Every interest group in town has enabled Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra.
The California Nurses Association; the California Teachers Association; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Service Employees International Union; building trades unions; and other defenders of working women and men – all gave him campaign money, though he takes from whomever will give.
Tobacco, oil, casino tribes, drugmakers, race tracks, pay-day lenders. All pay tribute because he is one of the insiders. The San Fernando Valley Democrat sits on the Appropriations Committee, which can kill legislation, and the Governmental Organization Committee, which controls gambling and liquor bills.
A 2011 mailer, widely reported in the L.A. press, cited the harassment allegations against Bocanegra. Everybody who matters knew and shrugged. Legislators endorsed him, most of the Third House funded his campaign, and voters rewarded him by electing him.
Bocanegra lately has taken his place among the targets of the extraordinary #MeToo campaign, in which women across the nation have shared their experiences with on-the-job harassment. Perps have been outed from the media, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, board rooms and politics.
“I felt very much like prey,” Elise Flynn Gyore told The Sacramento Bee’s Alexei Koseff, recalling the creepy night of April 29, 2009. Bocanegra, then an Assembly staffer, stalked her around The Mix, a downtown Sacramento bar, and grabbed her underneath her clothes.
Her complaint prompted the Assembly Rules Committee to hire a law firm to investigate the assault. The committee concluded that “it is more likely than not that Mr. Bocanegra engaged in behavior that night which does not meet the Assembly’s expectation for professionalism.” The committee did not instruct him to stop attending work-related events where alcohol was consumed.
That investigative file is buried in Assembly files or destroyed, though Gyore shared the letter with reporters. But the thing is, everybody who matters knew and shrugged.
By 2011, Bocanegra was running for an Assembly seat. In that campaign, an independent campaign committee funded by plaintiffs lawyers paid for a mailer, widely reported in the L.A. press, that cited the then-anonymous harassment allegations.
The mailer was in the form of a letter pleading with Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, then the Assembly Rules Committee chairwoman, to “make public any sexual harassment complaints made against Raul Bocanegra, including what the investigation found of said complaint and whether or not a financial settlement of any kind was reached.
“These are taxpayer dollars and voters have a right to know if a State employee’s sexual harassment settlement cost the taxpayers money while still allowing him to continue to walk the halls of the State Capitol.”
Many legislators endorsed him in 2012, most of the Third House funded his campaign, and voters rewarded him by electing him. Bocanegra is the latest but hardly the only California legislator to be named.
It’s an old story that went on when Willie Brown was speaker, when John Burton was Senate president pro tem and before. There have been numerous settlements, all paid in tax money, like the one for $117,000 paid in 1998 to a then-Senate aide who was denied raises after she rebuffed a Democratic state senator’s advances. How many remains secret.
The Legislature covers up the claims, refusing to release details unless they decide to comply with the Legislative Open Records Act, a law that has an oxymoron for a name and is easily evaded.
If leaders are serious – and Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León swear they are, honest, really, cross-their-hearts – they will release all such records, and establish a policy of naming names in all future sexual harassment settlements.
They also should establish a truly independent entity to investigate workplace harassment claims, and they should finally approve legislation pushed most recently by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, to grant whistleblower protection to legislative staffers, similar to protections granted workers in private enterprise.
The Legislature has failed to pass the whistleblower bill in various forms for at least a decade. In each of the past four years, Melendez’s versions have stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired now by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who is running for California insurance commissioner, and previously by de León, who is running for U.S. Senate.
Lawmakers should establish a truly independent entity to investigate workplace harassment claims, and grant whistle blower protection to legislative staffers. Most importantly, more qualified women should run for office, and parties should support them.
The measure would authorize punitive damages for victims, and could make legislators and legislative employees personally liable for retaliation. In extreme cases, perpetrators could be sentenced to jail time. Protections should be extended to lobbyists, whose job it is to seek legislators’ support. Many tell stories of unwanted and persistent advances.
Lawmakers should consider ending secret settlements, and limiting forced arbitration and non-disparagement clauses in employment agreements. Most importantly, more qualified women should run for office, and parties should support them.
There is, as ever, a danger in going too far. One proposal being floated would allow sexual harassment victims to sue without disclosing their identities. Court filings must remain public documents. Especially when tax dollars are involved, the public has a right to know the identities of the accusers and accused.
At a recent Sacramento Press Club luncheon, California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte and California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman said they have zero-tolerance policies. Well, one party tolerated the stained blue dress, and endorsed Bocanegra, and the other party tolerated the Access Hollywood tape.
“I think that Assemblyman Bocanegra needs to look at his own heart and decide what he’s going to do,” Bauman said, short of saying he should quit. Bocanegra already issued a statement referring to the “unfortunate experience” and saying it is “something I regret and learned from.” He was 37 at the time.
Today, his website includes this testimonial: “Raul Bocanegra is the only one I trust to stand up for women” – Nury Martinez, “Mom and City Councilwoman.” She’s on the L.A. City Council. The mailer describes Bocanegra as “Fighting for Equal Pay, Women’s Health, and Workplace Protections,” and heralds endorsements from Planned Parenthood and “Democratic women.”
They all knew about Bocanegra and others, past and present. But like the electorate, they enabled. The question is whether, now, finally, they and we will say, “#Enough.”