Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) knows that his description of the State Capitol sounds a lot like middle school.
“The cliques and the cool kids, and the geeks and the nerds,” he says. “I’m not a popular kid, so I don’t hang out with those guys.”
It’s the kind of environment in which sexism can go completely unchecked.
“The macho guy who is trying to pick up on the young interns, amongst our peers is seen as ‘that’s really cool,’” Stone says. “And there’s not really a consequence for that.”
In the final months of 2017, the #MeToo campaign that began in the entertainment industry, highlighting the prevalence of sexual harassment, spread to the world of politics—where it made waves in Congress and in state capitols around the country, including Sacramento.
Shortly after a female staffer went public with a groping allegation from 2009, Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) resigned on Nov. 27, the day before a hearing that revealed the scope of these issues.
Then Assemblymember Matt Dababneh stepped down on Friday, Dec. 8, after a lobbyist publicly accused him of yanking her into a bathroom and masturbating in front of her; since then, other victims of his alleged antics have come forward. Both men deny wrongdoing. Another legislator, Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), has been stripped of key leadership posts after three women came forward. Mendoza is refusing to step down, however, saying that the decision should be up to voters after he’s given an opportunity to defend himself.
Finally, talk of real solutions is beginning. Both Stone and state Senator Bill Monning (D-Carmel) expect colleagues to introduce a number of bills addressing sexual harassment when the new session starts Wednesday, Jan. 3.
A letter drafted in October calls for an end to the Capitol’s “pervasive culture of sexual harassment” with signatures from more than 140 women, including lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative staffers.
Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) chairs the Assembly Rules Subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination, and Retaliation Prevention and Response, which is looking at these issues.
When Speaker Anthony Rendon asked Friedman to chair the subcommittee that would review the existing harassment policy, she expected it to be business-as-usual with a few adjustments to policies, as Friedman recalled in an op-ed piece to the LA Times. Instead, she realized during the Nov. 28 hearing that a complete overhaul of the system was in order, and has since helped set up a hotline for victims of sexual harassment at the Capitol.
At its core, Friedman tells GT, the problem has to do with power, and having worked in Hollywood for 20 years before coming to Sacramento, she knows that it’s not unique to state government.
The problem extends beyond California, too. In Washington, Congressmember Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) tells GT he was shocked to hear there was no mandated sexual harassment training when his first term began last January, and he organized one for his own office.
In Sacramento, legislative rules require sexual harassment training every two years, but Stone calls the trainings a “joke,” explaining that the trainers take it seriously and do what is required, but that many members do not. “There was a lot of joking, and a lot of sitting there working on phones and doing other things,” Stone says. A recent story on Capital Public Radio’s website painted a very similar picture.
Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus, points out that only 22 percent of the state’s legislative positions are held by women, creating an imbalance in a state where women make up just over half the population. She says California won’t find a long-term solution until it changes that.
Stone says that he’s never witnessed any harassment himself. Monning, who serves in the state Senate, says that before the recent revelations he has not been aware of any harassment. He does say, however, that he has no reason not to trust the women coming forward, and he knows work at the Capitol often bleeds into after-hours social events where drinking alcohol is common. He says he always abstains.
“You have a mix of staff, of members, senior lobbyists, of junior lobbyists, and so you have environments that by definition are social and somebody who’s going to engage in aberrant behavior has multiple opportunities throughout the course of a workday,” he says.
That may be, but Friedman notes that the root cause of sexual harassment is deeper than what people are drinking.
“Most people don’t go out and have a few drinks and assault somebody in a bathroom,” she says. “They’re not doing that just because there’s alcohol.”
Both Stone and Monning are hesitant to propose major changes themselves, feeling that it would not be their place to dictate the terms of what’s best for their women colleagues.
Garcia says the Women’s Caucus has been working to bridge both houses for a uniform solution. Currently, the Senate and the Assembly have different protocols regarding sexual harassment claims.
The Senate has been referring all sexual harassment claims to outside lawyers recently chosen by a panel Monning serves on. The Assembly, which hasn’t revisited its sexual harassment policy since 2007, conducts internal investigations and refers some claims to outside groups.
In addition to working on the victims’ hotline, Friedman plans to introduce legislation when the legislature reconvenes to give victims of sexual harassment more time to file claims beyond the one-year deadline required under existing law.
There are three more hearings scheduled for early January to evaluate policies on retaliation, and to prevent the types of failures the subcommittee has identified. There’s a range of best practices and possible options available to them, Friedman says, from hiring a special advocate for these issues to an internal ethics officer or a special commission.
Unlike other industries, the legislative body has a unique set of circumstances in addressing allegations because leaders are elected, rather than hired by a supervisor. The protocols for their discipline are laid out in the California Constitution.
As the situation with Tony Mendoza demonstrates, the accused may choose not to step down voluntarily. And while members can be evicted by a two-thirds vote, it’s a scenario that rarely happens. When it does, it normally involves criminal allegations. Lawmakers say there isn’t a precedent for removing a colleague over harassment allegations, putting the conduct in a gray area that they’re not yet sure how to police.
One other question going forward is what information should be public. When it comes to sexual harassment claims, it may increase transparency if at least some aspect of any settlement made with state money automatically becomes public. No one is sure how best to do that. Monning, Stone and Friedman all stress that they would not want to intimidate or scare a victim who might be afraid to come forward because they knew their name, or any information about them, might leak out.
Friedman knows her committee faces challenges in bringing perpetrators to justice, but she’s optimistic about the power that transparency can have on elected officials.
“If people know that the things they do when they are away from home in Sacramento are not going to be kept private,” she says, “that there is going to be a way of disclosing major transgressions to voters, I think that is the most important accountability measure we can have.”