California Senate candidate caught up in sexual harassment scandal in Sacramento
A powerful California state senator has been ensnared in a sexual harassment scandal just as he is beginning his campaign to unseat incumbent US Senator Diane Feinstein.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, the Democratic leader of the state Senate, is renting a room in the house of Senator Tony Mendoza. Mendoza has been accused of inviting a female staffer back to the house on numerous occassions only to have the young woman turn him down. De Leon claims he knew nothing of Mendoza's invitations and Mendoza says he never "abused my authority."
But the scandal highlights the new reality for politicians and people in positions of power across the country. The 2018 election cycle is likely to see a tsunami of accusations against politicians running for office as women come out of the shadows and go public with their charges. Whether or not the accusations are political motivated is not the point. The accusations will resonate with female voters, many of whom have their own horror stories of being harassed or abused in the workplace.
De Leon is in charge of a human resources committee that deals with sexual harassment in the workplace. How he handles the Mendoza charges will certainly impact his US Senate bid.
"It really does feel like we're at this inflection point with sex harassment allegations where suddenly they're being taken seriously," said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University-Sacramento. "It's hard to imagine that Kevin de Leon's bid will be completely untarnished by this revelation that someone close to him was accused of this kind of misbehavior."
The latest allegations against Mendoza, which come after nearly 150 women signed a letter three weeks ago calling harassment pervasive in the capital culture, shed further light on the Senate's murky processes for investigating its own members.
After the initial outcry about harassment in mid-October, De Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon immediately pledged to review the Legislature's policies. De Leon hired an outside investigator, and the Senate asked women to speak to her.
De Leon said at the time that "everyone deserves a workplace free of fear, harassment and sexual misbehavior."
That statement was made before the allegations about Mendoza became public. A month earlier, the Senate began investigating Mendoza, Senate Secretary Danny Alvarez confirmed.
A former employee of Mendoza's complained to the Senate Rules Committee in September that the senator had repeatedly behaved inappropriately toward a young woman who worked for him through the Sacramento State fellows program, said Micha Liberty, a lawyer for the employee. That month, the employee and two others in Mendoza's office were fired. The Senate and Liberty dispute the timing of the firings relative to the complaint.
Mendoza and Alvarez said the firings had nothing to do with the complaints. Liberty, though, said her client made clear she was accusing Mendoza of sexual harassment toward the fellow, and she was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement when she was fired. Liberty would not name her client and did not provide a copy of the confidentiality letter.
Is it fair that de Leon is being tarnished with guilt by association? That is the danger of raising awareness about harassment in the workplace. The issue is so toxic that the stink of scandal will be attached to people who may have only a casual association with the accused. We're not quite yet at the Salem Witch Trial point. But you'd have to be blind not to see the danger.
It's clear that this is not going to be a partisan issue, that accusations against politicians will almost certainly fall on both Republicans and Democrats. How politicians handle such charges will determine whether they survive or not.