Sexual Harassment Allegations Roil California Democrats

High-ranking Dems under fire as sexual harassment allegations proliferate

California Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon / Getty Images
December 19, 2017

Democrats in the California state capital are deeply divided over the need to punish colleagues for sexual harassment allegations, as party leaders in Sacramento have struggled for two months to respond to a spate of sexual-misconduct allegations.

Critics continue to blame State Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, a Democrat from Los Angeles and the highest-ranking lawmaker in the state, for failing to contain the political fallout from the allegations—both against himself and his party—and restore public confidence in the state legislature as an institution.

Alex Kozinski, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, was the latest California official to leave his job after 15 women came forward to complain about inappropriate sexual behavior.

Before Kozinski, Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, state Democratic Party official Craig Cheslog, and state appellate court justice Conrad Rushing, all stepped down or retired after women leveled sexual misconduct charges against them over the last two months.

Kozinski's decision has yet to convince state Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza that he should follow suit and give up his seat—even temporarily—in the face of sexual harassment allegations from three women that surfaced nearly two months ago.

The Senate has hired two law firms to investigate complaints against Mendoza, as well as fellow Democrat Sen. Bob Hertzberg. Three women have accused Hertzberg of making them uncomfortable with hugs that sometimes didn't stop when asked.

The sexual harassment allegations have created additional headaches for De Leon in his final weeks in office. Facing term-limits, de Leon will be forced to leave the legislature Dec. 31 amid the ongoing furor. Just last month he also angered old guard Democrats by jumping into the race to challenge Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) from the left.

Although de Leon is not accused of any sexual misconduct himself, the scandal literally hit close to home: de Leon had shared an apartment with Mendoza until the allegations surfaced and tried to distance himself by finding other lodging.

Late last week, Mendoza defied a call from de Leon for him to take leave of absence from the Senate while two outside entities investigate the allegations against him. The Senate Rules Committee had previously stripped Mendoza of his leadership positions, including chairmanship of the banking and insurance committee.

Mendoza's refusal to step down is spurring more criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party's Women's Caucus and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, (D., Calif.), said de Leon's failure to push Mendoza out of office sends a terrible signal to the victims.

"The victims who call us and continue to call me are very, very concerned," Pelosi told a local CBS station in San Francisco on Sunday. "[They wonder] will my perpetrator see justice? Will I forever be blacklisted if I put my name out there, and what if I go ahead and make a claim and name and name and my perpetrator refuses to leave?"

She then brought up specifics about Mendoza's case and de Leon's involvement and called it "a mess" and proof that lawmakers cannot "police themselves even from a political standpoint."

"I mean, I don't know what happened in that house," she said. "But even when you have the pro tem living with a committee chairman who invited a young woman over [to the apartment], then fired the staffers in the same meeting where they were going to complain about him inviting her over to the home, and the pro tem now tells the chairman, 'I'm taking away your gavel, you need to resign,' and [he] gives up the gavel but doesn't resign, that's a mess."

Ray Haynes, a former Republican senator and assemblyman who served in the California legislature for 14 years until 2007, said he is not surprised that de Leon is having such a hard time handling the sexual misconduct allegations.

"It's been my experience—at least in my time in legislature—that these are not isolated incidents and there are others out there who have the same problem and who are really hoping it doesn't become public," he told the Washington Free Beacon.

Democrats, he argued, have every incentive not to push Mendoza out of office because the loss of one Democratic seat denies them super-majority status, the ability to pass bills without any GOP support.

"I never under-estimate Sacramento Democrats' ability to cover up their own problems," he said. "Mendoza is going to look for any excuse to hang onto his job."

Haynes also pointed out that de Leon is calling for a temporary leave of absence, not a permanent one and said mixed messages from Democrats in Washington this week are also giving Mendoza new reasons to stay put to allow the initial outrage over the allegations to subside.

Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Patrick Leahy of Vermont this week both urged Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) to reconsider his decision to resign over allegations that he groped several women before he became senator. Other Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), have so far stuck with their original decision to call on Franken to leave.

"If Franken is allowed to survive, then the whole problems gets pushed under the rug for a while, and the passion to addresses the issue publicly can dissipate, as it usually does," Haynes said.

During a press conference last week, de Leon did not respond to a question about whether he would ask the Senate to vote to expel Mendoza if he continued to try to maintain his seat.

Republican state Sen. Andy Vidak has promised to introduce a resolution to permanently remove Mendoza next month when the legislature is back in session.

"Many of us have been waiting for Sen. Mendoza to do the right thing and resign, but that has not happened," Vidak said in a statement. "The Senate Democrat leadership has failed in their responsibility to request that Mendoza resign."

Vidak said he hoped the incoming Democratic leader, Toni Atkins, a woman and former mayor of San Diego who previously served as speaker of the Assembly, "will take this matter more seriously than it has been so far."

Christine Pelosi, several other Democrats, and Republicans in the state also have criticized de Leon’s decision to hire a law firm with close ties to state lawmakers to investigate the charges against Mendoza and Hertzberg.

De Leon last week announced that the Senate had hired Sacramento-based Van Dermyden Maddux, which specializes in workplace investigations, as well as Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a global firm found in Los Angeles. Lawyers at Gibson, Dunn have donated nearly $95,000 contributions to California candidates, ballot measures and other committees during the past five years, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee.

That figure includes $16,945 to Senate candidates, including Hertzberg, four other Democratic senators, and one Republican.

De Leon's office has said the attorneys who donated to the senators will not participate in the investigation.

Last week was de Leon's first press conference since more than 140 prominent women, many of them Democrats, signed a letter in mid-October denouncing a toxic culture of "pervasive" sexual harassment and fear of retaliation at the capitol.