Dan Morain

Sen. Tony Mendoza has no shame, but he does have plenty of campaign cash

Sen. Tony Mendoza did not get indicted, unlike some of his predecessors.

But he did resign on Thursday, sparing the Senate the spectacle of having to vote on whether to expel him, and himself the disgrace of being kicked out of office, something that had not occurred in the California Senate since 1905.

 
Opinion

Earlier, Senate investigators delivered a confidential 47-page report detailing Mendoza’s proclivities to senators. A sanitized four-page public version says he acted inappropriately by, for example, plying an under-age staffer with alcohol and trying to lure other young women staffers to his hotel room or home.

Facing such embarrassing details, most politicians might conclude their days in public life are over. Most men would slink away in shame. That’s not Mendoza’s style.

The Artesia Democrat, a married father of four, issued a defiant resignation letter in which he denounced Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León. De León until last year shared a Sacramento house with Mendoza, but has become his main accuser as he seeks to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In his self-serving letter, Mendoza claimed he couldn’t get a fair hearing in the Senate, offered a non-apology apology to “any person who felt uncomfortable by my interactions with any of them,” and concluded, ominously, by saying he he is considering running again for the Senate seat he had just quit.

Here’s the worst part: He could win.

“It is a gross error in this business to conclude that someone with perceived vulnerabilities can’t win. Look at the President. I would not count him out,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist and publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes legislative races and districts.

Alas, voters in Senate District 32 aren’t particularly engaged. The Target Book broke down the numbers: In 2014, the year Mendoza won his Senate seat, turnout was a mere 15.3 percent, 66,000 voters in a district that includes roughly a million people.

In 2018, no fewer than four Democrats, plus Mendoza, have indicated a desire to run for the senate seat. Mendoza would benefit from a crowded field. He also has by far the most campaign money, $656,000, and a name the people who bother to vote would recognize.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one in the district. There are more no-party preference voters than Republicans. Still, the GOP took a run at knocking off Mendoza in 2014.

The California Teachers Association propped up his candidacy by spending $102,000 to muddy up his opponent, and the California Labor Federation spent another $102,000. They got what they wanted, a reliable vote.

The tragedy is, the 32nd Senate District has problems, and needs a serious legislator.

Mendoza could have used the honor of being a member of the California Legislature to crusade for the economically dispossessed people in the rough towns of Downey, Bellflower, Lakewood, Norwalk, and Pico Rivera, and to fight for better schools so the kids he represented might have a path upward.

Instead, he spent his days pushing inconsequential bills and once attempted to climb out a window to avoid having to cast a tough budget vote. He spent his off-hours trying to pick up young women while sucking up campaign money from payday lenders and casinos. Fellow legislators and lobbyists enabled him.

Card rooms, apartment owners, insurance companies, liquor distributors, labor organizations and pest control operators gave $87,000 over the years to his legal defense fund. He had needed it. In 2016, the Fair Political Practices Commission fined him $63,000 for violating campaign finance law, hardly chump change.

There is something about the 32nd Senate district. Mendoza replaced Ron Calderon, who was pried out of office after he pled guilty to trading his vote for trips to Las Vegas, jobs for his adult son and daughter and cash, for which he was sentenced to 42 months in prison in October 2016.

“Ron Calderon is a breed of his own. Tony was no hero either,” Joe Montoya, another former senator from that area, told me by phone. He didn’t want to be compared to the Calderon clan, and definitely not to Mendoza.

Fine, but Montoya did do five hard years in the 1990s on racketeering and money laundering charges, having been caught up in an FBI corruption investigation in the 1980s.

As it happens, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat who represents part of the 32nd Senate District, is on leave pending an investigation into allegations that she harassed staffers, including inviting them to play spin the bottle. Seriously.

Mendoza is not a man with many options. He probably can’t return to the job he had before becoming a legislator, a teacher at Brooklyn Avenue Elementary School in East L.A., and it’d be a bad look for the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the union that helped launch his mediocre legislative career, to hire him.

So he might as well run. And he could come back, looking for interns.

It has been an honor to write for The Sacramento Bee for the past eight years, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know you, dear readers. I am moving on, though staying in journalism in California. Please keep reading. So long and thank you.

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