Columns

'Walking on Eggshells' in Sacramento Over Fears of Sexual Harassment Allegations

Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra speaks at the Capitol in Sacramento on May 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Jodi Hicks, a lobbyist in Sacramento, told the Associated Press she’s feeling a backlash from sexual harassment charges involving California legislators.

One man told Hicks that he wouldn’t hire her women-led firm because, thanks to the current environment, he’d have to “walk on eggshells.”

“We’re hearing grumblings, and men are upset,” Hicks said.

“That’s something we deal with all of the time,” she said. “Every time someone asks to have drinks, women have to be concerned with what that means and where they’re having drinks and making sure it’s in public.”

Anyone who claims sexual harassment doesn’t happen in Sacramento was proven to be a liar by a report from Tuple Legal, which showed the California Legislature paid out at least $1.9 million in taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment claims over the past 25 years.

But in 2017 alone, the amount soared to $2.8 million.

Heads are rolling. The Los Angeles Times reported California Democratic Party delegates called for the resignations of two state lawmakers who face sexual harassment allegations: Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D) and Sen. Tony Mendoza (D).

“When we remain silent in the face of sexual assault or harassment, we contribute to a culture of impunity for those that use their power to oppress, we send a message to survivors that they do not matter, and we normalize abhorrent behavior, allowing perpetrators to believe that they can act without consequences,” the petition reads. “We must now speak out in support of survivors.”

Sylvia Castillo was one of six women who told the Los Angeles Times they were the victims of unwanted advances and even groping by Bocanegra.

Castillo said she was sitting next to the Democrat in a booth at a bar when “he grabbed me with one hand, grabbed my head and shoved his tongue into my mouth.”

“With his other hand, he put it up my dress. I put my hand down to stop him from trying to grab at my crotch,” Castillo also said.

A week after the Times published that story, Bocanegra said he would resign, but not until September 2018. He later amended that and quit immediately.

“By doing so I hope the community will have a new representative sooner rather than later. Furthermore, it is my hope that in taking this action we can help clear the path so that women and men who have been truly victims of sexual assault and workplace harassment can step forward and get justice for any crimes committed against them,” Bocanegra said in a statement. “While I am not guilty of any such crimes, I am admittedly not perfect.”

The California Senate Rules Committee removed Mendoza from all of his leadership positions because three women have accused him of sexual improprieties. But the Democrat has refused to resign.

In a holiday letter to “neighbors, family and friends,” which was published by the Sacramento Bee, Mendoza wrote that he had been the “subject of vague allegations.”

“It is most unfortunate that some media have looked to capitalize on the national climate and chosen to generate news that is controversial in order to gain rating shares allowing them to sell expensive time to advertisers,” Mendoza also wrote.

The impact of the sexual harassment allegations in Sacramento has been such that Senate Leader Kevin de Leon (D) switched the focus of his speech to the California Democratic Party’s Executive Board from one of singing the praises of the legislature to an address calling for an end to a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment.

“It’s time to restore trust and transparency to the process and put the protections of victims and whistle-blowers ahead of the powerful in California,” de Leon said.

So, male California lawmakers are rethinking the way they do business with female lobbyists and legislators. Parties, featuring alcohol, are a big part of the culture.

The AP reported California legislators held at least 30 evening fundraisers over a five-day period in August.

Lobbyist Jennifer Fearing said those events are an “extension of our workplace.”

Sometimes at those public events, though, the men get carried away, said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia.

“That’s something we deal with all of the time,” Garcia said. “Every time someone asks to have drinks, women have to be concerned with what that means and where they’re having drinks and making sure it’s in public.”

Even though her lobbying firm might lose some business; Hicks said the fear of being hit with a sexual harassment charge might be enough to scare the men she does work with into behaving.

“If men’s behavior changes just out of fear of it no longer being covered up,” Hicks said, “then that’s a good thing, too.”