Capitol Alert

How sexual harassment is playing out in the California governor’s race

California gubernatorial candidates from left, John Chiang, Delaine Eastin, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa participate in a candidates forum at the Sheraton Hotel in Anaheim on Oct. 22, 2017.
California gubernatorial candidates from left, John Chiang, Delaine Eastin, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa participate in a candidates forum at the Sheraton Hotel in Anaheim on Oct. 22, 2017. AP

Accusations of habitual sexual harassment and assault have cut down politicians, business and media moguls, entertainers and celebrity chefs, and forced a mass reckoning of the cost of silence on society.

But as harassment changes continue to roil the California Legislature – where two Assembly Democrats have said they are stepping down and a senator is clinging to his seat after losing his committee posts – the year’s biggest story has yet to have any major influence on next year’s race to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown.

That isn’t stopping one candidate from trying, and others from talking about it. State Treasurer John Chiang, a Democrat lagging well behind in public polls, has pitched himself as the only gubernatorial candidate with a comprehensive plan to prevent sexual abuse and harassment in Sacramento, to “hold predators accountable and stand up to those who protect and enable them.”

He’s pledged to open new channels for employees, fellows, interns and officials to report misconduct; ban sexual and romantic relationships between interns and legislators and disclose data about sexual harassment in state government, as well as the names of those who commit harassment and assault.

“I think it’s going to be very important,” Chiang predicted Friday of how the issue will play with voters. “They want a leader who is serious about culture, mission and values. We have too much arrogance of privilege. We have the arrogance of power (and) you see it in leadership, whether it’s in Hollywood; whether it’s in technology; whether it’s in the halls of the Capitol, or elsewhere.”

Chiang’s remarks amount to a critique of Democratic rivals ahead of him in the polling, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa – if not their specific actions, then their characters.

Both men wrestled with well-documented personal scandals: As mayor of San Francisco, Newsom was undergoing a divorce when he had a consensual affair with his appointments secretary, who was married at the time to his campaign manager and one of his top aides. Villaraigosa’s own political standing was damaged by revelations of his affair with a TV news reporter while he was mayor, ending his 20-year marriage.

Newsom has said he acted inappropriately and apologized. He married documentary filmmaker and actress Jennifer Siebel in 2008, and they have four children. Newsom and Siebel Newsom have been outspoken about military and campus assaults. Villaraigosa married Patricia Govea, whose background is in fashion, last year in a ceremony in central Mexico.

Several campaign experts said they doubted voters will conflate the politicians’ past activity with the current debate about sexual harassment. In an interview last month with La Opinion’s Pilar Marrero, Villaraigosa himself said there´s a big difference between having an extramarital affair and sexual harassment.

“You’ve never crossed that line?” Marrero asked. “No. You can’t put both in the same question,” he replied, before turning the focus on Newsom, referencing reports that the appointments secretary received retroactive payments after leaving her job.

“I’ve said it before, that wasn’t my first time, I made a lot of mistakes, but Gavin Newsom has made them, too, with his best friend’s wife, and she was actually working for him. She was on his payroll, she was not at work for two months and he was paying them. That´s a big difference. I did have an affair with a consenting adult.”

Villaraigosa’s campaign let the remark about Newsom speak for itself, but issued a statement from spokeswoman Michelle Jeung saying Villaraigosa believes the movement to address and end harassment, abuse and exploitation is long overdue – “and we all have an obligation to join the effort to confront these injustices.”

“Many women, particularly low-income, LGBT, undocumented women and women of color, have been left vulnerable and without a voice. It is on all of us to make sure that their voices are heard and their concerns are addressed,” she said.

Newsom, who has more generally bemoaned the “toxic masculinity in this country,” and is asking UC officials what they are doing about Regent Norman Pattiz, declined to engage with Villaraigosa.

Newsom’s spokesman, Dan Newman, instead took a swipe at Chiang for politicizing the issue. Chiang sent emails asking voters to sign a petition standing against harassment. Participants are then directed to a page soliciting contributions to Chiang’s campaign.

“Women leaders keep telling us that the last thing we need is male politicians fundraising, grandstanding, and trying to exploit the issue for personal political gain,” Newman said. “They say ‘Chiang-splaining’ – playing politics and raising money off of sexual assault – demeans the victims, degrades the debate and risks harming the ability to make real reform.”

Separately, the Bee asked Chiang about the checks he signed as state Controller that resulted from sexual harassment settlements. Among his claims to fame is withholding the Legislature’s pay after members passed a budget he believed was not balanced. Chiang said he would circle back with the claim audits division of the Controller’s Office.

“What happens is you have certain procedures,” he said. “You follow certain standards, (and) if they meet the legal standards then you move it through. But we’re happy to check on making sure that what’s done over at the legislative side, and what’s done on the financial side, are updated for best practices.”

Democrat Delaine Eastin, the only woman in the race, has avoided mixing it up with her opponents while calling for a change in culture at the Capitol that includes the appointment of independent investigators. As an assemblywoman in 1991, she sounded off on the topic amid a clash between two colleagues, including then-Assemblywoman Cathie Wright.

“If it came to sexual harassment, (being strictly enforced) I would have everyone in the Legislature up on charges,” Wright said at the time. “As long as they don’t lay a hand on me, I ignore it.”

Eastin replied: “First, she overstates (the problem of sexual harassment), then she winks at it. I don’t believe sexual harassment is rampant at the Capitol. I don’t think it is common, but I do think it happens and it is disgusting. To laugh it off is just not right.

“Occasionally someone will say something inappropriate, and most of us are big girls who stand up for ourselves,” Eastin added. “If Cathie doesn’t, then she should. If people in responsible, powerful positions don’t do this, we shouldn’t be surprised that others have a problem, and it will continue to happen.”

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WORTH REPEATING: “This is not paradise. We have a lot of problems. But California is the engine of America, and I like to remind my fellow citizens, when you kinda look askance at this state you’re looking at one of the, not the only one, but a major contributor to the well-being of the whole country.” Gov. Jerry Brown, assessing some of the challenges of his state, on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

SPECIAL ELECTION: Two weeks ago, former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra resigned amid mounting allegations of sexual misconduct. Brown on Monday called a special election for the 39th Assembly District, to be condensed with the statewide primary on June 5. A special primary for the San Fernando Valley seat will take place on April 3, when a candidate could win outright if they get more than 50 percent of the vote. It is an opportunity for Assembly Democrats to regain their two-thirds supermajority, which they will lose in January, when Assemblyman Matt Dababneh is set to resign because of an alleged sexual assault.

ALABAMA SILENCE: After Joyce Simmons, a Republican National Committeewoman from Nebraska, resigned over the RNC’s financial support of Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, we asked the state’s three RNC members their stances on Moore and the fact that the party is backing him. Jim Brulte and Harmeet Dhillon of California did not respond with a comment on Monday.

“I think the Alabamans are going to have a pretty stark choice,” Shawn Steel, their colleague, told The Bee. “If Moore gets elected, which I don’t think is a forgone conclusion, he has very serious charges that are pending against him. If those charges truly have merit and pass the due process test I think the Senate has the right to expel any member. I will do the same thing for him that I would have done for (outgoing Democratic U.S. Sen.) Al Franken ...”

POLITICAL WATCHDOG: Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas is being fined $3,500 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to file two financial disclosure reports in a timely manner. Assemblyman Frank Bigelow is being hit with a $2,000 penalty for not paying for his expenditures from a designated campaign bank account. West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon’s proposed fine of $686 stems from his failure to timely disclose expenditures and independent expenditures on three campaign statements. The FPPC meets 10 a.m. next Thursday in Sacramento.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago