Capitol Alert

Mendoza's gone, but Capitol culture still an open question for de León's U.S. Senate race

Kevin de Leon on Sen. Tony Mendoza's resignation

California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, on the Senate floor on Feb. 22, 2018, reacts to Sen. Tony Mendoza's resignation.
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California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, on the Senate floor on Feb. 22, 2018, reacts to Sen. Tony Mendoza's resignation.

Before announcing the resignation of his former housemate, California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León delivered a speech on the Senate floor describing the upper house as a leader against sexual harassment under his command.

"Let me be very clear, we won’t tolerate abuse of power and a pattern of behavior that violates our harassment standards," de León told an audience of senators, legislative employees, journalists and "Me Too" supporters watching from the gallery overhead last week. "The bottom line is we’re going to protect our staff, and we’re going to lead the way against workplace harassment."

The historic resignation concluded a dramatic three-month saga that ended Sen. Tony Mendoza's term and threatened to derail de León's bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Mendoza himself isn't a household name that voters will necessarily connect with de León when they go to the polls in November. Whether de León has sufficiently weathered the sexual harassment storm, however, remains an open question.

Rose Kapolczynski, a Los Angeles consultant best known for advising former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, said it "wouldn’t be the first thing I would go to on de León" if she were running Feinstein's campaign.

Nonetheless, she said it could be cast as part of an anti-Sacramento narrative that would resonate with voters who question the Legislature.

"The most successful campaign messages connect with something the voters already believe," Kapolczynski said. "They already believe Sacramento is full of people who are corrupt or incompetent or coddling sexual harassers."

It's a line Bill Carrick, Feinstein's longtime political strategist, is already peddling.

"We know one thing: We have an epidemic of sexual harassment in Sacramento," Carrick said.

De León's supporters push back on any attempts to turn sexual harassment into a campaign issue. They note he succeeded in passing a "yes means yes" law in 2014 to require public universities to adopt a standard of consent for sexually active students and adhere to protocols for assisting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. A 2015 law he authored required public high schools to teach students about affirmative consent and sexual harassment.

"At the end of the day this is about more than just one person, it’s about an entire institution embracing a cultural shift that prioritizes the safety of its employees, and draws a line in the sand that no one is above the law," said Anthony Reyes, a spokesman for the pro tem's office.

In the end, the state Senate's handling of the Mendoza situation may have turned a potential campaign criticism for de León into a non-issue in November.

"Tony Mendoza isn’t going to be a problem for de León in the race," said Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership and Policy.

Schnur doesn't believe the ordeal will be top of mind to voters in California, noting Mendoza stepped down eight months before the general election after de León pushed to expel him.

If state senators continue to make headlines over sexual harassment in the next few months, that could pose a problem for the Senate leader, Schnur said.

De León remains an underdog in the race even without questions about Mendoza lingering at the polls. Feinstein started 2018 with nearly $10 million in her campaign account, including $5 million she kicked in from her own personal bank account.

De León hustled up and down the state over the last few months to meet with California Democratic Party delegates. He succeeded in blocking the five-term senator's official party endorsement at its convention last weekend and came just shy of the 60 percent threshold to take home the nod himself.

Yet thus far he's failed to draw the necessary financial support to compete in his first statewide run. He started the year with $359,000, which he admits is a problem against a monied veteran.

Feinstein this week pointed to her nearly 30-point lead in recent polls.

"But I've had challenges all of my life," de León said in an interview with The Bee at the convention. "I've never been given anything. This is a huge challenge, but it's a challenge I'm willing to take."

The allegations against Mendoza initially raised questions about de León's awareness of his housemate's repeated attempts to abuse his power over young women and later how the Senate leader could have no knowledge of allegations reported to his own institution.

The Senate Rules Committee, which de León leads, acted quickly after a second woman came forward in mid-November alleging that Mendoza took her to his hotel suite and gave her alcohol when she was 19 during a California Democratic Party convention. The five-member panel of lawmakers announced a new policy that all sexual harassment allegations would be independently investigated by law firms hired by the Senate.

A month after the allegations surfaced, de León held a press conference and reiterated that he did not know about Mendoza's alleged behavior until after The Bee contacted his office for comment. The secretary of the Senate said de León wasn't notified yet because an internal investigation had not been concluded.

The outside investigation ordered by the Senate Rules Committee found that Mendoza likely made unwanted advances on six women, including four subordinates, over a decade that spanned his time in both the Assembly and Senate. After reading the 46-page report, de León drafted a resolution to expel the Artesia Democrat. De León, his successor Sen. Toni Atkins and Sen. Connie Leyva privately pushed their colleagues to oust him, prompting Mendoza to abruptly resign as lawmakers debated the appropriate action.

“An independent investigation determined that Mr. Mendoza engaged in a pattern of disturbing behavior with some of his youngest employees that stands in clear violation of the Senate's zero-tolerance harassment policy," Reyes said. "The Senate Rules Committee was obligated to take action to protect its employees and did so."

Throughout the ordeal, Mendoza became de León's most vocal critic.

"Until recently, de León shared a house in Sacramento with Sen. Mendoza," Mendoza wrote in a lawsuit filed against the state Senate days before he resigned. "However, because he is currently campaigning for a seat in the United States Senate, he is now distancing himself from Sen. Mendoza as it is more politically expedient to avoid any negative fallout from his long tenure as Senator Mendoza’s co-tenant."

Schnur said that de León ultimately made the correct call.

"It may have been politically beneficial for de León, but it was also the right thing to do," Schnur said.

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