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At Dinner Bearing His Name, N.H. Dems Say Clinton’s Legacy Merits Fresh Debate

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

The New Hampshire Democrats’ annual Kennedy Clinton Dinner is one of the party’s marquee fundraisers – a chance to bask in recent electoral victories and channel the party’s energy before the next campaign season kicks into gear.

But as Democrats gathered in Hollis for this year’s dinner, the reputation one of its namesakes was getting fresh scrutiny – and not just from political opponents.

A day before, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (a rising star within the national party who’s been touted as a potential presidential nominee) was asked by the New York Times whether she thought President Clinton should have resigned for pursuing a sexual relationship with his 22-year-old intern, Monica Lewinsky. After a “long pause,” according to the Times, Gillibrand said “yes.”

“I think that is the appropriate response,” Gillibrand told the Times, adding that she thought sexual misconduct allegations against the sitting president also warrant a stronger response. “Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances there should be a very different reaction.”

But Clinton’s record is not just being called into question because of his relationship with Lewinsky. Like other public figures whose careers have been derailed by such allegations in the last month, at least three women stepped forward during Clinton’s presidency to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault.

Whether that history should prompt the party to remove Clinton’s name from its dinner, or otherwise reconsider how it chooses to honor him moving forward? At the gathering bearing his name on Friday, some top New Hampshire Democrats said they're open to that conversation.

“I think that’s a discussion that we’re going to have, and it’s a good discussion to have,” said Democratic National Committeewoman and former state party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan. “Because I think there’s behavior that was acc– was not acceptable ever, but was kept quiet, or people just kind of ignored, from all sorts of different people, Republicans or Democrats, and now that’s changing. And that’s a good thing.”

Some others, including state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark were less convinced that the name of the dinner was worthy of debate.

“We have such important challenges ahead of us, that this is not the time to be focusing on these sort of, right or wrong, small things. That’s what I see happening,” said Fuller Clark, who is also a vice chair of the state party. “It’s terribly important, the sexual abuse. But if we’re going to trivialize that, then we’re losing sight of what’s important that we change.”

Another state party vice chair, Mo Baxley, said the conversation around Clinton’s actions as president and his place in the party is loaded, no matter how Democrats proceed – but it’s still worth having.

“Was it an abuse of power? Of course it was. I’m less concerned with that consensual relationship. I think what happened with Monica Lewinsky was terrible. I’m more concerned with some of the allegations that happened before,” Baxley said. “And, you know, it’s good for us to have this conversation and open it up and look back.”

Plus, she said, it’s not like the party doesn’t have plenty of other role models to choose from.

“I’m pushing for the Eleanor Roosevelt dinner,” Baxley added. “I’m tired of all the boys.”

Rebranding the event because of controversy over its namesake wouldn’t be without precedent.

Until last year, the annual fundraiser was known for years as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. But the party renamed it the Kennedy-Clinton Dinner in 2016, amid concerns that its previous title honored two presidents who owned slaves.

Asked Friday whether Clinton’s past merits a similar reconsideration, Executive Councilor Andy Volinsky was blunt: “Let me put it this way: When they came up with this name, no one asked me.”

Casey is a Senior News Editor for NHPR. You can contact her with questions or feedback at cmcdermott@nhpr.org.

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