Unfolding sex scandal offers lessons about California’s political hypocrisy

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There are few areas of private life that California’s legislators won’t at least attempt to meddle, which makes it that much more infuriating when the Capitol crowd can’t get its own house in order. I’m thinking, of course, about the unfolding sexual-harassment scandal, and lawmakers’ amazing efforts to basically look the other way.

Nothing to see here, just keep moving on. Maybe, by the time lawmakers get back to work in January, the whole mess will be off the news pages. Then they can go back to doing what they do best — regulating and hectoring the rest of us. But, for now, the rest of us can at least learn some stellar lessons about political hypocrisy.

One key lesson is that a lawmaker’s publicly stated positions and posturing have little to do with how they might handle any particular scandal.

The latest evidence of this comes from KPIX-TV in the Bay Area, which reported that Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, “is a vocal supporter of women’s rights, so her silence on the matter of Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra’s sexual harassment case is surprising.” But “this isn’t the first time she’s been silent when it comes to sexual harassment” and that particular San Fernando Valley Assembly member, according to the news report.

Last month, a longtime legislative staffer, Elise Flynn Gyore, told the Sacramento Bee that in 2009 then-staffer Bocanegra followed her like “prey” at a nightclub and unexpectedly “put his hands up my blouse and down my blouse and was grabbing me.” The Assembly Rules investigation found it “more likely than not that Mr. Bocanegra engaged in behavior that night which does not meet the Assembly’s expectations for professionalism.”

Bocanegra was disciplined, but the matter was brushed under the rug. Per the TV station, Bocanegra ran for his seat with the backing of the Democratic Party. He recently apologized but remains the powerful majority whip. KPIX obtained a copy of a letter 11 women sent to the rules committee seeking the file on the sexual-harassment complaint. Skinner was the chairwoman of the committee, and the TV station interviewed one of the letter’s signers “who confirmed, Nancy Skinner never responded to their request.”

This might not be as hypocritical as when, say, former Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat known for his strident gun-control positions, was arrested on corruption and gun-trafficking allegations after an undercover operation in that city’s Chinatown that was worthy of a Hollywood movie. But it’s close.

That leads to another lesson: Any new rules apply to us, not them.

You’ll hear hyperbolic rhetoric on the Assembly and Senate floors warning about the crisis du jour, such as a wave of sexual abuse on college campuses. In 2014, the governor signed a “yes means yes” law that “requires affirmative consent — affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity — throughout the encounter, removing ambiguity for both parties,” according to its authors.

I’m certainly not downplaying campus assaults, but there’s far less of a zeal to do anything about the cascading evidence of deep, cultural problems regarding sexual harassment within the Capitol. Some scandals apparently are more worthy of action than others.

Gyore spoke out following publication of an open letter from 140 influential women — including six sitting lawmakers — complaining that many men in the Capitol “leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like.” Why didn’t they speak out? They didn’t want to make waves given that these men often “hold our professional fates in their hands.” They detailed an ugly culture in a state that “postures itself as a leader in justice and equality.”

Those are stinging allegations, backed up by reports that the Legislature quietly paid out $850,000 in taxpayer-funded harassment settlements over the past couple decades. The California Legislative Women’s Caucus issued a statement noting that “the absence of repercussions is yet another example of the pervasive culture of sexual harassment within California politics.” So much for this being a fuss about isolated examples.

Everyone deserves due process, of course. Yet this year the Legislature passed a bill that, as the Atlantic summarized it, “would have broadened the definitions and rules regarding alleged sexual misconduct for students attending California colleges and universities.” It was an effort to reinstate portions of an Obama-era edict that were gutted by the Trump administration.

Brown’s unusually long veto message explained that some anti-harassment policies may “have also unintentionally resulted in some colleges’ failure to uphold due process for accused students.” Now that the Capitol is awash in accusations, we might expect newfound concern about due process — once the leadership gets around to seriously addressing the unfolding scandal.

Or look for new calls for better “training,” which is how the Senate responded after three of its members faced criminal charges. Sure, finding hypocrisy among lawmakers is as surprising as finding waste in the bureaucracy, but it’s shocking nonetheless.


Image by Adonis Villanueva

 

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