Daily Press (Sunday)

Controvers­ial Virginia candidate may run again

House of Delegates contender captured on explicit videos ponders what’s next

- By Sarah Rankin

HENRICO — Susanna Gibson lost her Virginia legislativ­e race this month, but may not be done with politics.

Gibson, a Democrat whose House of Delegates campaign and personal life were rocked by news reports that she had livestream­ed sex acts with her husband on a pornograph­ic website, isn’t ruling out another run for office, she said in her first interview since the controvers­y erupted in September.

While expressing regret about what unfolded, Gibson is unapologet­ic about her participat­ion in the online sex acts. She maintains that a crime was committed when members of the news media were alerted to the existence of videos documentin­g what had been livestream­ed. Moving forward, she says she wants to find ways to support and encourage other women running for office, particular­ly those who might find themselves in similar situations.

Gibson, who has faced harassment and death threats since the disclosure of the videos, said of her aims: “Using what platform I have to make sure that this does not remain acceptable. Doing what I can do to prevent this from happening to any other woman. I’m still figuring out next steps and what that looks like. But that is my plan.”

Gibson said she had no idea the videos existed until they were brought to her attention by reporters. Two preemptive opposition research efforts into her own background she had approved — a common political practice — did not turn them up, she said.

Gibson and her husband had no idea their livestream­ing would be recorded, she said.

“Consent to allow someone to view something that exists only as a moment in time or exists only in their memory is very different than consenting to allowing someone to have something that remains a permanent object and can be shared or viewed indefinite­ly,” Gibson said.

The platform the couple used currently warns in its privacy policy and other explanator­y materials that it cannot control the use of content and that streams may be recorded.

Daniel Watkins, an attorney for Gibson who specialize­s in defamation cases, has said the disseminat­ion of the videos was a violation of Virginia’s revenge porn law. The law makes it a crime to “maliciousl­y” disseminat­e nude or sexual images of another person with the intent to “coerce, harass, or intimidate.”

Gibson, who maintains that nothing about her use of the streaming platform has any bearing on her qualificat­ions to hold public office, said sex between consenting adults should never merit a news story.

“What is newsworthy is abortion rights are on the line in Virginia,” she said. “What is newsworthy is gun violence. What is not newsworthy is someone’s consensual sex life within the confines of their marriage or with any partner.”

Ken Nunnenkamp, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said he didn’t think it was the consenting sex that voters took issue with but rather the fact it was streamed online. He called the behavior disqualify­ing for public office.

A nurse practition­er with degrees from the University of Virginia and Columbia University, Gibson said she decided to run for office after Roe v. Wade was overturned last year. She won a competitiv­e June primary and centered her message to voters on protecting abortion rights as Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, pledged to enact stricter limits.

Gibson said she “never once” thought of dropping out of the race. But what she went through in the immediate aftermath of the disclosure­s, she said, “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

Journalist­s loitered outside her home for days, unfamiliar vehicles lingered in the street and death threats landed in her mailbox, she said. Her social media mentions are still replete with criticism and slurs.

“I could barely get up off the floor for about two weeks,” she said, adding that anyone reading about her account should think about how it would feel “to know that your naked body is going to be splashed all over the internet.”

Gibson said “of course” she regrets the part she played in allowing that to happen. But she added it was a choice she made “in the context of my loving marriage” and that she was not ashamed and had done nothing wrong.

Even as news coverage of the matter slowed, the harassment continued. In mid-October, someone made a false report of fatal gun violence in her home that resulted in a massive police response at a

time her young children were there, Gibson said.

Henrico police confirmed they received a report of a firearms violation in Gibson’s block and determined there was no threat.

While some donors and top Democratic Party officials generally distanced themselves from the controvers­y, Gibson said she had plenty of support, including from one of the state’s most prominent female politician­s — Louise Lucas, a longtime state senator from Portsmouth. Gibson’s campaign staffers stood by her, friends flew in from around the country to comfort her and over 2,000 new donors contribute­d to her campaign, she said.

Abortion rights groups and a leading LGBTQ+ advocacy group continued to support her campaign.

“I was personally really amazed by the way she persevered,” said Han Jones, political director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

Gibson temporaril­y stopped seeing patients at the clinic where she worked and

focused instead on knocking on doors. She hit about 100 a day for two months, she said.

Ultimately, she lost to Republican David Owen by about 2 percentage points, a narrower margin than some had expected.

“I won’t lose next time,” Gibson said at one point — though when asked about the possibilit­y of another run for office she was noncommitt­al.

Gibson plans to return soon to caring for patients and says lawmakers should expect to see her lobbying the General Assembly on issues such as privacy and revenge porn, abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.

But where she’s “laser-focused” is finding an avenue to support female candidates, particular­ly those who might find themselves navigating harassment over issues related to their sexuality.

“There are going to be very few millennial women who are aging into running for office, who don’t have some kind of picture or video on their device, on a partner’s device, somewhere on their

iCloud, right?” she said.

In addition to hiring Watkins, Gibson said she’s retained an attorney who specialize­s in sex crimes and has made a complaint with local police and the FBI.

Watkins’ argument that distributi­ng the videos constitute­s an offense under Virginia’s “revenge porn” law is plausible, according to Mary Anne Franks, a professor at George Washington University Law School who specialize­s in intellectu­al property, technology and civil rights law.

Franks wrote in a lengthy emailed assessment of the case that Virginia’s law on non-consensual­ly distribute­d intimate imagery is broader than some other states’ in that the material doesn’t have to be private.

While Gibson called it “enraging” to be “reduced” by some people to this controvers­y, she said she’s moving forward holding her head high.

“You don’t get to treat women like this and have us sit down and be quiet,” she said.

 ?? STEVE HELBER/AP ?? Nurse practition­er Susanna Gibson wouldn’t commit to another run at public office, but said if she did,“I won’t lose next time.”
STEVE HELBER/AP Nurse practition­er Susanna Gibson wouldn’t commit to another run at public office, but said if she did,“I won’t lose next time.”

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