Why new sexual misconduct policy is a culture shift for California Legislature
This should be every legislator’s response if former Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas comes knocking on their door in his new role as a lobbyist. Ridley-Thomas is a former Los Angeles legislator who resigned suddenly in 2017 for “health reasons.” As it turns out, he was also facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment.
According to a story by the Bee’s Sophia Bollag: “A month after the state Assembly told him he had likely violated its sexual misconduct policy, former Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas moved to return to the Capitol by registering as a lobbyist. Paperwork filed on the state’s online lobbying database last week shows Ridley-Thomas, a Democrat who represented Los Angeles, registered as a lobbyist with his firm Millennial Advisors.”
Ridley-Thomas’ alleged behavior included pressing himself up against an employee and attempting to stick his tongue down her throat. He told one employee he had “always been obsessed” with her. The Assembly conducted an investigation, interviewed 15 people and substantiated the claims. Ridley-Thomas failed to appeal the findings despite being provided with a chance to do so.
By then, he was long gone from the legislature. While nothing excuses the alleged behavior, he at least had the common sense to resign and disappear. Or so it seemed. Now he’s claiming, through a lawyer, that he’s innocent. Even more disturbing: He thinks he can waltz right back into the Capitol and influence decision-making by his former colleagues.
Never mind the fact that he failed to finish his term for “health reasons.” He’s back in Sacramento and ready to transact – apparently betting that resignation, disgrace and substantiated claims of sexual harassment are no barrier to lobbying success for a former legislator.
We hope he’s wrong. The past two years have exposed the California Democratic Party’s serious problem with sexual harassment. The party’s chairman, Eric Bauman, was forced to resign in the wake of multiple accusations. His downfall followed scandals involving several legislators, three of whom resigned in the face of serious harassment allegations.
At the time, it wasn’t obvious that Ridley-Thomas’ departure had anything to do with the #MeToo movement. Perhaps he thought he could go away for a while and return under a different guise. But he should have made a new plan once the Assembly’s investigation substantiated the claims against him.
After all, the legislature passed over a dozen pieces of legislation in the wake of the #MeToo movement. They signaled that, in California, lawmakers were dedicated to addressing the issue of what the women of Sacramento’s #WeSaidEnough movement called “dehumanizing behavior by men” in California politics.
The new bills mandated expanded harassment training, prohibited secret settlements and non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases and gave workers more time to file employment discrimination claims. But Ridley-Thomas’ revival as a lobbyist underscores the fact that more needs to be done.
As the Bee reported: “Former lawmakers have to wait one year from the time they leave the Legislature before becoming lobbyists. But no rules prevent lawmakers found in violation of the Legislature’s misconduct policies from registering as lobbyists after that year ends.”
Adama Iwu, a leader of the #WeSaidEnough movement in Sacramento, highlighted the need for legislators to make sure lobbyists are also held accountable for sexual harassment.
”Why is an ex-legislator with substantiated claims against him being allowed to register as a lobbyist?” she asked on Twitter.
Iwu said lobbyists can evade accountability for harassment because they don’t work for the state. She expressed concern for women who may report harassment, only to see their abuser return to the Capitol in a new role.
“I can only imagine that it must be a very terrifying thing to realize — that now they’re going to have to deal with this again,” she said.
The legislature must act to hold lobbyists and other non-state employees accountable for such destructive behavior. Legislators can start by making sure Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ return to Sacramento is greeted with cold shoulders and closed doors.