Lucy Flores became a household name last March, when she wrote an essay for The Cut about Joe Biden, who at the time was still weighing a run for president. In the straightforwardly titled essay, “An Awkward Kiss Changed How I Saw Joe Biden,” Flores flashes back to 2014, when she was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in Nevada and was grateful to get word that the then–vice president was willing to support her at a campaign rally. But Biden did more than that—he also put his hands on her shoulders, smelled her hair, kissed the back of her head—and made her want to get as far away from him as possible. She wrote, “As I was taking deep breaths and preparing myself to make my case to the crowd, I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. ‘Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?’”
Flores’s piece led to other women coming forward with similar stories of Biden inappropriately touching them, and the start of a cultural reckoning with Biden’s history of physical closeness with women. Biden quickly turned his touchy-feely habits into a joke: At an event this summer in New Hampshire, he laughed about a woman who whispered something in his ear, saying, “I want the press to know, she pulled me close.” But Flores has done more than call out Biden.
From 2011 to 2015, Flores represented the 28th district as a part of the Nevada State Assembly, and, though she lost her bid for lieutenant governor, she has remained involved in the political sphere as a social justice advocate. In 2018, she founded Luz Collective, a digital startup that seeks to shift media narratives around Latinas through programs and opportunities. (Tiffany Cabán, a public defender based in Queens, joined the Luz Collective in 2019 as its first project-focused Entrepreneur-in-Residence). Flores has also been an integral part of increasing conversations about the lack of protections for women working on political campaigns and the need for protocols and standards to ensure recourse for those who experience discrimination, sexual harassment, or assault.
Flores and I discussed the backlash she faced following her accusations against Biden, where she finds her power and motivation, and how women of color who already feel demoralized by the 2020 election can find the motivation to push for change and raise expectations for Democratic candidates.
Your essay in The Cut struck a nerve for many readers. Though you received a lot of support, there was also some backlash. This wasn’t the first time that you’d been threatened for telling a truth people didn’t want to hear: When you testified during a Nevada state assembly hearing about having an abortion as a teenager, someone shot a bullet into your house. Where do you find your strength?
First and foremost, [I find it in] the feedback that I get from women, especially women of color, because our voices and our experiences are so underrepresented. I learned a long time ago that every time I told my own story—about my upbringing, the difficulties I had with my mother leaving, [my experience in] the school-to-prison pipeline and [as] a formerly incarcerated person—it helped someone. There was so much personal fulfillment in that, but also so much power in recognizing that we [can] help one another just by being open and honest about our experiences.
It was really no different here. I prepared myself for what was to come after I decided to talk about my experience with Biden. I knew that there were thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of women around the world [who] had been subject to that type of uncomfortable, unwanted experience [with] other powerful men, or even not-powerful men. I knew it was something that we needed to start talking about because it wasn’t being taken seriously enough. From experience, I knew that my story would help someone.
Your essay points out that most political campaigns don’t have HR departments or clear-cut guidelines for how to resolve issues that arise. What further action can be taken to protect the people who work on these campaigns? For example, I know the Sanders campaign has a new policy of immediate response to allegations of harassment or sexism.
I’ve seen a little bit of progress. The campaigns definitely made [these policies] a bit of a cornerstone when there was a lot more media attention on the inappropriateness of Joe Biden’s behavior. But then it just kind of fell to the wayside, and people moved on. It obviously didn’t help that you still have a large percentage of the population—including women—who think [inappropriate touching like Biden’s] is no big deal, either because that’s the way they’ve been socialized or because they have this backward rationalization where, if something isn’t absolutely horrible, then the little things shouldn’t matter. So I have seen some progress, but not enough.
In terms of action, whether it’s forming a union or actually establishing a line of communication [with a] a clear hierarchy for reporting that kind of behavior within any campaign, big or small, [it’s essential that we do something]. I’ve seen a couple of consulting agencies pop up specifically for political campaigns where they can serve [almost] as third-party HR departments—that did not exist a year ago. That’s great. We just haven’t seen [that become] a priority, and that’s what we have to continue working toward [and] continue being vocal about. We have to keep saying, “This problem has not gone away.”
In an April interview with Huffpost, you said that there needs to be a “culture shift” in terms of how we hold powerful men accountable. What does that culture shift look like?
It’s a recognition, and frankly, it’s raising more aware, better men. Joe Biden had one thing right: This is a generational thing, but not because this behavior used to be right and now it’s wrong. It’s because people, both men and women, are now more aware of the concept of consent. They’re more aware of women’s rights and our status as full human beings. And [women are] more aware of the fact that we’re no longer keeping quiet. Hopefully this next generation of men grows up with a full recognition that women are their equals. Women don’t have to take whatever men decide to dish. We have full autonomy, not over just our brains, our thoughts, and our careers, but [also over] our bodies, our sexual choices, and everything on the spectrum.
That’s what a full culture shift looks like. It’s about cultural norms and standards changing—the standard of being able to just grab a woman anywhere you want, whether it’s the small of her back or her ass or even if it’s something more benign like casually running your hands over shoulders. Women have always been offended by those things, but we’ve been socialized to not say anything, socialized to accept it—and, frankly, [socialized to] internalize it as normal. When we no longer consider that normal behavior, that’s when we’ll see a full cultural shift.
How can concerned voters navigate the space between wanting to support Democratic candidates and holding these candidates accountable? Right now, there’s a sense that we’re expected to do whatever it takes to get Trump out of the White House, even if that means accepting Democratic options we aren’t actually happy about.
We need to advocate for full democracy as it pertains to our elections. How can we hold someone accountable if it’s just that person and nobody else? [Being] put in a position where you feel like you have to make a choice between two evils [is] a big reason why people have been slowly turning away from the political process. Both Democrats and Republicans have been the gatekeepers in our primaries, and we’ve been essentially told who is going to be our nominee. We want choices, and we want everyone who wants to be able to run to have that opportunity. Let us decide who is the best candidate: not the media, not the political parties, not the political bosses, not the millionaires and billionaires that fund their campaigns, but us, the people.
That’s exactly what you’re seeing with the Democratic presidential primary: We don’t have to settle for people who don’t fit our versions of what we think are the best people. We’re never going to get a perfect candidate, but we certainly have people who are excelling in a number of different ways, and we can choose those people and set the bar high enough for them to reach it. We hold them accountable by making them be better and showing them that if they’re not, we’re going to choose somebody else. But we need to have that choice. If we don’t, the ways in which we [can] hold them accountable [are] very limited.
“We are absolutely in dire times. There is no debating that. As people of color, as immigrants and descendants of immigrants, it feels like we’re screwed. But we’re really not.”
What are the day-to-day things that we can push for in order to get to that point and advocate for that change?
In our communities, we can be very vocal but also be very active in our local parties, in our state parties, [and] even just on social media. We should call for a fair process in all primaries, [from] local offices all the way up the presidency. [We should be] very active when it comes to making sure that we get to choose the people that we decide are the best for us.
[We must] ensure that we’re vigilant. Complacency is what the billionaires buying our elections depend on. That’s what power brokers from both the Democratic establishment and also the Republican establishment depend on. They depend on us to just kind of throw our hands up in the air and say there’s nothing we can do about this and walk away and accept our fates for what they are. And that’s just not true. We’ve seen that in these last couple of years, whether it’s participating in local marches with the Women’s March or other organizations that have popped up. Even four years ago, I could not [have listed] all these options for you because four years ago, we were still at a place but it was like well, you can go volunteer. It was just so limited. Now it’s entirely different. There’s so many ways to plug in.
What advice would you give marginalized people, especially women, who currently feel disempowered by politics? How can they remain motivated and involved?
We are absolutely in dire times. There is no debating that. As people of color, as immigrants and descendants of immigrants, it feels like we’re screwed. But we’re really not. Times are bad right now, but we just have to stay focused on the really incredible things that we can accomplish and the fact that we all have the ability to make things better. And you just have to look at Puerto Rico. Look at what’s happening in Hong Kong. Literally millions of people are collectively saying, “You know what? We are done with this.” And they’re taking to the streets. We haven’t quite gotten there yet, but I think that people should be ready. They should be ready to say, “You know what? I’m willing to sacrifice a little bit of my own comfort to ensure that I am fighting for the morality of this country.”
Look, being a young woman when I was elected—I ran [for office] at 29 and was elected a week after my 30th birthday—was hard. In many ways it is a full-on sacrifice. I mean look at Ilhan Omar: Do you think that she wakes up every day and [is] like, “This is the best time of my life!” No! Right? Nobody who [is] truly pushing the envelope and fighting for one another [isn’t sacrificing something]. But the thing that keeps every single one of us going is that we see progress.
The fact that Ilhan is even in Congress is progress. The fact that you and I are having this conversation about sexism and inappropriate behavior [that’s] outside the scope of sexual harassment and sexual assault: that’s progress. Sometimes it feels like we’re not making progress because of the dumpster fire that Trump currently has us all in. But that’s not going to be forever. We have the opportunity to make things better, and we have the opportunity to witness things getting better. And that’s what I hope that people focus on.
I hope they focus on those little wins, and sometimes massive wins, that we are achieving day by day, but recognize that this is something that is done collectively. It’s not done by just a couple of people. We’re all participating in the ways that make sense for ourselves. But at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.