Sharon Bialek's smirks aside, the accusations she made, many people have since noted since her press conference, sound not like sexual harassment, but sexual assault. The Cain campaign denied her claims mid-press conference, issuing a statement, "All allegations of harassment against Mr. Cain are completely false." But as Bialek recounted how she'd once asked Herman Cain when he'd run for president, her eyebrow shot up a solid inch. When she explained that when she got to her unexpectedly palatial hotel room before her meeting back in 1997 with Cain -- Cain said he "upgraded" her, she said -- she smirked a little, like she was thinking, "I still can't believe he actually did this." Bialek's press conference, staged by the very media savvy celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, was a bit of a circus, and already a joke before it even started. The Daily Show's camera crew showed up; Howard Stern's producer jumped in front of the microphones, just as he did before Rep. Anthony Weiner's sexting press conference.
At left, Bialek smiles to herself just after she described encouraging Cain's presidential ambitions sometime before she says he harassed her. After losing her job with the National Restaurant Association in 1997, she says she contacted Cain at her boyfriend's suggestion -- the boyfriend got many mentions in the press conference -- for job ideas. They decided to meet, and she told him where she'd be staying in Washington. When she got there, Bialek says she thought the hotel had made a mistake -- her room was enormous. Then she figured her boyfriend wanted to surprise her. But no, it was Cain, who, Bialek claims, explained, "I upgraded you." Telling that bit of the story, Bialek smirked again, shown at right.
Bialek says on the way back, Cain touched her in the car:
But instead of going into the offices, he suddenly reached over and he put his hand on my leg under my skirt and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it towards his crotch. I was very, very surprised and very shocked. I said, "What are you doing? You know I have a boyfriend. This isn't what I came here for." Mr. Cain said, 'You want a job, right?' I asked him to stop, and he did. I asked him to take me back to my hotel, which he did right away.
Cain's campaign denies all the allegations, just as it denies the claims of the three anonymous women whose stories were in the news last week, and the two staffers who worked for an Iowa talk show host who said his comments were "awkward" and "inappropriate." But now the sexual harassment story has a face, one with dark-rimmed glasses and thick blonde hair. Bialek will be on at least two morning TV shows on Tuesday, Politico's Maggie Haberman reports, and she'll be interviewed by CNN's Piers Morgan Monday night, too. Her lawyer is known for her love of TV cameras, which helps explain why Bialek's press conference was everything that Joel Bennett's was not. Bennett, who represents a different (and thus far nameless) Cain accuser, read reporters a statement Friday afternoon asserting that his client's claims were true but that she would not be coming forward or offering any details. But Monday afternoon, Bennett told The New York Times' Michael D. Shear that Bialek's account "corroborates the claim" of his client. Bennett wouldn't confirm whether Cain had physically touched his client, but "I can say it is corroborating." The lawyer noted that a woman named Sharon had contacted him over the weekend to tell her Cain story, but she was afraid to come forward. "I guess she got over her shyness," he told Shear.
If so, that's corroboration of an incident similar to "a situation that could be called assault," Slate's Dave Weigel notes. CNN's Jeffrey Toobin, the Guardian's Ana Marie Cox, Politico's Roger Simon, and The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan all say it sounds more like assault than mere harassment. His colleague Jennifer Rubin says, "Everyone will now scramble to investigate this woman, and perhaps the other three women will now step forward." (In another sign of Allred's media savvy, it appears that some of Bialek's social media presence has been scrubbed.) But The Washington Post's Eric Wemple predicts the candidate will get the worst of it: "The media will latch onto the salacious details of the case … Questions surrounding that alleged exchange will dog the Cain campaign until there is no longer a Cain campaign." So far, many conservatives have been defending Cain; a crowd cheered when he denounced the media over the weekend. But Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader, an important conservative Christian organization, told the Des Moines Register that Cain is going to have to answer more questions, despite his refusal to do so. Otherwise a "cloud of doubt will envelop his candidacy." Vander Plaats continued, "The Iowa and American voter are fair when humility, sincerity and authenticity are communicated. This is a 'tipping point' for the viability of his campaign."