Capitol Alert

Despite harassment discipline, Bocanegra rose with support from establishment

In this May 28, 2014 file photo, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonsville, right, In talks with Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, during the Assembly session at the Capitol in Sacramento.
In this May 28, 2014 file photo, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonsville, right, In talks with Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, during the Assembly session at the Capitol in Sacramento. AP

Three years after the Legislature disciplined Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra as a Capitol staff member for groping a female employee, the Los Angeles Democrat was elected to office with over a million dollars in support and endorsements from prominent politicians, corporations, associations and lobbying firms.

The victim, who filed a complaint with the Assembly Rules Committee, said Bocanegra’s behavior was widely known in Capitol circles at the time. The Assembly investigators interviewed 15 people in probing the complaint of Elise Flynn Gyore, now a chief of staff in the Senate, that Bocanegra stalked her like a predator around a downtown Sacramento club and grabbed her underneath her clothes in 2009.

Members of the Assembly Rules Committee knew about Gyore’s complaint and hired an outside firm to launch an investigation that ultimately determined he was “more likely than not” guilty of falling short of the house’s expectations of professionalism. As punishment, he was ordered to stay away from Gyore. On Friday, Bocanegra apologized, saying he was “deeply regretful about putting someone in this position.”

The case appeared to have little impact on Bocanegra’s subsequent rise to political power in his 2012 race against a well-known fellow Democrat, Richard Alarcón.

As chief of staff to the chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Bocanegra already had access to a range of special interests and potential campaign donors. He also had built strong connections in Los Angeles, having worked in the city council office of Alex Padilla, who is now California secretary of state.

More than a half dozen sitting lawmakers gave money to his 2012 campaign for the Assembly, including then-Assemblyman Isadore Hall who served on the rules committee during the investigation, and Padilla, who by then had been elected to the state Senate. He was endorsed by the California Democratic Party. Bocanegra even won the endorsement of Sen. Ron Calderon – the victim’s boss, who she said knew about the groping incident when it occurred.

“I admire the courage of Ms. Gyore to speak out,” Padilla said in a statement. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Hollywood, a TV newsroom, or the State Capitol – harassment has no place in our society. No one should have to fear intimidation in or outside the workplace.”

Padilla’s spokesman did not respond to a question about whether he was previously aware of the allegations against Bocanegra.

Before the primary election in 2012, a group of women in the 39th Assembly District sent Sen. Nancy Skinner, then the chair of Assembly Rules, a letter requesting she make public any sexual harassment complaints against Bocanegra. The complaints were never disclosed. Skinner’s office did not respond to an interview request.

John Vigna, a spokesman for the California Democratic Party, said Chair Eric Bauman and the leadership team “first heard about it” when a news story published Friday. He stressed that candidates are endorsed through a series of caucuses in each district and delegates at the state convention, without the control of party leaders.

Before he became chair this year, Bauman worked as director of the Speaker’s Office of Member Services for Southern California, an outfit that helps Democratic lawmakers share and deliver their message to constituents. He also served as chair of the Los Angeles Democratic Party.

Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, who was in charge from 2010 until 2014, said he did not know about the groping incident or the Assembly investigation when Bocanegra ran in 2012. He said he was “disturbed” to find out about it for the first time Friday in news accounts.

“I would not be aware of day-to-day disciplinary actions of staff before I was speaker,” Pérez said. If it had happened while he was speaker, he added, “I would assume that something like this would be brought to my attention. I would expect to be in the loop.”

Pérez said he focused on swing districts in elections, and did not endorse or get involved in safe Democratic seats like the one that Bocanegra won. That race was left to the local party.

“I didn’t weigh in at all,” he said. “I didn’t vet candidates; I didn’t choose candidates.”

Perez said the request to the Assembly Rules Committee from the women in the district was never passed along to him. He noted that it likely did not become a bigger issue in the campaign because Bocanegra’s opponent, Alarcón, was under indictment for perjury and voter fraud.

“When there’s a lot of mud, it’s hard to see what’s going on beneath the surface,” Pérez said.

Rep. Karen Bass, who served as Assembly Speaker during the investigation into the complaint, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Bocanegra had never been elected to office when he ran to replace his boss. But in defeating Alarcón in the San Fernando Valley-based seat, Bocanegra spent more than $1.3 million, much of it from politically active Sacramento interests, including Realtors, tribal casinos, bankers, grocers and other business-oriented groups.

Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist, said it’s rare for new candidates to have access to that kind of money in Assembly races. Bocanegra was seen as a moderate Democrat from the get-go, winning him support from the business groups.

“He’s not your typical first-time candidate,” Acosta said. “I’m working for candidates who are first-time candidates and they’re struggling to raise $100,000. He’s a guy who had connections in the Capitol.”

When Bocanegra arrived in Sacramento as an elected assemblyman in January 2013, he was given the chairmanship of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, a plum assignment for a rookie legislator.

Bocanegra continued to receive support from the Democratic Party and other key political players in his subsequent campaigns, despite the allegations that tailed him. Bocanegra suffered a stunning loss in 2014 to former Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, a little-known candidate and community volunteer who raised money selling tamales and pupusas.

Lopez was criticized for not being in step with the party during her time in office. When her re-election came around, the Democratic Party endorsed Bocanegra over her in a rare decision to undercut an intra-party incumbent.

Lopez raised $140,000, while Bocanegra amassed more than $1 million. Democratic Assemblymembers Cristina Garcia, Susan Eggman, Ian Calderon, Kansen Chu and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon all gave to Lopez’s campaign.

A spokesman for Rendon said the speaker was not aware of the complaint against Bocanegra until he was approached by news organizations this week.

Alexei Koseff of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna

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