Adama Iwu wrapped up a conversation with a group of men at a work event outside the Capitol last week about how they can serve as allies to women and stop sexual harassment when a drunken male approached her. Iwu, the head of Visa’s western U.S. government relations program, said he touched her inappropriately. The men did nothing.
“It enraged me that it happened in front of other male colleagues,” Iwu said. “They said ‘Oh, you hugged him, we thought you knew him.’ That doesn’t mean when I spent the other three minutes pushing him off me that I didn’t want someone to step in and say ‘She said “no,” stop.’”
With allegations of rape and assault at the hands of Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein dredging up repressed memories across the nation, Iwu’s experience served as the catalyst for a movement to challenge a culture at the state Capitol that many say has long allowed sexual harassment and assault to be swept under the rug.
Since the campaign went public Tuesday, the number of female legislators, lobbyists, political consultants, Capitol staff members and other women in Sacramento that signed an open letter calling out widespread “dehumanizing behavior by men with power” in political circles has more than doubled to over 300. Attention has broadened to the steps government should be taking to address the problem.
Women heeding the call to action tell stories of lobbyists who groped them, legislators who tried to make out with them on elevators, unwanted hands on their thighs and behinds, late-night text messages and lingering hugs that left them feeling uncomfortable and ashamed. Iwu and other organizers also launched a website, wesaidenough.com, to give women an outlet to share their experiences anonymously.
Some of the women told The Bee this week that they signed the letter to support others and had not experienced overt harassment themselves. Few formally reported their encounters to authorities or the Legislature in fear of retribution. The women have collectively declined to publicly name the men who wronged them.
“If you hang someone out to dry as a Weinstein of the Sacramento community, that sort of gives folks the political cover to say look we got the bad guy, we fixed this,” said Samantha Corbin, an organizer and partner at a woman-run lobbying firm. “That’s not true. We want long-term culture change where men are held accountable and there is a system where woman can work and feel safe.”
Corbin said the stories she’s heard from women in the last few days have brought up painful memories. A victim’s confession about a legislator who was known for grabbing women and trying to forcibly make out with them on elevators felt all too familiar.
“I actually found myself gagging,” Corbin said. “Then I realized, oh, he did that to me too. It was so long ago and tucked way that I didn’t think about it.”
Corbin, who got her first job in California politics 14 years ago, said she’s been assaulted and harassed as a Capitol employee and lobbyist.
In her early 20s, she took on extra duties at a political organization when her supervisor left. She set up a meeting with the executive director and asked if he would bump up her pay in light of her new responsibilities.
“He cozied up to me very close in a way that made me uncomfortable and explained to me that the reason he was unable to pay me more was that I was so young and pretty that it might make board members think he was sleeping with me,” Corbin said.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, learned the culture quickly after she was elected to the lower house in 2012. A senator invited her to join him one night to hang out and meet people.
“It started two weeks after I was elected,” Garcia said. “I had a lobbyist grab my butt and I had a senator tell me not to do anything because this guy had power and it was bad for my career.”
Garcia said she made it clear the lobbyist was not welcome near her again.
“That’s why I focus on women’s issues,” Garcia said. “Before this incident, my identity politics were about the color of my skin, my immigrant background and the community I grew up in.”
The harassment is exacerbated by the blurring of professional and personal lines as policymaking at the Capitol transitions into fundraisers and other evening events, said Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton.
“It’s oftentimes fueled by alcohol in the off-hours and then people come back to the Capitol the next day, and it carries over,” she said. The message women get is not to make a big deal about it: “Don’t be that chick.”
Eggman said female lawmakers have begun discussing how they might address the problem in the coming legislative session. Sen. Connie Levya, D-Chino, has already announced her plans to introduce a bill banning secret settlements in sexual assault and harassment cases. Some lawmakers are pushing for an independent third party to investigate all complaints in the Legislature.
But Eggman added that she wants to refocus the conversation away from how women are supposed to deal with abuse and back toward the men who perpetuate it.
“Why should it have to be on the Women’s Caucus to fix men’s behavior?” she said.
Inappropriate behavior isn’t new in California political circles. Over the past two decades, the Legislature has settled at least five sexual harassment lawsuits for more than $850,000.
Earlier this year, the California Assembly paid $100,000 to a former legislative staff member to settle a claim of harassment, discrimination and retaliation against former Assemblyman Steve Fox, who had exposed himself to her. The victim, Nancy Kathleen Finnigan, said she lost her career at the Capitol after speaking up.
Former Sen. Noreen Evans, a Democrat from Santa Rosa, said she was once punished when she spoke out about what she saw as sexist behavior.
In 2011, Evans, who was chair of the Women’s Caucus, demanded an apology from then-Assemblyman Charles Calderon for comments he made in a committee hearing about the attractiveness of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Evans said the Assembly leadership consequently took away one of her bills about maternity leave and gave it to a male colleague.
The harassment, which can be gender-based rather than sexual, she said, is “often subtle to the point where others don’t even notice it.”
“It does create a hostile working environment for women and it does empower men and bad behavior,” Evans said.
The Assembly’s chief administrative officer, Debra Gravert, said their policy “spells out very specific rights that employees have in bringing complaints” against lawmakers, co-workers, lobbyists or other people from outside the building.
Her office will investigate any complaint they receive, she said, often by hiring an independent law firm that specializes in sexual harassment cases. If the allegations are substantiated, it can lead to discipline or termination.
There have been nine sexual harassment or gender discrimination complaints since Gravert took over as the chief administrative officer in 2014, she said, between one and four each year. She did not disclose the results of those investigations because they are kept confidential – even those who bring the complaints only receive a summary of the outcome – though she said she has “terminated people because of bad behavior.”
Gravert acknowledged “there’s always room for improvement in everything we do, and I would welcome that.” She said she hoped the conversation sparked by the letter would help women feel more comfortable reporting misconduct they experience at the Capitol.
“I can’t control that feeling of people,” she said. “I’m frustrated and saddened that they don’t feel they can come to me or the Rules Committee, because I feel my track record has shown that I take this seriously.”
The state Senate has a “zero tolerance policy for harassment” as described in human resources documents provided by leadership. The documents say every reported complaint of harassment, discrimination or retaliation “shall be investigated thoroughly, promptly and in accordance with the law and the Senate’s high standards of fairness and impartiality” by the deputy secretary of human resources, or a designee.
Former Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, who served as chairwoman of the powerful Rules Committee from 2004 to 2006, said she believes there is considerable activity that goes unreported, adding that the flood of personal stories emanating from the Capitol region “brings back a lot of sad moments and memories for individuals.”
The most unfortunate situations, she said, came “when you knew somebody had been a victim of sexual harassment, but they weren’t willing to come forward.” As many of the victims attest, Montañez said many feel like, “If we speak up, it’s something that could hurt us for a lot of our political careers.”
“That’s the case nationwide. That is a real problem in many industries. And it is a huge problem that I have continued to see throughout my career.”
Christopher Cadelago of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.