply with Title IX” to provide girls with equal opportunities and facilities.

State Sen. Laura Thielen speaking at the Women’s March in Honolulu earlier this year. She says women criticizing Ige for complaining that Hanabusa has been too critical of him are just playing politics in a tight gubernatorial campaign. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Several of these leaders also sat by “as our signature bill to reduce domestic violence and protect women and girls from serious injury was killed in committee,” she said.

Thielen said she has held back on speaking out about the governor’s race.

“But I can’t refrain from saying how bitterly disappointed I am to see some of these leaders speaking out now in what appears to me to be purely a political agenda, given how they would not speak or act when it would have made a real difference for women and girls in our state,” she said.

“Governor Ige’s statement to Congresswomen Hanabusa saying ‘Criticism isn’t leadership’ isn’t discrimination.” — Sen. Laura Thielen

Thielen posted her full remarks on Facebook, adding to an intense debate that continues on the internet and elsewhere as the primary nears.

The race for governor between Hanabusa and Ige has split the party generally. Now the argument over whether he was demeaning Hanabusa and women in that TV spot has fueled even more discord: It’s gotten so heated that there is talk that the women’s legislative caucus might disband.

Asked about the Souki matter, Belatti says women legislative leaders may not have spoken out publicly, but they did take action.

“I would say to look at how we responded, and in the context of sexual harassment issues,” she replied. “It was an active and ongoing investigation. House leadership has now taken it upon themselves to form a working group that will in fact recommend and make changes to our policies that are very real.”

The Gender Card

There’s no question that women feel they have a harder time gaining traction in politics. And they do feel they are held to a different standard.

Look no farther than the 2016 presidential election, where some said Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton seemed to be judged differently by the media and voters.

But it is also a time in which more women are being elected to office nationwide, and the issue of gender is unavoidable. It’s legitimate to scrutinize whether a candidate is inappropriately playing the so-called gender card.

The Republican Party is having its own gender battles. State Rep. Beth Fukumoto, now running for Congress, lost her House leadership position after criticizing Trump for (in part) his behavior toward women. Fukumoto is now a Democrat.

I asked Hanabusa about Belatti’s email, Ige’s ad and Belatti’s press conference remarks during a Civil Beat livestreamed event Wednesday evening. Here’s the clip so you can watch what she had to say for yourself:

Hanabusa defended her right to criticize the governor but did not identify an example of where Ige had been demeaning or patronizing to women. She instead fell back on the general complaint: women have a difficult time in politics.

As for the governor, Ige’s campaign didn’t return calls for comment for this column.

I asked Belatti for an example of Ige behaving inappropriately to women. She also did not provide one but rather used the “criticism isn’t leadership” to drive home the point that Ige is a poor leader.

She said even though she had remained neutral in the governor’s race until now, the Ige ad was upsetting to her and others.

“It touched a real nerve,” she said.

Belatti described the ad as “very nuanced” but one that clearly sends “a subtle message of silencing any criticism.”

“The subtext is that Hanabusa is a woman who has a history of being critical and is not a leader,” she said. “When (women) take people to task, we are viewed as being overly critical. But we are doing our job by calling people to task and asking tough questions.”

A screen shot of Della Au Belatti’s Wednesday request for donations to Hanabusa’s campaign. 

Bellati said that some people  have told her since the July 21 presser that they don’t see sexism at issue in the gubernatorial campaign — in essence agreeing with Thielen.

My take?

I’ll admit to being torn, in no small part because I am male and because we are still very much in the #MeToo era. Allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment have ended many careers. And, while not always in agreement with them, I’ll confess to being an admirer of both Belatti and Thielen and I’m pleased that both felt the need to speak out on gender and politics.

I disagree with Ige’s contention that “criticism isn’t leadership.” In fact, it is very much part of being a leader, and Ige has more than three and a half years that are fair game to pick at — for example, how he handled the false missile alert or his seemingly invisible role during the special session legislation to fund Honolulu rail.

But I also think leaders — especially ones aspiring to be governor — need to offer their own detailed ideas for the state’s challenges along with the criticism. Hanabusa has provided some specifics on some issues, but throughout this campaign she’s had a pattern of talking mostly about what she has previously accomplished and making vague promises of “faster action” on affordable housing and “greater leadership” to address homelessness.

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