Pivotal swing vote Flake talks about Kavanaugh hearings at Boston event

Julia Preszler

All attention turned toward Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, when he spoke Monday about the confirmation process of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit at City Hall Plaza.

Attendees and those who watched the interview remotely afterward listened carefully, trying to discern how Flake will vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, which has gripped and divided the country. Three women have accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, including Christine Blasey Ford, a clinical psychology professor at Palo Alto University in California. Both Kavanaugh and Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sept. 27.

“Those who heard Dr. Ford, everybody I think on my side of the aisle and the other side of the aisle said that she offered compelling, credible testimony,” Flake said. “And then Brett Kavanaugh came on and made an impassioned, very raw defense and rebuttal to what was going on. That was seen as very effective as well.”

Flake said while he did not like the brash tone of Kavanaugh’s testimony before the committee, “if I felt that I was unjustly accused, I can’t imagine that I would act differently than that.”

Silent protesters in the audience stood and held signs while others, led by Democratic Congressional candidates Ayanna Pressley (MA-7) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), chanted outside.

“I want to thank every survivor that is here today, that is allowing themselves and everyone in this country to be retraumatized over and over because people like Anita Hill and Dr. Ford have to sit there in front of panels of 11 men,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Could you imagine if Brett Kavanaugh had to sit in front of a panel of 11 women of color deciding his fate? Could you imagine? Could you imagine?”

Ocasio-Cortez was referring to the 11 Republican men on the Senate Judiciary Committee who heard testimonies from Kavanaugh and Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a high school party in Maryland in the 1980s.

Last Friday, the committee voted 11-10 to advance the nomination to the full Senate. Flake, who had publicly struggled with his decision, provided the critical 11th vote to approve the motion, but demanded that the Senate pause to allow for a week-long FBI investigation into the incident. The request echoed a suggestion made by Flake’s friend, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, another member of the committee.

“We don’t do bipartisan things in the Senate very often anymore, but I felt it was important to do this,” Flake said.

The moderator of the talk, Forbes chief content officer Randall Lane, asked Flake whether his decision to call for the investigation had been swayed by two women, including Northeastern alumna Maria Gallagher, who confronted him in an elevator at the Capitol Friday. The women told Flake that confirming Kavanaugh would show sexual assault survivors around the country that their experiences “don’t matter.” Earlier Friday morning, Flake had announced he would vote “yes.”  

“I’ve gotten calls and emails and texts from women who I never thought I’d hear from in this regard saying ‘Here’s what happened to me when I was young. Here’s what happened to me 30 years ago,’” he said. “What Dr. Ford said really emboldened a lot of women to come forward.”

About 10 audience members stood in silent protest throughout Flake’s Monday talk in Boston. The group met one another during the 30 Under 30 summit, which ran from Sunday to Tuesday and included talks, exhibitions and entertainment to celebrate 30 young leaders in politics, science, media and more.

All Monday morning, it was unclear when and where Flake would speak, said protester Beyza Burcak, 28. Flake was originally slated to appear with Ohio Governor John Kasich at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. On Friday, it was announced that Flake’s talk would be relocated because of safety concerns. When the group of protesters, led by Lynn Le, learned around 11 a.m. that Flake would be speaking on City Hall Plaza, they scrambled to design and print posters to hold at the 1 p.m. event, said Burcak, who works at a non-profit organization in Boston and attended the summit as a Forbes Fellow.

Protester Beyza Burcak holds a sign in protest at Flake’s event. / Photo by Dylan Shen

Each piece of paper displayed the name of a sexual assault survivor from Arizona, Flake’s home state. Burcak’s sign read “I am Melissa from Phoenix.”

“It just makes me feel sick to even think about it,” she said. “It’s also not just about Kavanaugh. It’s a message to anyone who commits sexual assault or abuses women and girls. We are rewarding this person. This nomination is a reward and if he takes that chair it is a reward.”

While the protesters inside remained silent, the chants from the crowds outside wafted into the venue and could be heard through much of Flake’s speech.

“Sexual assault is about the abuse of power. It is always women who are marginalized. It is the young. It is the interns. It is the immigrant. It is the trans,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “They are always most at risk because society listens to them the least. And that is why a man believes that [with] an elite education, a high income and his rich friends, [he] can get away with sexual assault.”