North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp apologized Tuesday morning for misusing women’s names in an open letter to Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer rebuking his comments on sexual assault.
In a statement, Heitkamp said her campaign recently discovered “several of the women’s names who were provided to us did not authorize their names to be shared or were not survivors of abuse.” She said her campaign worked with victim advocates to identify women who would be willing to sign the letter.
“I deeply regret this mistake and we are in the process of issuing a retraction, personally apologizing to each of the people impacted by this and taking the necessary steps to ensure this never happens again,” Heitkamp said in her statement.
The full-page letter was published in several Forum Communications Co. newspapers, as well as The Bismarck Tribune, almost a week after Cramer’s comments were published by the New York Times. He took aim at the #MeToo movement and said women in his family "cannot understand this movement toward victimization."
"They are pioneers of the prairie," Cramer added, according to the Times. "These are tough people whose grandparents were tough and great-grandparents were tough."
The Heitkamp campaign identified the signatories as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or rape. The letter included 127 names, although some were identified only by initials, and it wasn’t clear how many names were misidentified or used without permission.
“As North Dakotans who have experienced this absolute terror firsthand and survived these crimes — we are all prairie tough,” the letter stated. The name of Heitkamp’s campaign committee and her campaign website address are written on the bottom of the letter.
A Cramer campaign spokesman called the incident an “egregious act” and “inexcusable.”
One woman angrily posted photos of the open letter on Facebook Monday night. She said “a lot of these people listed, including me, did not give anyone permission for our names to be posted.” She said she doesn’t support Heitkamp and is not a domestic abuse survivor.
Gary Adkisson, publisher of The Bismarck Tribune, weighed in on running the advertisement.
"Court rulings have given tremendous leeway to politicians and their campaigns, generally ruling that the government should not be deciding what is "political truth." In a 2014 case, the U.S. Supreme Court kicked an Ohio case back down to Judge Timothy Black a federal district judge in the Southern District of Ohio. In his ruling, Judge Black said, 'We do not want the government (i.e., the Ohio Elections Commission) deciding what is political truth — for fear that the government might persecute those who criticize it. Instead, in a democracy, the voters should decide,'" Adkisson said. "As we saw in the recent local legislative primary race where candidates made claims that resulted in charges being filed, they later apologized and charges were dropped.
"As a newspaper the only place where we weigh in on political races and candidates is on our editorial page," he said.
A Heitkamp campaign spokesperson did not immediately return an email Tuesday morning questioning how the names were gathered and how the campaign verified the women consented to being part of the letter.
Tribune reporter Jack Dura contributed to this article.