About 13 months ago, Susie Tompkins Buell became one of the first high-profile Democratic donors to publicly condemn Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) for the role she played in calls that led Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign his seat amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Buell, a prominent California fundraiser, has long championed female politicians. But her comments, just days after Franken left office, made national news, highlighting the lingering support from him ― and anger at Gillibrand ― among some members of the Democratic donor class.
“I have supported [Gillibrand] for many years. Will I going forward? To be determined,” Buell told The New York Times in January 2018. She added that she was also considering whether to withdraw support from other Democratic senators who had joined Gillibrand in saying Franken needed to go.
Yet last week, Buell went ahead and announced that she was supporting Sen. Kamala Harris of California in the already crowded field for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her backing comes despite the fact that Harris also called for Franken’s resignation.
“I was not planning on having any strong feelings about the 2020 elections this early in the cycle with many other hopefuls yet to announce,” Buell wrote in her newsletter, which was shared with HuffPost by her office. “But Senator Harris’s campaign rollout has been so strong and so encouraging that I am compelled to get behind her now.”
Gillibrand was the first Democratic senator to publicly say Franken should resign in December 2017, but only by minutes. More than two dozen of her Democratic colleagues later did the same.
Buell did not return a request for an interview.
Gillibrand has largely borne alone the brunt of the criticism over the forced departure of Franken, who was popular among the Democratic base for his often biting criticisms of President Donald Trump.
Gillibrand’s detractors saw her an “opportunist” who was positioning herself for a 2020 presidential run. Her party colleagues ― including other 202 presidential contenders ― have not faced the same blame over their stance on Franken.
So far, the Franken issue doesn’t seem to be significantly hurting Gillibrand among Democratic activists (except, perhaps, in Minnesota) and voters, as much as it is with a certain class of donors. Indeed, the first endorsement Gillibrand received in Iowa for her presidential bid came from the chair of the state party’s Stonewall Caucus, which focuses on LGBTQ advocacy. The chair specifically cited the senator’s stance on Franken as a reason to back her.
Harris’ campaign declined to comment on Buell’s criticisms and whether Gillibrand has been unfairly singled out on the Franken issue.
Gillibrand has long been one of the most outspoken members of Congress on issues of sexual assault and harassment, pushing for reforms on campuses and the military. In November 2017, she earned a reputation for being willing to call out members of her own party when she said Bill Clinton should have resigned as president over his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.