Backlash ripples through California politics after women denounce sexual harassment
With sexual harassment and assault allegations ricocheting through the state Capitol, two female lobbyists say they soon faced the consequences of speaking out—a state senator who suddenly wanted to avoid meeting with them.
A client of theirs relayed that the senator wanted women excluded from a meeting at a nearby watering hole. The reason: The senator and some of his colleagues had decided that, with accusations of bad behavior mounting against their fellow legislators, it would be safer to simply stop having drinks with lobbyists who happen to be female.
“Cutting off an entire gender from that access is clearly harmful,” said lobbyist Jodi Hicks, whose client alerted her of the senator’s intent. “If we are saying we need to change the culture, this is the opposite of that.”
Hicks is one of nearly 150 women who signed a letter in October condemning what they called the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in California politics. The movement known as “We Said Enough” began as a general outcry. It has since evolved into a series of specific and disturbing allegations that have toppled one lawmaker and have left two others fighting for their careers.
And as women come forward with stories of being propositioned, groped and even assaulted by male colleagues in politics, an undercurrent of retaliation has begun rippling through the state. Men have threatened to sideline women from private meetings. Critics, hiding behind anonymous emails, are trying to shame some of the women speaking out.
One lobbyist already has lost her job.
“(She) was publicly outspoken about the movement and the contents of the letter. And when she notified her employer that she was a signatory to the letter, she was promptly dismissed,” said employment lawyer Micha Liberty, whom the lobbyist hired.
“It was completely retaliatory and extraordinarily damaging.”
Liberty declined to name the lobbyist or the firm she was fired from, citing attorney-client privilege and saying they are exploring how to proceed.
Together the incidents point to the risk that this wave of activism could inadvertently exacerbate the Capitol’s “boys club” environment—a factor that likely contributed to the problem in the first place. More than three-quarters of state lawmakers are men, and though many women work as lobbyists, most of the partners at big firms are men.
Three California legislators—all Democrats from the Los Angeles area—have been accused of sexual misconduct in recent weeks. Assemblyman Matt Dababneh announced* he would resign and focus on clearing his name after a lobbyist’s accusation that he trapped her in a bathroom and made her watch him masturbate. Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra resigned after several female staffers said he had groped them. And state Sen. Tony Mendoza lost his chairmanship of a powerful committee after people who worked for him said he repeatedly invited young female employees to come to his house or a hotel room late at night.
Women confronting abuse in their professional lives are now also fighting to keep their positions in a male-dominated field. After Hicks heard from the client who said senators didn’t want women coming out for drinks, she says she and her business partner sprang into action behind the scenes: They called the senator and other legislators to make plain that discriminating against women lobbyists would worsen the Capitol’s sexism.
Eventually, Hicks said, the senator apologized and assured them he would not bar women from the kinds of meetings he holds with men. The lobbyists, in turn, told him they would not reveal his name so long as the threatened ban never came to pass.
Yet whispers endure about California lawmakers implementing a “Mike Pence” rule—a reference to the vice president’s custom of eating a meal with a woman or attending an event where alcohol is served only if his wife accompanies him. Two male lobbyists, who spoke on condition of anonymity to convey private conversations with legislators, said they’ve heard from male lawmakers who say they’ll no longer meet alone with any woman—whether a lobbyist, staff member or constituent. They see it as a way to guard their reputations.
Others called that a needless over-reaction.
“Anybody who is behaving like a moral adult shouldn’t worry about that,” said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Democrat from Glendale who is chairing the Assembly committee tasked with updating sexual harassment policies.
She said she has not heard any discussion among her colleagues about male lawmakers refusing to meet alone with women: “Most of us are grown up enough to know the way we should be behaving, and what is acceptable… and when you are crossing some lines.”
This week Dababneh, a Democratic assemblyman from Woodland Hills, was accused of crossing those lines early last year while attending a party at a Las Vegas hotel. Lobbyist Pamela Lopez said he trapped her in a bathroom and made her watch him masturbate.
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Dababneh released a statement calling Lopez’s claim a “falsehood,” the Assembly hired a law firm to investigate her claim, and Speaker Anthony Rendon had said he would ask for Dababneh’s resignation if the investigation found the allegation to be true.
Lopez, a partner in a small lobbying firm that represents firefighters and Indian tribes, had described the incident to reporters in October without naming the lawmaker involved. She publicly accused Dababneh on Monday, almost two years after she alleges the incident took place. She said she did not report it for so long because she feared retaliation—public officials who would stop meeting with her, clients who could cut off business, “slut-shaming” whispers in the Capitol hallway.
“So much of the business of politics is based on relationships,” Lopez said in an interview. “So if I am shunned informally that really affects my business and my ability to do my job.”
Joining Monday’s press conference was a Democratic activist from the San Fernando Valley who also described being harassed by Dababneh. Jessica Yas Barker, who worked for Dababneh in a congressional office before he was elected to the Assembly, said he routinely made comments about her appearance, boasted about his sexual prowess and showed off a desk drawer full of condoms.
Before the women went public, rumors had swirled in political circles that they were preparing to name Dababneh. Barker said she began to feel the backlash even before they held their press conference. A message—sent through a platform for creating anonymous emails— began circulating that defamed her and others speaking out against harassment, saying “hypocrisy, puritanism, and a witch hunt hit Sacramento.” At an event held by a San Fernando Valley Democratic club over the weekend, Barker said other participants wouldn’t even look her in the face.
Lopez said she feels empowered now to speak out because of the collective action by so many women—and because she is an owner of her lobbying firm. She’s nervous about losing business, but she doesn’t have to worry about a boss firing her.
“I hope my clients see that I am one tough lady and I’m not to be messed with,” she said. “And that’s a good quality to have in a lobbyist.”
*This story was updated Friday, Dec. 8, 2017.