BISMARCK - North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp apologized Tuesday, Oct. 16, for misusing women’s names in a campaign ad that identified them as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or rape, a move her Republican opponent Rep. Kevin Cramer criticized as “beyond reckless.”
In a statement, Heitkamp said her campaign recently discovered that “several of the women’s names who were provided to us did not authorize their names to be shared or were not survivors of abuse.” She said her campaign worked with victim advocates to identify women who would be willing to sign the open letter, which appeared in the state’s largest newspapers and was meant to rebuke Cramer’s recent comments on sexual assault.
“I deeply regret this mistake and we are in the process of issuing a retraction, personally apologizing to each of the people impacted by this and taking the necessary steps to ensure this never happens again,” Heitkamp said in her statement.
Heitkamp’s statement came three weeks before Election Day, when North Dakota voters will decide whether to give her a second term over Cramer. The two are scheduled to debate for the first time Thursday.
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“There is no excuse or apology in the world that can undo what she has done to these victims,” Cramer said in an interview.
A spokesman for the North Dakota Republican Party called it “another example of Heidi Heitkamp exploiting whoever she can for political gain.”
One woman who posted a photo of the letter on Facebook said she was “disgusted” and “furious” that her name was shared without her permission. Another said “a lot of these people listed, including me, did not give anyone permission for our names to be posted.” She said she doesn’t support Heitkamp and is not a domestic abuse survivor.
Lexi Zhorela, a sexual assault victim, said she didn’t give the campaign permission to share her name.
“I was shocked and very humiliated,” she said in a Facebook message, adding that she hadn’t been contacted by the campaign as of late Tuesday afternoon.
The full-page ad was published in several Forum Communications Co. newspapers on Sunday, almost a week after Cramer’s comments were published by the New York Times. He took aim at the #MeToo movement in the wake of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation and said women in his family "cannot understand this movement toward victimization."
"They are pioneers of the prairie," Cramer added, according to the Times. "These are tough people whose grandparents were tough and great-grandparents were tough."
The letter included 127 names, although some were identified only by initials. It wasn’t clear exactly how many were misidentified or used without permission.
“As North Dakotans who have experienced this absolute terror firsthand and survived these crimes - we are all prairie tough,” the letter stated. The name of Heitkamp’s campaign committee and her campaign website address are written on the bottom of the letter.
In an apparent acknowledgment of the seriousness of the error, Heitkamp was interviewed by frequent critic and conservative blogger Rob Port during his WDAY radio show for the first time Tuesday. She apologized profusely for what she described as a “colossal” and “irresponsible” mistake and said the misused names appeared to come from a forwarded Facebook post without “direct verification” from the campaign.
Heitkamp said she would conduct an “internal evaluation” to determine how the names were published because the women mistakenly listed “deserve an explanation.”
“This is on me. This has got my name on it,” said Heitkamp, a former state attorney general who sounded emotional during the interview. “I’ve spent a great deal of my professional time working with victims and the worst thing you can do is take away their privacy.”
Another woman whose name appeared on the list, Ellie Shockley of Mandan, a sexual assault survivor, said she signed on to the letter via email and said she understood how her name would be used.
“Obviously it’s very disappointing that some people were included who hadn’t agreed to be included and didn’t even feel like it was relevant to them,” she said.