U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst hugs a constituent at an event in Jefferson in 2015. Ernst said she is hitting the pause button on hugging in the current climate in which allegations of unwanted and inappropriate touching regularly arise with public figures. Ernst said she doesn’t want a warm, friendly embrace to be misinterpreted, meaning handshakes and simple “hellos” are safer for someone with a national profile and reputation to protect.
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst hugs a constituent at an event in Jefferson in 2015. Ernst said she is hitting the pause button on hugging in the current climate in which allegations of unwanted and inappropriate touching regularly arise with public figures. Ernst said she doesn’t want a warm, friendly embrace to be misinterpreted, meaning handshakes and simple “hellos” are safer for someone with a national profile and reputation to protect.

February 13, 2018

LAKE CITY

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, an old-school rural populist with a folksy approach to retail politics, says she’s suspended the practice of giving hugs — gestures that have been primary features of her small-town way of greeting constituents and others in professional settings — for fear the embraces will be misinterpreted in the #MeToo era, the modern climate of evolving protocol on personal interaction.

Ernst, the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate and a fierce advocate for justice for victims of sexual assault in the military as well as improved workplace environments for women in general, expressed misgivings about the #MeToo movement, suggesting it may snare or smear innocent or well-intentioned people simply seeking to project platonic warmth — like she has done with hugs.

“I do have concerns now that a pat on the shoulder might be taken the wrong way,” Ernst said in an interview with this newspaper. “It’s possible that you could be accused of something. You know, I’m a big hugger, and I love to hug people, and that’s just who I am, and I have given pause to that now, even. I don’t like that. But I don’t want to be accused of hugging somebody who didn’t want a hug. So it’s unfortunate in some aspects.”

Ernst, 47, made the comments following a business tour of Lake City Saturday morning.

There, she shook hands with dozens of people, including one economic-development official whom she has greeted with hugs on numerous previous occasions since becoming the first woman elected to Congress from Iowa in 2014.

Ernst, raised on a farm and a product of a rural Iowa, has used a politically potent blend of broad, room-filling smiles, firm military handshakes and hugs, sometimes quick and others more sustained, to greet constituents at businesses, town halls and other gatherings in Iowa. She visits all 99 counties each year, as does one of her mentors, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

Ernst is on a first-name basis with many small-town city officials, business leaders and news-media members, and she’s mixed in hugs with many of them at west-central Iowa events covered by this newspaper over the past five years.

Big picture — reporting, from women and men who have been victims of sexual abuse or harassment, is essential, said Ernst, a Red Oak Republican, adding that she gives “kudos” to survivors of such actions who tell their stories.

The #MeToo movement, I think, has been very important, because I do believe we are seeing more now where people are willing to talk about issues of abuse that they have gone through,” Ernst said. “It is raising awareness, I think, with a lot of women out there that maybe they were afraid to say something. Now, it’s OK to say something. And I think that’s important.”