Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell speaks to an audience of nearly 400 people at the Gracie Theater in Husson University Thursday, Sept. 27, as part of the BDN lecture series Dirigo Speaks. Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Kirlin

Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell criticized Congress’ handling of the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, claiming the country’s lawmakers have made little progress when it comes to treating women’s accusations of harassment seriously since the Anita Hill hearings in 1991.

Mitchell, a leading Democratic figure in the late 20th century, spoke Thursday night to an audience of nearly 400 people at the Gracie Theatre in Husson University, as part of the BDN lecture series Dirigo Speaks.

He said the Senate Judiciary Committee should have formally investigated the allegations against Kavanaugh before it scheduled a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday to question both the nominee and one of three women who have accused him of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford. Kavanaugh denies the allegations.

“[A hearing is] not a good process for determining fact, and I think that the proper course would have been to use the traditional practice of having an investigation beforehand and then having it all come before the Senate committee,” he said.

Thursday’s fiery hearing, which transfixed the nation for most of the day, had not yet finished by the time Mitchell took the stage to read prepared remarks about the current political climate before taking questions from a moderator and the audience.

Anticipating that he would be asked about the events in Washington, Mitchell brought with him a copy of remarks he made following the 1991 confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas, who overcame a public accusation of sexual harassment by his former employee, law professor Anita Hill.

Mitchell, who voted against Thomas, presided over the Senate at the time and watched the country’s reaction to Hill’s testimony at a Senate Judiciary Hearing, which has since been seen as a turning point in how a woman’s claims of sexual harassment should be handled.

“What happened to Professor Hill unfortunately sent a clear and chilling message to women everywhere. If you complain about sexual harassment, you may be doubly victimized,” Mitchell said, quoting himself nearly 30 years ago. “We must not let that message stay unchallenged. What happened to Professor Hill showed that our society has a long way to go before an attack on a woman’s integrity and reputation are treated seriously.

“Perhaps something good may yet come from this terrible episode, if the national debate which it’s generated leads to a change in attitude, and leads to a process where serious charges can be evaluated in a more fair and less controversial way,” he went on.

Based on the way the lawmakers in today’s bitterly divided political climate responded to the accusation by Ford, a California professor who said Kavanaugh drunkenly forced himself upon her during a high school gathering, that process hasn’t improved.

Public attitudes toward women have come a long way, Mitchell said, but Thursday’s hearing showed that the country’s top elected officials have failed to improve the fairness of a process that investigates sexual harassment claims.

Mitchell isn’t the first person to make a comparison between the Thomas and Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. And in Bangor on Thursday, it was one of the many topics in current affairs — from campaign finance to the Middle East — the 85-year-old senator was asked about by the audience.

The questions reflected the Waterville native’s far-ranging political career.

Mitchell represented Maine in the U.S. Senate from 1980 to 1995. He served as majority leader for his final six years and built a reputation for reaching across the aisle.

He was made a special envoy in the Arab-Israeli peace process, and notably, in a similar position, was key to negotiating the peaceful end to a decades-long, violent political conflict in Northern Ireland. The successful talks earned Mitchell a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999 — one of the many accolades he’s received over the course of his lifetime.

His prepared remarks Thursday delivered an indictment of the Trump administration’s continued moves to remove the United States from post-war global alliances and institutions, such as NATO and the United Nations.

But he also spoke optimistically, assuring that American principles would survive today’s hostile political environment, which is not unprecedented “during times of transition that many in society feel is disorienting, and bringing about abrupt, unexpected change.”

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.