by Chris Reed | June 18, 2018 8:18 am
The “Me Too” anti-sexual harassment campaign that quickly yielded several resignations by state lawmakers last fall appears to have hit a lull in Sacramento with Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, now seemingly on track for re-election this November despite scandalous allegations. But new twists may loom.
Garcia, 40, appeared doomed to a primary defeat two months ago. She took a voluntary leave of absence after she was accused of groping a then-legislative staffer four years ago; making inappropriate comments to a lobbyist; playing “spin the bottle” with staffers; and of using racist and homophobic language. The perception that she was a weakened candidate led the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California – which supported her in 2014 and 2016 – to oppose her primary bid.
But between a preliminary probe finding no evidence for the most serious allegation against Garcia – that she groped a staffer – and the strong support of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, Garcia finished first in her June 5 primary. She got 29 percent of the votes to 27 percent for Republican activist Mike Simpfenderfer, a mortgage banker. The other five candidates in the race, all Democrats, split the remaining 44 percent of the vote.
Last week, however, saw two developments that suggested Garcia wasn’t out of the woods yet. The first came when the Assembly agreed to consider an appeal of its finding clearing Garcia of groping former legislative aide Daniel Fierro, who now works as a Los Angeles County political consultant. Fierro sought the appeal last month amid grumbling that the initial investigation of Garcia was released even though it was incomplete.
This concern may have been a factor in the second development: the call from two Democratic lawmakers for a much more transparent and responsive approach to allegations of misconduct involving state lawmakers and staffers.
State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, said existing efforts to respond to sexual harassment don’t go nearly far enough to take on a “toxic” culture in the Capitol. They propose establishing a new investigative unit that would focus only on discrimination and harassment complaints; would handle probes for both the Assembly and the Senate; and would rely on an independent committee of experts to recommend punishment for those found guilty of wrongdoing. Legislators, however, still would have the final say on what if any penalties were assessed.
But the Mitchell-Friedman proposal targets not just the behavior that Garcia has so far been cleared of but behavior of the sort the Assembly probe found she had engaged in: using homophobic slurs to describe fellow Los Angeles County Democrat John Perez, the Assembly’s first openly gay speaker, and of threatening violence against Asian-Americans after some Asian-American lawmakers balked at affirmative-action proposals that they thought would help some minority groups but not their own.
“The proposed policy … aims to spur a shift in how people in the Capitol community speak and act toward each other,” the Associated Press reported. “It encourages people to report minor incidents such as insensitive comments all the way through more aggressive acts of misconduct.”
Rendon’s decision to defend Garcia while still appearing strongly sympathetic to the Me Too movement has been complicated by comments that suggest he thinks Garcia’s larger record of legislative priorities and accomplishments should matter in judging her behavior. Similar suggestions made in defense of former President Bill Clinton and now-former Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, triggered a furious backlash.
Rendon entered this territory in April when he denounced the building trades unions for seeking to replace Garcia with other Democrats whom Rendon said would be more willing to challenge aggressive environmental policies touted by Gov. Jerry Brown and all the party’s legislative leaders. A spokesperson for the unions said their opposition to Garcia was prompted not by her strong environmentalism but by sympathy for her alleged victim and a belief another candidate would better reflect the values of the 58th Assembly District.
But Rendon rejected the claims in a blistering statement posted by the Sacramento Bee in which he called the unions’ maneuvering “a thinly veiled attempt by Big Oil and polluters to intimidate me and my members,” “ an affront to my speakership” and an “ill-advised political attack.”
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