The trouble may not be over for California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia.
Once an outspoken leader of the 'Me Too' movement in state politics, the tables turned on the Bell Gardens Democrat in February when a former Capitol employee disclosed that he filed a complaint with the Assembly accusing her of groping him at a legislative softball game. Garcia has long denied the groping allegation, and on Thursday, the Assembly said the man's claim was not substantiated.
But an array of political forces mobilizing against Garcia pledged to continue to challenge her re-election bid.
"The ads will continue. The campaign will continue," said Erin Lehane, a spokeswoman for a committee formed against Garcia by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. "We think she is very vulnerable regardless of what she claims to be exonerated from. She has admitted to using hate speech. She has admitted to being a bad colleague and a bad employer."
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Working Californians Against Corruption has raised $536,000 since April 20 to oppose Garcia's re-election to the 58th Assembly District, which covers a swath of Southeast Los Angeles. The council began circulating a video ad this week, titled "Inebriated," featuring television news anchors describing accusations against the lawmaker and advising voters to "tell Cristina Garcia 'Time's Up.'"
Leo Briones, a consultant for Garcia's re-election campaign, said the building trades' refusal to back down proved that their opposition to her was not really about the sexual harassment allegations.
He said the construction unions were after Garcia because of her outspoken role in last year's extension of cap-and-trade, when she negotiated new regulations on local air pollutants as a condition for renewing the climate change program. That angered the oil industry, Briones said, and its allies in the building trades, which represent refinery workers. He pointed to a recent statement by building trades council President Robbie Hunter slamming Garcia for "targeting our workers and our jobs."
"The bigger picture issue here is a fissure in the Democratic Party," Briones said, "between progressives who believe in environmental justice and those who are willing to sit down with Donald Trump three days after his inauguration."
Lehane rejected the notion that the opposition is based solely on the refinery issue.
"This is because of conduct. This is not because of votes," she said. The trades council has "differences in votes with many members and you do not challenge the seat. They have a very long-term record of working with the membership through good times and bad."
Briones said the district has a "very positive impression" of Garcia because she rose to prominence fighting local corruption. He said her supporters will return once they hear that she has been cleared of the groping charge.
"It's really about our truth versus their lies," he said.
Garcia temporarily stepped down in February as the Assembly launched an investigation into her alleged behavior. The probe failed to corroborate the most egregious allegations against the legislator, including other claims that she attempted to grab a lobbyist's crotch at a political fundraiser and asked staff members to play "spin the bottle."
Garcia admitted in an interview with KQED in March to previously calling former Assembly Speaker John Pérez a "homo" in 2014. Pérez, the first openly gay speaker of the state Assembly, also told Politico that he reprimanded her five years ago for making a comment about Asian Americans in a caucus meeting.
The Assembly investigation separately confirmed "her use of vulgar language" that violated the house's sexual harassment policy, found that she disparaged other elected officials and used taxpayer-funded staff to perform personal services, without offering further details about the incidents.
Garcia's homophobic remark drew earlier rebukes from other lawmakers and Equality California, a LGBQT civil rights organization.
Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, said the comments made her "unfit for elected office" and condemned the state Democratic Party, in an opinion piece published in The Sacramento Bee, for making a $26,000 in-kind contribution to Garcia's re-election campaign . The party, which said the contribution paid for a poll of her district, is taking a wait-and-see approach before offering further support.
"We're awaiting the public release of the report and we continue to believe that the process needs to be respected so that victims can seek justice, and all facts can come to light," John Vigna, spokesman for the California Democratic Party, said Thursday.
Garcia's candidate committee reported $288,000 in cash as of April 21.
Garcia's alleged victims and opponents questioned the integrity of the Assembly's investigation, another potential attack line in the race for the 58th Assembly District. Letters the Assembly sent Thursday to individuals who filed complaints against the lawmaker provided little detail about the allegations that were substantiated. Assembly policy allows parties involved in complaints 10 days to file an appeal.
Daniel Fierro, the man who alleged that Garcia squeezed his butt and attempted to grab his crotch in 2014, called the process "opaque" and said witnesses he provided to investigators were never interviewed. He alleged one was never contacted at all. Fierro said he is working with his attorney to file an appeal.
"I would use the term investigation lightly," said Lehane. "Certainly an investigation should look at talking to all of the witnesses who have been named in the least. It doesn’t leave me with the impression that they wanted to get at what people actually saw. Even if they intended it, they didn’t get to it."
Bill Wong, political consultant for the Assembly Democratic Caucus, said Thursday that Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon would wait until the outcome of the appeal process to decide whether to support Garcia's reelection and would likely seek input from the rest of the caucus.
"We really can't make any decisions until that has occurred," he said. "We wouldn't want to get into a campaign situation where we were unsure what the final outcome is."
Rendon pledged to "vigorously defend the members of our caucus from any ill-advised political attack" late last month. He called the effort against Garcia and ads the organization ran accusing the Legislature of chasing "thousands of jobs associated without traditional oil and gas industry" out of Southern California "an affront" to his speakership.
The aggressive anti-Garcia campaign by the building trades creates an opening for her challengers, like Commerce City Councilman Ivan Altamirano, to run positive campaigns boosting themselves rather than attacking her.
Eric Hacopian, a consultant for Democrat Altamirano, said his campaign has already raised more than $250,000 and sent seven mailings into the district highlighting Altamirano's record. He said they had no immediate plans to focus on the allegations against Garcia, but added that results of the investigation changes nothing.
"Just the things she has admitted, whether the racism or the homophobia, makes her morally unfit for this office," Hacopian said. Others offered more pointed attacks on Garcia and the Assembly.
Pedro Aceituno, another Democrat running against Garcia, issued a statement reminding "the people of District 58 not to be fooled."
"This doesn't change a thing," Aceituno said. "The outside attorneys hired to conduct the investigation were hand-picked by Sacramento insiders to protect their own."
The only Republican in the race, Mike Simpfenderfer, called the investigation a "sham."
"Sexual assault and drunken behaviors do not matter to the Assembly," Simpfenderfer said in a statement. "A double standard exists in Sacramento. Tony Mendoza endured some justice while Cristina Garcia got a get out of jail free card."
The candidate was referencing a former state senator who resigned in February after a Senate investigation confirmed that he made unwanted advances on six women and gave alcohol to an underage intern. Mendoza, whose district overlaps Garcia's, stepped down as Senate leadership pushed a resolution to expel him from office.
Rendon announced his decision on Thursday to remove Garcia from her committee memberships and require her to attend sensitivity training.
Two others in Rendon's house resigned in response to sexual assault and harassment allegations late last year.
Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, stepped down in late November after multiple women alleged that he groped or sexually harassed them. Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, D-Los Angeles, resigned at the end of last year facing sexual harassment and assault allegations from two women.