Candice Jackson’s appointment to a top job in the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights was supposed to be a good sign for the students the office is supposed to protect.
Some critics had warned that Jackson, a Stanford graduate, lawyer and activist who had authored a controversial book on the women who accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault, lacked experience in civil rights enforcement. How could someone without that experience run an office charged with protecting students against discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or ability?
But Jackson is also a sexual assault survivor who is married to a woman. So when Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, chose her to run the Office of Civil Rights in an acting capacity last April, the decision sparked some hope.
“This appointment should give folks on the left some comfort,” Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, told The New York Times. “The idea that this administration is going to be anti-L.G.B.T., anti-women — I think we need to watch and see what happens.”
To the Clinton accusers whose stories Jackson had told in her book, her new gig made perfect sense. In Jackson, they had found an advocate when very few others were willing to sign on for the role.
“I just love that girl,” said Juanita Broaddrick, who says that Bill Clinton raped her in a hotel room in Little Rock when he was running for governor of Arkansas in 1972. Jackson “has been a [rape] victim also,” Broaddrick noted. “When you’re a victim, you know what to ask and what subjects to stay away from and how to make somebody comfortable. Candice did that immediately. I’ve never had anything but a good opinion of her and her work and what she does.”
But Jackson’s 14 months at the helm of the civil rights office left many sexual assault survivors reeling. Soon after she arrived in Washington, Jackson found herself in the midst of a national scandal. In July 2017, the Times reported on DeVos’ growing focus on those accused of sexual assault rather than the accusers — whom the Obama administration had worked hard to protect.
“The accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,’” Jackson said.
The public’s response to Jackson’s comments was swift and furious: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called for her resignation, as did Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who said that her comments were “unworthy of her role at the Department of Ed.”
Jackson apologized. But she kept her powerful post at OCR, which she ran while Ken Marcus, Trump’s pick for the top job, awaited Senate confirmation. Under her leadership — and DeVos’ — OCR all but abandoned trans students. A once active and enthusiastic staff was significantly cut, with remaining staff members working in a culture of ambivalence toward the very civil rights issues that inspired them to join the office in the first place. And in May, her office began a new investigation focused on whether Yale University discriminates — against men.
It’s laudable that the Trump administration chose to put a lesbian sexual assault survivor in charge of monitoring the rights of vulnerable groups on America’s campuses, said Eliza Byard, executive director of LGBTQ-advocacy group GLSEN. Unfortunately for the rape victims and the LGBTQ people whose civil rights she’s charged with protecting, Jackson is the perfect representative of a certain class of Trump supporters: a person who has benefited hugely from greater protections for women and minorities but has spent her life fighting to undermine those protections for others.
“Identity,” Byard said, “doesn’t substitute for your actions.”
Jackson got into professional politics early. In 1995, as a 17-year-old community college student at the public Los Angeles Valley College, she accepted an internship in the office of Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.). She took the job seriously.
“She doorbelled for me at one point,” Smith recalled. “She was always her own person. She was very strong, very unique, had her own ideas. I did not take it for granted.”
Smith, a write-in candidate and staunch social conservative, had been a favorite of Jackson’s parents. Richard “Ricky Lee” Jackson, Jackson’s father, is a doctor, country musician, conservative blogger and failed congressional candidate. Her mother, Jeanine, works as a counselor and helps run the family medical practice.
After interning for Smith, Jackson transferred to Stanford University, where she spent much of the next two years at the Stanford Review, the conservative campus newspaper co-founded by Peter Thiel, who later co-founded PayPal. She fell in with a crowd that also included future PayPal vice president Eric Jackson, climate change denier Alec Rawls, Bay Area venture capitalist Ken Howery and tech entrepreneur Jeff Giesea.
On New Year’s Day 1997, when she was a junior in college, Jackson married Brent Mayhugh, a Clark County, Washington, cop. In the pages of the Review, she railed against affirmative action, feminism and multiculturalism.
“The real ‘women’s issues’ are personal freedom, economic independence, and the proper role of government in our lives,” she wrote in an April 1998 op-ed on the activities of the Women’s Community Center, a campus organization founded in the 1970s for women to discuss their experiences in the male-dominated arena of academics.
Stanford offered a multitude of tutoring programs year-round for all students. But Jackson devoted an entire column to complaining that she had been rejected from a summer program that was created and funded specifically for minority students, as well as Stanford University’s minority-focused SEMAP (Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Achievement Program) course because she was white.
In her senior farewell to the Review, she wrote that she was even more convinced of her beliefs than when she had arrived two years prior.
“I would like to see the balance shifted,” she wrote, “so that conservatism dominates and liberalism is the minority.”
Jackson spent the summer after she graduated as an editorial assistant at the Ludwig von Mises Institute for Austrian Economics in Alabama, where she nurtured a deep admiration for Murray Rothbard, the anarcho-capitalist scholar who founded the think tank. (Rothbard once called the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law Jackson has been tasked with upholding in her position at the OCR, “monstrous.”)
Jackson was a staunch proponent of gay marriage even before she came out as gay, recalled William Anderson, a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland who met Jackson at Mises. He recalled that around that time, Jackson met her now-wife, Patty Campbell. “Her point was that if the state is the arbiter of what’s fair and what is not... it shouldn’t be involved at all in denying marriage to gays.
Mayhugh and Jackson divorced in 2000, and she married Campbell shortly thereafter.
After Mises, Jackson headed to Pepperdine University’s law school in Los Angeles on a full academic scholarship, then she worked for Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, until 2004.
In 2005, her Stanford buddy Eric Jackson published her book, Their Lives: The Women Targeted by the Clinton Machine. Much of the book serves as a manifesto against liberal politics — Jackson argues that Bill Clinton’s alleged abuses of power are not just indicative of misogyny or liberalism alone, but also “liberal misogyny,” a combination of the two. She argued that liberal politics — including government involvement and intervention ― is an abuse of “force” akin to rape.
But Their Lives also reflects hours of interviews with Clinton’s alleged victims, and a real effort to take them seriously.
“I just feel grateful that she thought we were worthy enough to write about,” Broaddrick said. “She came to my home and spent a couple of days here. Just to see how my life was. And it was like a girlfriend day, even though I’m old enough to be her grandmother. She even went with me to my grandson’s grade school to pick him up. And got involved in my everyday life. It was just fun. I hated to see her go.”
Jackson’s compassion, Broaddrick said, stemmed from Jackson’s own assault, which she discusses in Their Lives in some detail. Jackson writes that she was raped by someone she had been friends with since childhood and that she, like many other survivors, initially struggled to use the word “rape.” She wrote bravely about the struggles of self-blame, guilt and worthlessness that plague rape victims.
“The trite phrase ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ truly means something when it comes to experiencing rape, because for a while you feel as if a part of you has died, and recovering means finding a new, stronger life and identity,” she wrote.
But politics seems to circumscribe Jackson’s compassion: She approached Clinton’s victims with an earnestness that she does not offer for the women and girls who say they were victimized by her current boss. Trump’s victims weren’t real, she said in 2016, according to ProPublica. They were “fake.”
In her book, Jackson claims that she supports “gender, racial and sexual orientation equality in all aspects of life.” But in the next breath, she says she opposes “trying to accomplish any of that through the power of political force.” It’s an odd philosophy for a person whose access to a law degree, a powerful government job, a marriage to the person she loves and the ability to legally raise children with her were only possible as the result of successful political movements. And as her underlings in the Trump administration would find, it’s an especially odd philosophy for someone charged with using the power of the government to protect civil rights.
Jackson became a likely Trump appointee on the second Sunday of October 2016. The Washington Post had released footage showing the Republican presidential nominee bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and his second debate with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton was just 48 hours away. Trump needed to change the story, quick.
Trump confidant, campaign hand and ratfucker Roger Stone had a solution. Stone had pushed Trump for months to highlight the allegations of sexual violence and harassment by Hillary Clinton’s husband, according to New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman. Earlier that year, Stone had reached out to Jackson to plot how to bring his accusers’ stories into the campaign.
In the moment of crisis, Trump embraced Stone’s suggestion. Jackson helped the campaign orchestrate a surprise news conference just before the debate. Trump sat at the center of two long tables pushed together, in front of an American flag and surrounded by Bill Clinton’s accusers and Kathy Shelton, a Jackson client who was raped by a man Hillary Clinton represented as a lawyer in Arkansas in 1975.
The news conference was a smashing success. Although polls indicated that Hillary Clinton won the presidential debate, the pre-debate circus garnered more than 3 million views on Facebook and was covered extensively by media outlets across the political spectrum.
Less than a month later, Trump won the election, and Jackson’s star rose. In the weeks following, she appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show with Shelton to accuse Hillary Clinton of hypocrisy for claiming to be a champion for women. She had delivered a similarly intense performance for Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative political commentator and a longtime friend, in a video published on his YouTube channel a few weeks prior.
Soon after Trump’s election, Jackson submitted an application for a job with his administration. She had a lot of help.
“I have excellent recommendations from notable conservatives like David Horowitz, Dinesh D’Souza, and Sean Hannity, each of whom tells me they have specifically reached out to Kellyanne Conway or Steve Bannon to recommend me,” she wrote in an email to Trump transition team officials that was later obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Jackson also cited a recommendation from Thiel, perhaps Trump’s most prominent LGBTQ supporter.
The Trump transition team moved quickly. Five weeks after Jackson emailed, a transition official emailed a DeVos aide with good news. “Candice Jackson has been pre-approved for hiring!” the official wrote. “Would the Secretary like to call her and offer the position?”
Jackson’s predecessors at the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Russlynn Ali and Catherine Lhamon, entered the job with decades of experience in civil rights advocacy and were committed to expanding the rights of survivors of sexual assault on campus.
In 2011, Ali announced in what’s known as a “Dear Colleague” memo that the office would launch its most aggressive effort yet to address and investigate campus sexual violence.
“The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime,” she wrote. “The statistics on sexual violence are both deeply troubling and a call to action for the nation.” The letter effectively required that schools and universities up the ante on how they responded to accusations of sexual violence. As per the letter, schools and universities were obligated to investigate all accusations of sexual violence regardless of whether or not there was a concurrent criminal investigation, protect the accuser from repeated contact with the alleged perpetrator (for example, move a student to different campus housing during the investigation), and offer guidance to students who wished to make a Title IX complaint.
But Jackson didn’t have the experience of Ali or Lhamon — or their commitment to expanding protections for the people her office is supposed to serve. In June 2017, shortly after her appointment, a group of LGBTQ activists met with Jackson about how she would protect trans students. Jackson was “super friendly” and “very nice” but didn’t seem to understand the power of the role she’d been given, said Nathan Smith, the director of public policy for GLSEN, one of the groups that attended the meeting. “It’s a really big role that oversees a really important civil rights agency. And I’m not sure I feel like she had the qualifications for leading that office effectively.”
Harper Jean Tobin, the director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, was alarmed by Jackson’s appointment. But she was particularly disturbed after the OCR closed a case and withdrew findings that a trans girl had been discriminated against at a school in Sparta, Ohio — proving that advocates had been right to worry that Jackson would roll back protections for transgender students.
“Clearly this happened under [Jackson’s] leadership,” Tobin said. “I can’t say how much this was driven by the Justice Department, which is clearly on a mission to do everything it can to undermine the civil rights of LGBTQ people, or how much it was driven in the department.”
Activists were not comforted by the fact that Jackson is a part of the LGBTQ community. Just as Jackson was eager to taper off responding to sexual violence complaints despite her own experience surviving it, she was equally as eager to do the same for LGBTQ complaints.
Jackson didn’t need experience to succeed at OCR, her friend Eric Jackson said.
“That she hasn’t been a lifelong bureaucrat is true,” he told HuffPost. “But shouldn’t we encourage citizens to serve the public?... They’ve got a mess to clean up.”
Part of that “mess” included Ali’s 19-page “Dear Colleague” letter. Last September, Jackson sent her own “Dear Colleague” memo, announcing that Ali’s letter had been withdrawn.
“The [document] may have been well-intentioned,” Jackson wrote about Ali’s memo, but it has “led to the deprivation of rights for many students — both accused students denied fair process and victims denied an adequate resolution of their complaints.”
Since the publication of Jackson’s letter, OCR has deemphasized campus sexual violence as a priority and focused instead of gender discrimination — against men. In April, the office began investigating Yale University after Kursat Christoff Pekgoz, a graduate student at the University of Southern California who has no affiliation with Yale, filed a complaint about the university’s seven women-only campus organizations. Under Jackson’s leadership, the OCR has also abandoned trans students’ complaints, as HuffPost reported in April.
Jackson’s focus on the rights of people accused of sexual assault, rather than their alleged victims, shouldn’t be a surprise, according to her Mises Institute colleague and friend William Anderson. “Those accusations have a lifelong effect for the accused,” Anderson said in an interview. “And the Obama administration wanted a process that would be stacked for the accuser.”
It’s true the Obama administration sought to shift the balance. But the process was already stacked — for rapists. False rape accusations are vanishingly rare. Most rapes aren’t even reported. Reported rapes are rarely prosecuted. And people prosecuted for rape are rarely convicted. The Obama administration hoped that political force could change that status quo. But Jackson doesn’t believe in that kind of change.
I had a lot of questions for Candice Jackson, so I spent parts of the last year trying to make contact with her. I left her several voicemails, all of which went unanswered. I sent her several emails with the same result. I spent two days in Washington waiting in the smoking section outside the Department of Education, where I’d heard she took her smoke breaks. I had a short email exchange with her wife, who declined to comment for the piece. I spoke to Jackson’s friends, former supervisors and professors, but never to Jackson herself.
As I interviewed Jackson’s contemporaries, I was often reminded that, despite the many calls for her to be fired from her position in the OCR, her views aren’t unusual. Ken Marcus, Trump’s nominee to run OCR, was finally confirmed to the position earlier this month. Jackson remains at the office, for now, as his second-in-command. Her background was supposed to make her uniquely qualified for the job. But there’s no evidence Marcus, a straight white man, will run the office any differently than she did. During his confirmation hearing, he was asked whether there was any decision the office made under Trump that he disagreed with. He didn’t identify any.
For many people who supported Trump — including 53 percent of white women voters — dismissing his accusers was as easy and convenient as believing Bill Clinton’s. Conservatism, as Jackson had hoped, now dominates. Republicans control all three branches of government and most states. The president is a confessed sexual assaulter. And the idea that got Jackson in so much trouble last year — that sexual assault survivors don’t know the difference between rape and sex they regret — remains widespread.
When I called Jackson’s friend William Anderson, for example, he echoed her comments to the Times, telling me that young women who wake up hung over and regretting the sex they had the night prior “are not survivors.” A “real” survivor, he told me, is someone like his ex-wife, who was raped at knifepoint in college.
I’ve had the kind of sex that Anderson speaks of. I’ve woken up and looked at the person lying next to me while I pieced together how they ended up in my bed or how I ended up in theirs. Sometimes I’ve regretted it, and sometimes I haven’t.
But I’ve had another kind of experience. I’ve sat in a bar alone, hungry and hiccuping, while a bartender poured me more whiskey. The same bartender would invite himself into the bathroom with me for what I thought was a harmless make-out. And then the door closed and locked and he did things that bad men do when no one else is there.
We know the difference. We feel it the next morning when we wake up and our entire waking lives feel unlivable. “For a while,” as Jackson once said, “you feel as if a part of you has died.”
But my story, like so many other women’s stories, doesn’t serve any political end for Jackson. The man responsible isn’t a powerful Democrat. He’s just a bartender, and I’m just a journalist. I know that identity isn’t a substitute for actions. Being a survivor doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to believe other survivors. And since I never got a chance to speak to Jackson, I can’t help but be left wondering: Would she believe my story?
And, if she did, what would she do about it?
Rebecca Klein and Sarah Ruiz-Grossman contributed reporting.