Capitol Alert

#MeToo scandal becomes election strategy for California Republicans

Following a tumultuous year at the California Capitol during which half a dozen lawmakers were publicly accused of sexual misconduct, several Republican challengers in legislative districts are using Sacramento’s #MeToo moment as a campaign issue to attack their Democratic opponents.

In Riverside, Bill Essayli is airing a television ad that slams Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes for accepting campaign contributions from colleagues reprimanded for sexual harassment. Alexandria Coronado, running in Orange County, makes a similar critique on a website highlighting Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva’s “scary record on sex crimes.” And in suburban Sacramento, Melinda Avey has repeatedly denounced Assemblyman Ken Cooley on her website and social media for blocking a bill to open up legislative investigation records.

These candidates have widely varying odds of victory. Essayli is Republicans’ best opportunity to pick up a seat in the Legislature this November, in a district traditionally held by the GOP that Cervantes narrowly won in 2016, while Avey has raised less than a tenth of what Cooley has so far this year.

But their strategies reflect a broader effort by California Republicans, long locked out of real power in Sacramento, to regain traction with voters by spotlighting what they see as hypocrisy in the ruling Democratic Party.

“We’ve all year been trying to point out places where the Democrats say one thing and do another,” said Cynthia Bryant, executive director of the California Republican Party. “If this kind of stuff makes you mad, then come be with us.”

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The state party ran two digital ads this spring on similar themes — one urging Cooley to release the records bill from committee; another highlighting “disgraced” Senate Democrats such as Tony Mendoza, who resigned following multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior with female employees — though Bryant said it did not advise candidates to use sexual harassment in their messaging.

Despite adopting a new harassment policy that has helped improve the atmosphere in the building, Bryant added, the Legislature continues to fight lawsuits by former employees who allege they were wrongly fired for reporting sexual misconduct, including one ex-staffer who says she was dismissed after complaining about Mendoza.

“I think they sort of want to do the right thing, and I think at the end of the day, they want things to go back to the way they were,” when there were no consequences, Bryant said.

The Essayli commercial, which is slated to air on cable through the election, is the most brazen attack.

In the 30-second spot, a Riverside County “victims advocate” lambastes Cervantes for “profiting from sexual predators, while Bill was convicting them.” Essayli formerly worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

A title card states that Cervantes “took $40,000 from sexual harassers.” It refers to campaign contributions from colleagues including former Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, who both resigned last year amid harassment allegations, and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who is currently under investigation for drunkenly groping a legislative staffer. Those donations occurred before the accusations emerged.

About a third of the money is from Assemblyman Jim Cooper, who reportedly made a vulgar remark to a female co-worker at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department in 2005. After an internal affairs investigation, he was not disciplined.

“Voters want to know if their elected officials are part of the problem or part of the solution. We believe the best way for them to make that judgment is by looking at their actions and track record,” Jason Gagnon, a consultant for the Essayli campaign, wrote in an email. “If a politician, like Assemblywoman Cervantes, isn’t willing to do something as easy as give up political contributions from sexual harassers, how can voters expect them to find the courage to take tougher actions?”

Derek Humphrey, a consultant for Cervantes, said she donated the contributions from Bocanegra and Dababneh to local charities. Campaign finance show nearly $9,700 in “civic donations” since last fall, to organizations such as the UC Riverside Foundation and Peppermind Ridge.

“Bill Essayli’s negative advertisement reflects his campaign’s desperation and his claim to stand with sexual assault survivors is ironic given his total loyalty to Donald Trump,” Humphrey wrote in an email. “Riverside County voters are too smart to fall for this type of attack.”

With fewer resources at their disposal, Coronado and Avey have not been able to reach their message to as wide of an audience. Like Essayli, they have also mostly hit their opponents for voting for last year’s gas tax increase, the priority political issue for California Republicans this election.

But given the “amount that the #MeToo movement has been in the news this year,” Coronado campaign manager Brian Harrington said, they thought it was important to point out that Quirk-Silva is “trying to have it both ways.”

The website knocks her voting record on bills related to sexual abuse and claims Quirk-Silva “refused to give the money back after numerous women came forward” about some of the Democratic colleagues who donated to her campaign.

“Sharon gave any money from those types away a long time ago to women’s shelters and domestic violence prevention groups,” Matt Reilly, a consultant for Quirk-Silva, said. The campaign reported more than $37,000 in “civic donations” in January.

While knocking on doors to canvass voters, Avey said, she’s encountered anger, mostly from women, over the sexual harassment in Sacramento.

Avey said she was upset about Cooley’s decision, as chair of the Assembly Rules Committee, to hold a measure that would have required the Legislature to release the results of substantiated harassment and discrimination investigations into lawmakers and high-level employees. She hopes it will resonate with voters: “It’s a violation of our trust.”

Cooley, however, sees that action as a “linchpin” of his role last session in addressing sexual harassment at the Capitol. While he would advance a similar bill if it was introduced again, he said, he did not want to interfere with the subcommittee he formed to develop a new harassment policy, which was adopted in June.

“I created space for them to do their work,” Cooley said.

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