It should be evident by now that the Capitol’s sexual harassment issue isn’t going to fade away.
In the past, accusations of harassment by a political figure either were covered up or attracted only momentary public and media attention. But those days are over.
An open letter signed by dozens, and then hundreds, of women working in and around the Capitol, declaring that they would no longer countenance the community’s pervasive harassment and its tolerance has radically changed the atmosphere.
It generated exposure of past cases, such as one involving Democratic state Sen. Raul Bocanegra when he was a Capitol staffer, and encouraged more women to come forth with specific complaints.
The latest, revealed by the Sacramento Bee, involves Democratic state Sen. Tony Mendoza and allegations by a 23-year-old legislative aide of his efforts to have a relationship with her. The allegations included inviting her to meet him at the Sacramento area house he shared with Kevin de León, the president pro tem of the Senate during the three or four days each week the Legislature is in session.
And to demonstrate that it’s not a partisan issue, the Assembly has reportedly hired a law firm to investigate harassment allegations against Republican Assemblyman Devon Mathis, including one from a former staff member who cited instances of witnessing poor behavior in his resignation letter. Mathis has denied the allegations.
The Visalia Times-Delta reported that emails from attorney Jennifer Shaw, founder of Shaw Law Group, to possible witnesses confirmed that she had been retained. Shaw also investigated the Bocanegra case for the Assembly.
The allegations have already drained support for Mathis in Tulare County as he runs for re-election next year. Last week, the county’s GOP central committee demanded that he resign.
The Assembly appears to have been more willing for years to bring in independent investigators, since the Bocanegra case is nine years old. The Senate, however, has persisted in handling harassment allegations internally, as the Mendoza case illustrates – but that case also has brought about belated change.
Startlingly, de León professed ignorance both about Mendoza’s alleged behavior and the Senate Rules Committee investigation into the allegations against him – even though de León chairs that committee.
When the news broke, de León’s spokesman, Jonathan Underland, said, “He was shocked and troubled by the new allegations over the weekend.”
De León quickly moved out of the house and said that hitherto, investigations of sexual harassment allegations would be done by an outside law firm.
“This state Senate is a sacred place of public service and it must also be a safe place for everyone who works here,” de León said in a statement. “The people who work here and the public we serve must have complete confidence that no public official is above the law or our strict zero-tolerance harassment policies. Those who violate these policies will be held to account – swiftly and justly.”
Too little too late?
While the incidents being cited are not partisan, Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, so their leaders bear the onus for dealing with the situation. The Assembly appears to have been doing it correctly while the Senate, under de León and his predecessors, dragged its feet.
De León is especially vulnerable to criticism because he’s running uphill for the U.S. Senate and trying to unseat a woman of his own party, Dianne Feinstein. Not surprisingly, the Feinstein camp is already hanging the issue around de León’s neck and it could strangle his ambitions.