As I’ve discussed before, the #MeToo and We Said Enough movements are starting to bring change to the California legislature’s persistent culture of sexual assault and harassment. That process of bringing change has been slow, perhaps too slow.
Furthering that concern are the reports about state Senator Tony Mendoza. He is under investigation for sexual harassment and misconduct and agreed earlier this month to take a paid leave of absence. However, after taking his leave, he has returned to the Capitol to work on legislation as well as attend and host events. He’s remained active in his district as well, posting pictures from a boat tour he hosted for high school seniors this past weekend. It needs to be noted that he has consistently denied the allegations against him. His actions – which fly in the face of the spirit of, if not the letter of, taking a leave of absence – are in line with these denials.
Mendoza’s actions led to current Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León stating that Sen. Mendoza “does not have an understanding of the gravity of the situation with no decency and little respect for the institution.” My feeling is that statement driven as much by De León’s need to create space between the sexual harassment scandal that came to light while he was Pro Tem and the rest of his record in the California legislature if he wants to have any chance of being competitive in his campaign against incumbent U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein as it is by outrage at Sen. Mendoza’s actions.
That leads me to an interesting report by Melanie Mason of the Los Angeles Times about local Democratic Party activists who are asking candidates “in explicit terms to divulge any history of sexual harassment.” This development could be a tipping point in changing the culture in the California Legislature and rooting out bad actors.
I’ve worked with candidates and shepherded them through the party endorsement process in the past. Questionnaires sent to candidates by local party clubs are the first, and sometimes the only, step in gaining that group’s endorsement. That endorsement means access to volunteers, it means potential campaign contributions, and it makes securing the party’s endorsement easier. When it comes to earning the party’s endorsement, these local club endorsements are beneficial because they send delegates to the party convention who are bound to vote for the candidate their club endorsed. By racking up club endorsements it becomes much easier to get the requisite number of votes at convention to receive the party endorsement. That’s the background to why these endorsements matter. The main reasons they matter are the access to volunteers that their endorsements bring, and more importantly, the potential access to money.
Campaigns run on volunteers. They are the foot soldiers who are out knocking on doors and calling voters. The more volunteers that a campaign has access to, the more voters it is able to directly contact. But these local clubs also collect membership dues and fundraise and can donate to candidates’ campaigns. Party endorsed candidates – and again, local endorsements help lead a state party endorsement – can receive contributions from the state party. More importantly, the state party can raise unlimited amounts of money, and through independent expenditure councils (I.E.’s), spend unlimited amounts of money. If sexual harassment becomes a line in the sand for local activists there is potential for incumbents who have sexual harassment in their history to lose support that they previously had. If that happens, volunteers go to other campaigns or stay home, money for direct mail or TV or radio ads dries up, and I.E.’s either disappear or fail to materialize.
All of that combines for a much harder reelection bid, and potentially, lead to a new wave of elected officials replacing an older crop of bad actors.