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This California congressman is avoiding a #MeToo backlash so far. Here’s why

This California congressman is avoiding a #MeToo backlash so far. Here’s why
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Los Angeles) asks a question during a town hall with students in Panorama City. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Asked recently whether she would push Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California to resign over allegations in a lawsuit that he molested a teenager in 2007, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi threw up her hands and walked away.

That seems to sum up Washington's collective response so far to the latest #MeToo sexual misconduct crisis involving a member of Congress.

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Half a dozen U.S. representatives and senators have already been driven from office over such claims. But Capitol Hill appears to be reacting differently to Cárdenas, a Democrat from the San Fernando Valley who flatly denies the allegations as the invention of a disgruntled former staff member.

Compared with the attention afforded previous scandals, politicians and much of the press have been more measured since Cárdenas confirmed this month that he was the unidentified politician being sued in Los Angeles for allegedly groping a 16-year-old girl more than a decade ago.

There were no swift calls for Cárdenas' resignation like those that beset former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). Also missing is the swarm of reporters who dogged Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) after claims emerged that he harassed a campaign staff member.

Cárdenas is not facing the same pressure from party leaders to step down that confronted former Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) when news broke that taxpayers had footed the $84,000 bill to settle a harassment claim against him.

Lawmakers say there are several reasons why the reaction to the Cárdenas allegations has been different.

For one, he has called the claims a complete fabrication and portrayed himself as the victim of the former staff member, who Cárdenas says manipulated his daughter to file the suit.

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) pointed to reporting by The Times that former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon believes the same man approached him in 2016, offering to expose disparaging information about Cárdenas in exchange for a job with Alarcon, who was challenging Cárdenas for the congressional seat. The man mentioned nothing about sexual misconduct at that time, Alarcon said.

"That's the major mitigating factor that I see that distinguishes this case from the others," said Correa, who served with Cárdenas in the California Assembly.

No public evidence has emerged to support the lawsuit's claims, and The Times has been unable to corroborate any of the allegations. It appears the two families were once close and later had a falling-out. Repeated attempts to interview the young woman, who is not identified in the suit, and her father have been unsuccessful.

On Thursday, a Los Angeles judge decided there is enough evidence to allow the case to proceed and formally identify Cárdenas as the John Doe named in the suit, even though Cárdenas has acknowledged it's him.

Cárdenas has resumed most of his regular work, albeit with a lower profile and the help of a crisis PR management firm. When he arrives for a House vote these days, Cárdenas is usually flanked by several imposing staffers, and he keeps a phone pressed to his ear, waving off any journalist who might try to approach. He's largely stayed off social media since the allegations broke and has limited public appearances.

Perhaps most surprising of all, Cárdenas has managed to avoid making any direct, public statement, something virtually unheard of in such cases.

Through his attorney Cárdenas has asked his colleagues and constituents to "withhold judgment until there has been a full vetting of the facts." And so far not a single lawmaker, even on the GOP side, has called for his resignation, though his primary challengers and some local politicians have.

"This one is not believable to me," said San Diego Rep. Juan Vargas, a Democrat. "I've known Tony for so long, I would not believe it, I could not believe it."

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Another factor for some lawmakers is that no other woman has come forward with similar accusations that would suggest a pattern of behavior, as occurred in incidents that brought down other members of Congress.

Vargas said he's waiting to see what information becomes public through the lawsuit. "Let's see some sworn affidavits, let's see somebody swearing under oath, under [the threat of] perjury that this is true," Vargas said.

Democratic leaders seem comfortable with Cárdenas holding his low-ranking leadership positions while the lawsuit moves forward.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer told reporters last week that "if he were in a leadership position ... where he is in a place of speaking for the party, then I think that would be a different situation. He is not in such a role."

The question of Cárdenas' future barely came up at this week's Democratic Caucus media briefing.

Two days after Cárdenas released his statement, Pelosi called for a House ethics probe. But it's unclear whether that will take place because it doesn't appear that the House Ethics Committee has the authority to investigate. The House Ethics Manual limits the committee to reviewing only the behavior of a sitting member of Congress, and only in the last three terms unless there is evidence the earlier behavior is related to a more recent allegation. The allegations levied against Cárdenas stem from a 2007 incident when he was a Los Angeles City Council member.

The committee has superseded those limits before to investigate a representative's behavior, but it's done so rarely. No ethics investigation into the allegations against Cárdenas has been formally announced.

"Let's see what the Ethics Committee has to say about it," Pelosi said during the news conference Wednesday. "I do believe that there is discretion for them to do this, so let them decide and we'll go from there."

A spokesman for Pelosi said that she threw up her hands and walked away recently when asked about Cárdenas because she was late for a House vote.

Cárdenas spent days explaining his side to leadership and colleagues before the allegations were made public. Colleagues say that is also part of why they aren't calling for his resignation. He's even kept his position leading Bold PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' super PAC aimed at electing Latino candidates across the country.

Cárdenas has refused to speak with The Times since the lawsuit was filed. He now refers questions to Los Angeles-based public relations firm the Rose Group, which handled recent sexual harassment allegations against Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, who has since resigned.

California-based crisis management expert Larry Kamer said some of the reaction might also be attributable to public "fatigue" following a string of high-profile scandals involving powerful men. But he warned the head-down approach may not work forever.

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"If you are an elected official, the court of public opinion is everything," Kamer said. "You have to work hard to frame your case, if it is truly different."

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

UPDATES:

May 18, 9:45 a.m.: This story was updated with the judge's decision Thursday.

9:43 a.m.: This story was updated with a judge's decision that Cárdenas can be named in the case.

2:55 p.m.: This story was updated with a comment from a Pelosi spokesman.

This story was originally published at 5:30 a.m.

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