Capitol Alert

‘Jungle love’ comment resurfaces in Democratic endorsement fight over Jim Cooper

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputy, stands on a street near 47th Avenue in south Sacramento on Sept. 22, 2015. Cooper responded to many calls in the area throughout his career.
Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputy, stands on a street near 47th Avenue in south Sacramento on Sept. 22, 2015. Cooper responded to many calls in the area throughout his career. The Sacramento Bee file

Local Democratic activists are mounting an internal challenge to their party’s support for Assemblyman Jim Cooper, raising concerns about his voting record and a complaint about his workplace behavior toward a female employee more than a decade ago.

Cooper, an Elk Grove Democrat who previously led the Legislature’s business-friendly “moderate caucus,” is a frequent target of more liberal Democrats. Running for a third term this year, he has drawn a challenge from the left, and a group of California Democratic Party delegates in his district are organizing to block an automatic incumbent endorsement for Cooper next week.

But amid the rise of the Me Too movement that has ignited a national discussion about workplace sexual harassment, Cooper’s critics also are making an issue of a 2005 internal affairs investigation into an allegation that he made a vulgar remark to a female co-worker at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. The inquiry, which Cooper maintains was not about sexual harassment and did not result in any discipline, has come up previously during his campaigns for sheriff and the Assembly.

Harry He, a small business IT manager from Sacramento who is running against Cooper as a fellow Democrat, said he jumped into the race because Cooper is “not progressive enough” on climate change, campaign finance rules and money bail. After learning about the Sheriff’s Department investigation as the Me Too movement was gaining momentum last fall, however, He said it became a focus for him and other activists in the area.

He said he’s not working with the delegates who are trying to block Cooper’s endorsement, but they have kept him informed and he is supportive of their efforts.

A handful of Democratic incumbents across the state are receiving endorsement challenges through the same process party activists are using to target Cooper. Delegates in Southern California have pulled paperwork to block an endorsement for state Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia, who is currently under investigation for making unwanted sexual advances to female subordinates. The Sacramento activists are further attempting to block endorsements for state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento and Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove over key positions they dislike.

The Sheriff’s Department investigation resurfaced in Cooper’s race after members of the California Democratic Party State Central Committee sent out a survey on Jan. 1 to nine congressional and legislative candidates in the Sacramento region seeking the party’s endorsement. The 26 signatories said it was their “collective duty to ensure we perform our due diligence” and asked a series of questions about whether the candidates or their employees had ever been investigated, arrested or paid settlements for allegations of sexual harassment or assault.

“We trust that you understand that allegations of sexual assault or harassment revealed after the endorsement process will leave the Party handicapped in crucial battles to retain control of the California Legislature and win control of Congress,” the letter stated.

Like the eight other candidates, Cooper answered no in all instances. Now some of the delegates behind the survey are questioning what they see as a discrepancy in his response and using it to organize opposition to Cooper before he comes up for a preliminary endorsement vote at a regional caucus on Jan. 27. Representatives for that group of delegates declined to comment to The Bee.

The Bee reported during Cooper’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign for Sacramento County sheriff that he faced an anonymous sexual harassment complaint in 2005 over a comment to an employee who worked for him that she needed “jungle love” before she got married.

Cooper acknowledged at the time that his remark was inappropriate, but characterized it as merely “an off-color joke in the workplace.” The woman, who did not want to be identified, said at the time through an attorney that she supported Cooper and believed the incident was blown out of proportion.

Cooper declined to speak with The Bee about his endorsement challenge. Mike Ziegler, a spokesman for his campaign, said Cooper is proud of his voting record and had answered the questionnaire truthfully.

“It was never a sexual harassment complaint, he was never disciplined and all of the complaints were anonymous,” Ziegler said.

The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department has previously declined to discuss the case and its outcome. A spokesman on Friday said he could not provide an update.

Bill Wong, political consultant for the Assembly Democratic Caucus, said the campaign against Cooper is not a surprise and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon continues to stand behind him.

“Obviously, we’re going to do whatever we can to support a member of our caucus,” Wong said. “We feel pretty comfortable with him being able to win the endorsement of the Democratic Party.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff Anita Chabria contributed to this report.

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