DOYLESTOWN, Pa. >> With its Colonial-era storefronts, ice cream parlor and bustling outdoor cafes, this Philadelphia suburb could be the quintessential American downtown.
Though it’s mid-September, the historic homes that line its narrow streets are still dressed in bunting and American flags from the Memorial Day parade, advertised as the nation’s oldest. It’s a perennial swing district split about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, where polls show the current congressional race is a tossup.
And like much of the country, people here are divided — and in many cases gripped — by the accusation from a woman who says Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee, sexually assaulted her at a party when they were teenagers at elite Washington-area private schools in the early 1980s.
In a series of interviews this week, voters here were inclined to believe Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, now a research psychologist in California — though some questioned her motive for coming forward more than three decades later and whether allegations about his behavior as a teenager should be counted against him.
Republican or Democrat, they almost universally described it as another exasperating turn in the Tilt-a-Whirl of spectacle that has surrounded the presidency of Donald Trump.
“It’s completely insane that anyone would think that this woman would put herself out there without this being a real thing,” said Blair Elliot, 50, a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and owner of Siren Records. “Somebody who was lying about what happened wouldn’t be asking the FBI to investigate.”
When he read the first reports about an anonymous allegation that Kavanaugh might have assaulted a woman in high school, Elliot said he did not think much of them. But Blasey soon went public, and her detailed account — she told The Washington Post that Kavanaugh, then 17, pinned her down on a bed, put his hand over her mouth so she could not scream and grinded against her — deeply disturbed him.
“When you’re 17, you know that kind of thing is criminal,” Elliott said. “We all make mistakes and should be able to rectify them. We’re not all trying to be on the Supreme Court.”
Kavanaugh has denied he assaulted Blasey, saying the incident “never happened.’’ His supporters have tried to argue that Blasey is confusing him for one of his high school peers.
Heidi Froehlich, 38, who works at the record store, said she understood Blasey’s reluctance to come forward, noting those who have doubted her and the death threats that have reportedly forced Blasey and her family from their home.
“It costs more to come forward than it does to stay silent,” said Froehlich, an independent who registered as a Democrat to vote for Barack Obama in 2008. “Anybody who believes there is something to gained coming forward has no idea what it’s like to be a woman in this country right now.”
On the street outside, Teresa Foster, 60, said she did not doubt Blasey’s account, but did question her timing — coming forward “in the 11th hour” as she put it, after so many years.
“What took so long?” said Foster, a Republican who voted for Trump. “It just seems so political to me. It’s not that I think she’s lying, but people do stupid things in high school. He pinned her down, he put his hand over her mouth. He did not rape her.”
But the details in the account by Blasey were what repulsed Cindy Shoemaker-Zerrer, a 59-year-old real estate agent. “The fact that he put his hand over her mouth makes it a whole different level,” she said. “She didn’t have a choice, she didn’t have a voice.”
Kavanaugh’s nomination, she said, seemed to symbolize the country slipping backward in its attitudes toward women under Trump, himself accused of groping multiple women over the years: “It’s like: Set your clock back 100 years.”
“He thought he could get away with what he thought he could get away with; he’s one of the good ol’ boys,” she added, referring to Kavanaugh.
Every four years, presidential candidates travel through Doylestown to try to woo the its voters, affluent and almost evenly split between Republican and Democrat.
Many people interviewed said they understood why Blasey might have stayed silent in 1982 — the days of Reagan conservatism, a decade before there were even many women in Congress. The #MeToo era, they recognized, had made it easier to come forward. Three people offered their own stories of sexual assault or harassment and described their own long struggles to come forward or confide in anyone.
Still, some hinted at a backlash.
“The whole mode now of airing everybody’s dirty laundry no matter how far back it goes, without any credibility,” said Bill Steele, 69.
His wife, Paula, like him a Republican who voted for Trump, interjected. “I would tend to generally believe people who come forward,” she said. “What’s the motive otherwise?”
But both said the time elapsed from the alleged assault troubled them the most; that it happened in high school. “If we think back to some of the foolish things we’ve done in high school,” Paula Steele said. “Not that it excuses it, but it does.”
“I hate to admit that with the Me Too movement out there,” she added.
It is hard to sort out the facts in such tumultuous and polarized times, she noted: “What’s the political motivation? Ever since Trump is in office, that’s what we have to worry about.”
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Foster, who works for a small preserves company, agreed. “It feels like everything is frustrating about this moment,” she said. “I feel like Trump could give everyone in this country a million dollars, and it still wouldn’t be enough for some people.”
She was suspicious of Blasey because of a story she’d heard about Kavanaugh’s mother, herself a judge, foreclosing on Blasey’s parent’s home — a story that has been debunked, but that shows the ability of disinformation to inflame the debate.
On a nearby corner, Katherine Kydonieus, a retired executive assistant, was impatient with those who are doubting Blasey. She herself had left a job because she was harassed, she said, and only told her story when the company asked her about it after another woman complained about the same man. And she expressed frustration with the debate over whether Kavanaugh should be forgiven, if the allegations are true, because he was only 17.
“Sometimes people make terrible mistakes when they are teenagers and drinking, but I know my sons wouldn’t, and my sons didn’t,” said Kydonieus, 70. “They were brought up to be moral.”
“I wish we had more men of integrity, a higher standard of people in the Supreme Court, for the president of the United States,” she said. “It makes me feel sick because I love the United States.”
Hillary Clinton won this area only narrowly over Trump. But as in many swing districts, the energy about voting in November’s midterm elections has been higher among Democrats. Interviews reflected that; Democrats said that the way Republicans in the Senate had responded to Blasey’s allegations — refusing her calls for an FBI investigation, and trying for a quick vote on the nomination — had stoked the passion of local activist groups.
No one invoked Anita Hill, whose allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas in 1991 might seem a parallel to Blasey. Several people, though, raised the example of Merrick B. Garland, whose Supreme Court nomination by President Barack Obama was stymied by Senate Republicans who refused to hold hearings for him.
“The Republicans are very shortsighted in recognizing their own shenanigans of the past, ignoring a Supreme Court nominee for 293 days,” said Spring Moore, 41 and a Democrat, who was eating pizza with her 7-year-old daughter.
And many saw too many gaps and doubts piling up around Kavanaugh: the White House’s withholding of 100,000 pages of records from his time as a lawyer in the Bush administration; his credit card debts; and his celebration of heavy drinking in a speech and in emails that were turned over to the Senate.
Elliot, at the record store, said that while he had not liked Trump’s first pick, Justice Neil Gorsuch, he understood that it was the president’s right to choose. “I didn’t think there was anything there that meant he shouldn’t be confirmed,” he said. “There’s so much to look at with Kavanaugh. Why are they trying to keep this information from the American people?”
Robert Pennington, 28 and a Democrat, agreed. He had watched Kavanaugh’s hearings, with increasing doubt. “There are people who I don’t agree with their policies, but they don’t give me bad vibes,” he said. “He gives me bad vibes. He’s dodged so many questions.”