Sexual Misconduct Allegations Hamstring Campaign to Oust Feinstein

California State Senate roiled by allegations of sexual harassment in recent days

Sen. Dianne Feinstein / Getty Images
November 24, 2017

California lawmakers wrapped up work for the year two months ago, but state Sen. Kevin de Leon isn't resting easy: A torrent of sexual-harassment allegations in the state Capitol started raining down on top Democrats in Sacramento just 48 hours after de Leon announced his attempt to challenge Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) for her seat.

While de Leon has not been accused or directly implicated in any impropriety in the growing sexual harassment scandal, as president pro tempore, de Leon did nothing concrete to change what powerful California political women describe as a pervasive, long-standing climate of sexual harassment in the state capitol.

The national firestorm over sexual harassment is having ripple effects in political races across the country, including de Leon's efforts to oust Feinstein from the seat she has held for more than 25 years.

De Leon argues that the 84-year-old Feinstein—first elected in 1992's so-called Year of the Woman—no longer represents the progressive makeup of the state's Democratic Party and has not challenged President Trump's policies aggressively enough this year.

De Leon was counting on a wave of anger against President Trump in California to help sweep him into the Senate. However, he did not foresee a state sexual harassment scandal stopping that momentum just as his campaign was ramping up.

In early November, de Leon moved out of a Sacramento apartment he shared with one of the lawmakers accused of inappropriate behavior with interns, Sen. Tony Mendoza, also a Democrat.

De Leon has said he knew nothing about the allegations of Mendoza's inappropriate behavior with interns. Some of the accusations involved activity that took place at the apartment, literally hitting de Leon at home.

The Democratic senator's role was under scrutiny earlier this month when a fired Senate staffer who complained about inappropriate behavior by Mendoza, her former boss, provided a timeline that appeared to contradict one de Leon provided.

A trio of Mendoza aides reported the alleged harassment to Senate officials several times in September before providing additional details in a meeting Sept. 22, according to an attorney for the staffers. During that meeting, they were handed a letter firing all three of them.

The letter was written on Rules Committee letterhead bearing de Leon's name, raising new questions about whether de Leon authorized their firings or knew more about the issue than he has so far publicly disclosed.

Secretary of the Senate Daniel Alvarez, meanwhile, contradicted that story, claiming the employees were fired before making the complaints against the senators.

The high-profile dispute led to a decision by de Leon to allow outside attorneys to investigate the allegations of misconduct—a break from the state legislature's longtime practice of self-policing alleged lawmaker misconduct.

"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," he said in mid-November. "Those who violate these policies will be held to account—swiftly and justly."

It's a strong statement, but convincing voters he bears no responsibility for the current firestorm won't come quickly or easily.

"It cuts a lot of ways in this race," Bill Whalen, a political analyst and research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, told the Washington Free Beacon.

"If I'm Feinstein, I'm trying to lift the rug on the scandal in the state capitol to figure out why it happened and whether de Leon was in any way responsible," said Whalen, who also served as a chief speechwriter and public affairs director for former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

The de Leon campaign, on the other hand, should be digging into Feinstein's long record on the issue of sexual harassment and trying to hold her accountable for her measured responses to sexual scandals, Whalen said.

Spokesmen for Feinstein and de Leon did not return requests to comment for this story.

Political analysts argue that de Leon could pay a heavy price if he is implicated more directly in the allegations against of his friends and political allies.

So far, both sides are treading carefully.

Courtni Pugh, a de Leon campaign aide, told a local California news outlet that the U.S. Senate's process appears to be far outdated and ineffective—a criticism of Feinstein by extension.

"Just last week, after 1,500 congressional aides signed a letter, the U.S. Senate finally passed a resolution to mandate sexual harassment training," Pugh said. "It's just decades too late, and this is the same Washington, D.C., full of institutional defenders of the status quo."

Another de Leon spokesman said any suggestion that the controversy could become an issue in the race is "disheartening."

De Leon, he said, is a "tireless champion for gender equality" who was "working with his colleagues to demand greater workplace protections for Senate employees."

The state senator has coauthored legislation aimed at curbing incidents of sexual harassment and assault on college campuses, known as the "yes means yes" bill.

Meanwhile, Feinstein has offered only mild criticisms of Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) after accusations of sexual misconduct were leveled against him.

"I think that people feel they can get away with a lot of things," she said. "And nobody's going to pay any attention."

She stopped short of supporting an ethics investigation or calling for his resignation.

Feinstein's younger, more liberal female colleagues, did not hesitate to condemn Franken.

"Sexual harassment, misconduct, should not be allowed by anyone, and it should not occur anywhere against anyone," said Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic junior senator from California, who in her first year in office is often touted as a leading White House contender.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) also condemned the behavior and immediately called for an ethics probe.