Three current and former female lawmakers say Sen. Bob Hertzberg inappropriately hugged and touched them, including an incident that one woman says crossed the line into what she considered assault.
Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat who served as Assembly speaker from 2000 to 2002 and was elected to the Senate in 2014 after a break from the Legislature, has long had a reputation for being physically affectionate. A pin he distributed at the 2000 California Democratic convention read, “I was hugged by Assemblymember Bob Hertzberg.” In political circles, he has the nickname “Huggy Bear.”
But the three women The Bee spoke to said the embraces were too long and overly intimate for their comfort. Two of them said they expressed their concerns to Hertzberg and he hugged them again anyway.
Former Assemblyman Linda Halderman, a Republican from Fresno who served one term from 2010 to 2012, shared her experience on the record because she felt she had “nothing to lose now except my privacy.” The other two women, both sitting lawmakers, asked not to be named because they did not want the issue to interfere with their legislative work or feared retaliation.
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“All of my life I have greeted my friends and colleagues with a hug,” Hertzberg said in a statement. “My intentions have only been to foster a warm, human connection. I apologize to anyone who may have ever felt uncomfortable, and I will change how I greet people moving forward.”
He did not deny the allegations.
Halderman said she met Hertzberg early in her term when he came to the Capitol to teach a freshmen legislator orientation. When the first class was over, she said, he “kind of grabbed me and hugged me too long.”
“I didn’t like it, but I just didn’t think much of it,” Halderman said.
Halderman said he then started doing it repeatedly, every time he saw her in the hallway, even though she says she didn’t know Hertzberg at all.
Usually it happened when no one else was around. But at an event outside the Capitol one evening early in her term, she said he did it in front of Sen. Jean Fuller.
“The way he hugged me, and it was prolonged, it was creepy enough that Jean afterward said, ‘Do you know that guy?’” Halderman said. “I’m not cold. I just tend to be a little bit more modest and a little bit more held back. ... I wouldn’t generally hug people at work, unless we were really close.”
Fuller, R-Bakersfield, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The next time Halderman saw Hertzberg in the hallway at the Capitol, she said she told him, “I’m not a hugger. I’m not really comfortable with that.”
She said he grabbed her anyway and pinned her in his arms, with one hand on her lower back, so that she couldn’t turn away from him, then he thrust his groin into her.
“It was like dirty dancing. It was gross. I was really just kind of horrified, because you don’t do that. You just don’t do that. It was so out of context and inappropriate,” Halderman said. “It was so clearly a sexual thing, rather than a friendly thing.”
A spokeswoman for Hertzberg said the senator does not specifically remember any encounters with Halderman, but that he does not dispute that they may have crossed paths.
Halderman referred to the encounter as an assault. She said she felt “violated,” but it was not something that merited calling the police, so she went to Jon Waldie, the former chief administrative officer of the Assembly.
Waldie laughed and said, “Bob’s just like that,” Halderman recalled. She was bothered by his casual response, so she threatened to go to outside counsel. That’s when Waldie told her that he would have a conversation with Hertzberg about his behavior.
“He made it seem like it was a favor that he would go talk to Bob,” she said.
Halderman does not know how the issue was ultimately resolved. Only two months into her tenure at the Capitol, she wasn’t aware of any formal complaint process, and said Waldie did not tell her there was one. She said Hertzberg did not hug her again, but she cannot recall if he had further opportunities.
Waldie did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Halderman said she did not push the matter or go public at the time because she was a brand new lawmaker and “I didn’t want that kind of attention. I certainly didn’t want that reputation.” She did not run for re-election in 2012 because she was disenchanted with the dynamics at the Capitol; the incident with Hertzberg was a contributing, though not the sole, factor.
She said she “never completely let it go.”
Halderman, who first publicly shared her experience with the conservative Flash Report blog, said she finally decided to come forward about Hertzberg because she has seen the consequences for other lawmakers accused of sexual harassment in recent weeks.
“How many other women are there, and how many did there continue to be who were positions of much less power who couldn’t speak up?” she said. “I feel like I probably let down other women by not taking it further.”
A sitting senator said Hertzberg also hugged her inappropriately on the Senate floor the day she was sworn into the upper house in 2014.
“He came up behind me and grabbed me in a very intimate hug,” the senator said. “I turned around and told him to take his hands off of me. ‘Don’t do that again.’ And to his credit, he did not.”
She said she had only met Hertzberg once before the incident at a caucus lunch days after she was elected.
A spokeswoman for Hertzberg said he remembered a similar incident and respected the legislator’s wishes.
“There have been a number of times when people make it clear that they prefer not to be hugged, and he’s done his best to respect those wishes when they are made aware to him,” the spokeswoman said. “At the end of the day, he knows that not everyone wants to be hugged and respects that.”
The senator said she didn’t speak about the situation earlier or file a complaint because she felt that she shut down the behavior that day.
“It scared me initially because I never had someone do that to me before,” she said. “I remember just thinking that it was really weird and uncomfortable.”
She’s choosing to share her experience now to support Halderman’s story, she said.
“I don’t want this woman to feel like she’s out there alone,” she said. “I didn’t know he had done that to other people as well. If this woman has come forward, the least I should do is say, ‘Yes, it happened to me, too.’”
Another sitting lawmaker said she yelled at Hertzberg at a public event in early 2015 for inappropriately hugging her after she had previously told him it made her feel uncomfortable.
A spokeswoman for Hertzberg said he could not remember this specific incident.
“He gives these really long hugs where he pulls you in and it feels like he’s rubbing your (breasts) against him,” the lawmaker said. “It’s one of those creeper hugs. As women, we all know them.”
She said the hugs began not long after Hertzberg was elected to the Senate in 2014. At first, she tried to avoid it.
“I would try to find ways to avoid the hug and he would still pull me in,” she said. “I was constantly trying to strategize ways to avoid being in that situation and I kept failing.”
When that didn’t work, the lawmaker decided to explain to Hertzberg that his hugs made her feel uncomfortable and to set boundaries with him without jeopardizing their working relationship.
“He was a former speaker,” she said. “His relationships run deep.”
She was unsuccessful again, she said.
“Soon after I told him, he went in for one of these bear hugs that last for too long,” she said. “I had no patience and I blew up. He was very upset. He never hugged me again.”
The lawmaker said Hertzberg became distant after that. She didn’t feel that he retaliated against her, but she said she also never felt comfortable again trying to win his vote for one of her bills.
She said she told a fellow lawmaker, who dismissed her feelings and “made me feel like I was crazy.”
“It felt like everyone just accepted it, for whatever reason I never understand,” she said.
She never filed a complaint because she said the hugs eventually stopped. As a woman lawmaker, she said she was also taught to “be independent and figure things out.”
“You just deal with stuff,” she said. “You learn not to rely on anyone but yourself.”