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“It was 2004. I was attending the Marine Corps Ball, when I was drugged and raped by a superior.”
That’s how Claire Russo, a Democrat running to represent Virginia’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, begins her newest campaign ad. The 30-second ad, entitled “Tough Fights,” is among the first to focus on candidly discussing surviving a sexual assault.
“My attacker went to jail, and I refused to let him stop me from serving my country in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Russo says in the ad. “I have always run toward the fight. Now, I’m running for Congress to take on the fights that matter most to you.”
In the ad, Russo says the military declined to pursue the case against her attacker. So she went to the San Diego district attorney’s office, which charged the man with six counts of sexual assault, Business Insider reported in a 2012 story about Russo. He ultimately pleaded guilty to sodomy of an intoxicated person, according to Business Insider.
Russo — who’s running against three other Democratic candidates for a chance to challenge Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman — has made no secret of her history of surviving sexual assault. On her campaign website, she cites her assault as the driving force behind her advocacy for women’s equality in the military.
On her website, Russo also emphasizes her support for universal prenatal care, gun law reform, and a public option for health care. She slams Riggleman, who defeated Olivia Wilde’s mother, Leslie Cockburn, in a 2018 race, for voting against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act. EMILY’s List has endorsed Russo.
In recent years, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, women in Congress — on both sides of the aisle — have started to speak more openly about their own experiences with sexual assault. Republican Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst has said that she was raped in college, while Arizona Sen. Martha McSally has said that she, like Russo, was sexually assaulted while serving in the military.
McSally, a Republican running a close race in Arizona, mentioned the assault again in a February campaign ad. But her ad is nowhere near as focused on the experience as Russo's.
Russo’s stark emphasis on assault demonstrates female candidates’ growing willingness to talk about issues once considered too crass or personal for the campaign trail. In another ad posted Thursday, Russo picks several labels to describe herself: “Daughter, Marine, sexual assault survivor, mom, Democrat.”
Cover: Screenshot via "Tough Fights"