Some may have believed – or hoped – that the furor over sexual harassment in and around the state Capitol would soon fade away. Nope.
The initial letter complaining about harassment, signed by 147 women, has exploded with many more names and a spate of personal accounts.
The heat will rightfully be on de León and other legislative leaders to clean up the mess they allowed to fester.
The Los Angeles Times, which broke the initial story, and The Sacramento Bee have pursued the story aggressively, driving home the ingrained nature of the syndrome case-by-case.
It’s a well-deserved black eye for the Capitol community. It’s dominated by Democrats and liberal activists who purport to value gender equality and other “progressive” causes, yet it’s evident that sexism, sexual objectification and other obnoxious traits abound.
Over the years, specific cases of demands for sexual favors and other forms of harassment have been ignored or covered up, often with secret payoffs of victims.
One of the most disturbing incidents to emerge involves Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, a Los Angeles Democrat who lost his seat to Democrat Patty Lopez in 2014, but regained it in 2016 with broad support of his party’s leaders.
He received that support even though he had been secretly admonished for stalking a legislative staffer and grabbing her beneath her clothes at an event in 2009. After the case was revealed, Bocanegra issued an apology, but now faces demands from women in his district to resign, The Sacramento Bee reported last week.
The story about the harassment letter broke just two days after Kevin de León, the president pro tem of the state Senate, announced that he would challenge U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat, next year.
For de León, the timing could not have been worse. For four years running, his close friend, Sen. Ricardo Lara, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has buried, without a vote, legislation that would give legislative employees the same rights that civil service workers enjoy to complain about working conditions without retaliation – bills introduced by Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez.
De León and Lara have been leading advocates of civil and human rights for undocumented immigrants, the LGBT community and union members but appear to deny those rights to their own employees – even when it comes to sexual harassment.
De León has been scrambling to avoid fallout that would poison his campaign against Feinstein, a pioneer for women in politics.
When the letter became public, de León applauded “the courage of women working in and around the Capitol who are coming forward,” but as the furor gained intensity, he was compelled to go further, admitting the Legislature’s system for handling complaints “doesn’t work if the employees it’s designed to protect don’t have complete trust and confidence in it” and pledging to re-evaluate the system with “the intention of replacing or strengthening our current process with a trauma-informed set of policies that all our employees, and the women who work in and around the Capitol, can be assured will protect them.”
Feinstein’s camp saw opportunity and pounced. “Major surgery is required, and de León is offering a Band-Aid,” Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist and Feinstein supporter, told The New York Times. “This will be a big issue that dogs de León at every campaign stop until he does the right thing. A press release isn’t going to make it go away.”
The heat will be on de León and other legislative leaders to clean up the mess they allowed to fester even as they professed fidelity to a progressive state’s political values.
Dan Walters writes on issues of statewide significance for CALmatters, an online public-interest journalism group. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.