Shared from the 12/4/2017 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

De León’s handling of scandal an issue

Senate hopeful pressed on harassment policy at Capitol

Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

Kevin de León leads the state Senate, which has killed a harassment bill in each of the past four years.

SACRAMENTO — Two days after state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León announced he would challenge fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in next year’s election, a sexual harassment scandal broke under his roof.

More than 140 women in and around the state Capitol signed an open letter on Oct. 17 and launched the We Said Enough campaign decrying the pervasive sexual harassment and abuse they have faced in their jobs in politics. But it didn’t take long for the women to hear the theory that their efforts were part of a well-oiled Feinstein machine kicking back an insurgent de León campaign.

“Yep, we’ve heard that rumor,” said Samantha Corbin, a leader in the We Said Enough campaign.

And, to be clear, Corbin said it’s not true. De León’s campaign said they didn’t start the rumor, nor do they believe it.

Corbin said the group has no intention of swaying any election. But she’s unapologetic that the sexual harassment scandal in Sacramento is creeping into California’s U.S. Senate race.

“Any candidate that puts themselves forward should be asked if they support finding solutions to ending systemic harassment and abuse, and what, specifically, they would advise,” Corbin said.

That’s why all eyes are on de León’s handling of the flood of accusations in the state Legislature. So far he’s getting mixed reviews on what some say could be a defining moment in his uphill campaign. De León has promised to have no mercy on any senator found to have violated the Senate’s sexual harassment policy.

Yet, questions have been raised about how much he knew about allegations in the Capitol, particularly since one of the accused is his former roommate, Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia (Los Angeles County).

De León announced changes to how the Senate will handle complaints of sexual misconduct after Mendoza was accused of sexually harassing three women who previously worked in his office. Shortly after the allegations were made public, de León moved out of the Sacramento rental he shared with Mendoza.

“No lawmaker is immune from our zero-tolerance harassment policies,” de León said last week after stripping Mendoza of his coveted committee post.

In one allegation against Mendoza, three employees reported the senator of acting inappropriately toward a young intern in his office, inviting the woman repeatedly to his home at night and to stay with him in a hotel. The employees who reported the sexual harassment to the Senate Rules Committee were fired, said Micha Star Liberty, an Oakland-based attorney representing one of those employees.

Through a spokesman, de León said he was unaware of any allegations against Mendoza until they were reported by the media. Senate Secretary Danny Alvarez said the rules committee chaired by de León is not notified of complaints until after staff complete an internal investigation.

“In this case, we had not yet completed our investigation which began Sept. 22, so Rules Committee members had yet to be notified,” Alvarez said in a statement.

But the fact that the complaint involved de León’s roommate at the time has some people skeptical that he was completely in the dark. The Senate has denied records requests for additional information on sexual harassment investigations under the Legislature’s open records law, including documents that could shed light on the handling of the complaint against Mendoza. De León declined an interview request for this story.

“It’s hard to believe he had no idea about the accusations, and if he didn’t have any idea, then his network in the Capitol isn’t working,” said Kim Nalder, political science professor at Sacramento State University and director of the Project for an Informed Electorate. “I would guess this will be a difficult thing for him to negotiate when the election comes around.”

De León’s campaign manager Courtni Pugh pointed out that the entire country — including the U.S. Capitol — is grappling with sexual harassment scandals. It’s not just the California Legislature.

“These are serious issues,” Pugh said. “We need to work together to eliminate harassment wherever it occurs. It doesn’t do any good to politicize this issue.”

De León announced last month that senators will no longer handle sexual harassment complaints internally. Instead, he and other members of the Senate Rules Committee said they will send “complaints, allegations and open investigations, including the most recent allegations against a sitting senator” to an independent outside law firm for investigation. The Senate also set up a whistle-blower hotline for staffers to report abuses to an outside law firm hired by the Senate.

That hotline, however, comes after the Senate killed bills in each of the past four years to provide whistle-blower protections to legislative employees. De León headed the committee that killed the bill in 2014 and appointed Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens (Los Angeles County), to head the committee after he became Senate president. The bill died three times under Lara’s leadership. De León and Lara have both declined interview requests on why the bill was repeatedly killed. After the recent scandals, De León has pledged to support whistle-blower protections for legislative staffers in the coming year.

“A light has been shone on the culture in the state Capitol of sweeping allegations under the rug,” said Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist who supports Feinstein.

The growing furor over sexual harassment isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, either in Washington, D.C., Sacramento or state capitals across the nation.

“What we’re seeing now is going to go really wide and cause a significant dislocation in politics,” said Corey Cook, dean of the School of Public Service at Boise State University in Idaho. “This isn’t a flash-in-the-pan event.”

As more and more stories come out, the focus continues to widen, moving from politicians directly accused of sexual assault or crude harassment to others linked to what could charitably be called loutish or inappropriate behavior and even to those who have ignored or brushed aside complaints about their colleagues.

“There is a pretty fundamental change of attitude, not only about the recent past but what happened years ago, such as (then-Sen.) Joe Biden vis a vis Anita Hill” during Clarence Thomas’ 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Cook said.

That’s because the harassment dispute also is a political time machine, reaching back to allegations from the past, such as complaints that Roy Moore, a GOP Senate candidate in Alabama, dated — and possibly molested — teenage girls when he was a thirtysomething prosecutor in the late 1970s, or that Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota crudely groped a woman during a 2006 USO tour, before he was elected to the Senate.

It’s particularly worrisome for Democrats, who have loudly attacked President Trump’s widely reported comments about harassing women.

“For a year, Democrats have been asking ‘Where’s the outrage?’ ” when it comes to Trump’s conduct and comments, Cook added. “Now they’re seeing it in the grossly inappropriate behavior (by Democrats) going back years.”

Former President Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades, which Democrats downplayed or ignored for years, have come in for new scrutiny, along with accusations against Franken and Michigan Rep. John Conyers over their treatment of women. It’s a situation that’s become both increasingly uncomfortable for Democrats, yet impossible to ignore.

“Every day this week there has been a story about someone,” said Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University. “If this continues and women feel safe to tell their stories, that could have a deleterious effect on campaigns. This will cast a pall on anyone viewed as preventing the truth from coming out.”

Melody Gutierrez and John Wildermuth are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:, Twitter: @MelodyGutierrez, @jfwildermuth

“A light has been shone on the culture in the state Capitol of sweeping allegations under the rug.”
Nathan Ballard, Democratic strategist

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