When more than 60 percent of the local electorate voted to recall Judge Aaron Persky in the June 5 primaries, they sent a clear message to Silicon Valley and the nation at large: that sexual assault, and in this case one who ruled leniently when it came up in a court of law, would no longer go unnoticed.
The Recall Persky movement—a multi-million dollar campaign which gained global press coverage, celebrity endorsements and support from dozens of elected officials—owed much of its success to campaign chair Michele Dauber, a Stanford Law professor, Palo Alto resident and mother of five. Dauber is a fast-talking tour de force. She speaks her mind with a political activist's fervor, but articulates her thoughts with a tactful grace that comes from her years as an educator.
Outraged by the outcome of the 2016 Brock Turner case, she spent the last two years dedicating her life’s work to telling the story of Emily Doe, the unnamed but outspoken sexual assault survivor in one of the county’s most publicized and contentious court cases. And she did so amidst death and rape threats, stalkers and an ever-increasing onslaught of internet trolls.
Yet just two months after the landslide win, Dauber is back in action, working to promote her latest venture to raise awareness about sexual assault: an ongoing series of community events including panel discussions, town hall meetings and film screenings that she hopes will continue to move voters into political action around these issues.
“Women are 51 percent of the registered voters in this country, meaning we do not have to accept a state of affairs in which the crimes and offenses that we experience and which interfere with our ability to achieve equality in society are not treated seriously,” she says. “Our goal in the Recall Persky campaign, and as we move forward through these new organizational forms, is to make sure that these issues are addressed at the ballot box.”
LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County judge, was one of the more outspoken critics of Dauber and her campaign. Cordell says she believes the recall could still jeopardize judicial independence and that the campaign should have focused more of its efforts on local, actionable change. “[They] could and should have used the million-plus dollars they raised to assist victims of sexual abuse by funding the testing the backlog of rape kits or by funding more shelters for abused women or by funding more anti-sexual abuse training for school counselors,” Cordell writes in an email to San Jose Inside.
Interestingly, Dauber’s new venture directly addresses one of Cordell’s concerns, the first of which is a screening of the HBO documentary I Am Evidence at 6:30pm on Aug. 16 at the Campbell United Church of Christ. The 2017 film exposes the nationwide epidemic of untested rape kits, shedding new light on the damaging effects that this shortcoming of the criminal justice system has had on victims of rape.
The screening—which is co-sponsored by the Women’s Caucus of the Santa Clara County Democratic Club, Orchard City Indivisible, Action Together Bay Area, Women's March Bay Area and the Democratic Activists for Women Now— includes a panel discussion between Dauber, county Supervisor Cindy Chavez and YWCA Silicon Valley CEO Tanis Crosby and a tabling area where community members can get involved with a number of local organizations on the spot.
“With this event, we thought it would be important to work with other activists and feminists in the community,” Dauber says. “We’re pushing forward on women’s rights generally, but we are also specifically working to raise the political salience of violence against women issues.”
By involving nonprofits, elected officials, and advocacy organizations across the South Bay, Dauber hopes to form a strong enough coalition to shift the conversation into real political action. First on her agenda is urging legislators to expand the number locations where sexual assault survivors can obtain a rape kit.
Currently, South Bay residents can only obtain exams in one location at Valley Medical Center in San Jose, a startling reality that Dauber described as “completely and totally unacceptable.” Coupled with the fact that survivors often have to wait an average of seven to nine hours in the clothes they were assaulted in to have their exams completed, many forgo the process entirely.
“No one who experiences this sort of offense should be subject to this kind of treatment in one of the richest counties in America,” Dauber says. “It’s outrageous that in Santa Clara County you cannot get this exam done closer to where you’re located, and we’re trying to change that.”
She mentions that the lack of rape crisis centers in the South Bay is already a key platform issue for some elected officials including San Jose City Councilman Don Rocha, who is running for supervisor this fall.
The second event Dauber will host is a town hall forum with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), who will explain the efforts that are underway at the federal level to address sexual harassment and intimate partner violence.
Taking place at 3pm on Sept. 29 at the Campbell United Church of Christ, the town hall, co-hosted alongside the Women’s Caucus and Orchard City Indivisible, resonates with Dauber on a personal level. Eshoo, just weeks before the June primary, condemned the recall of Persky in a joint statement with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose). At the time, it came as a big blow to Dauber’s recall effort, but she now looks forward to the prospect of building bridges between her campaign and Eshoo’s and opening a larger dialogue about sexual harassment.
“We won 55 percent of the vote in Anna’s district, so we thought it was important to talk to her to see where we could work together, and we’re very excited that she accepted our invitation,” Dauber explains. “I’m pleased she wants to join with us and have our support to work on the issues we all care about.”
Another of Dauber personal achievements with the Women’s Caucus, one that she feels “very proud of,” involved rewriting this year’s candidate endorsement questionnaires to include two new questions that address violence against women—a topic never directly asked of candidates in years past. Small but intentional changes in the electoral process like this, she hopes, will reframe the conversation to include survivors of sexual assault from the very start. And to Dauber, that’s significant progress. “I was sort of laughed at when I suggested this idea, but after it was done everyone agreed that it was really important and a good innovation—one that candidates responded well to,” she explains.
Dauber intends to plan an event every month leading up to the November midterms, but she explains that her ultimate goal is to extend these community forums far beyond election day. Ultimately, Dauber feels she will have done her job when candidates incorporate issues of sexual harassment on their platforms and turn them into real legislative action once elected.
“I want to be totally clear: the goal of the recall campaign was to take the legitimate anger of women over the failures of our legal system to effectively address violence against women and transform that anger into electoral action,” Dauber explains in a recent phone interview. “We need to get women, survivors, and other advocates out there, pushing forward this agenda through the vote.”