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Assemblyman's supporters flee in droves after judge issues domestic violence restraining order

Assemblyman's supporters flee in droves after judge issues domestic violence restraining order
In this 2013 photo, Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina) listens as Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) urges lawmakers to reject a bill Hernandez was carrying at the Capitol in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

It was never going to be easy for state Assemblyman Roger Hernandez to unseat fellow Democrat and nine-term Congresswoman Grace Napolitano.

But after a judge issued a domestic violence restraining order against him in response to charges from his wife that he severely beat her over the course of their marriage, including one incident in which she said the San Gabriel Valley lawmaker threatened her with a knife, Hernandez's task now seems close to impossible.

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Hernandez has seen a dramatic erosion of political power and support in the week since Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Shelley Kaufman approved Baldwin Park City Councilwoman Susan Rubio's request for the restraining order. Their divorce also was finalized.

Within hours, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) had stripped Hernandez of his Assembly committee assignments, including his chairmanship of the Committee on Labor and Employment.

A few days later, Rendon sent Hernandez a letter rescinding an earlier endorsement of his colleague's congressional bid, according to Rendon campaign manager Bill Wong.

At least five more members of the Legislature also have dropped their endorsements, including Assemblyman Luis Alejo of Salinas, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla of Concord, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, Assemblyman Reggie Jones Sawyer of Los Angeles and state Sen. Isadore Hall of Compton, who is running for Congress himself.

Prominent Democratic power brokers in the state rallied behind Napolitano, calling for Hernandez to resign from office and drop out of the race.

Shawnda Westly, a former executive director of the California Democratic Party who remains a senior strategist with the party, tweeted that Hernandez should resign, and shared a link to the donation page for Napolitano's campaign.

"This isn't only about an election," Westly told The Times in a statement Thursday. "It is also about the message we are sending to our daughters and sons. And that is why he needs to resign."

Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor in 2018, tweeted his own endorsement, saying "without a question" Napolitano was the best choice in the contest.

Others in Sacramento have started an ad hoc lobbying effort to peel support away from Hernandez ahead of the November runoff. The assemblyman, who announced his campaign in December, barely edged out a Republican candidate to mount the long-shot challenge.

Dana Williamson, a public affairs consultant who worked in Gov. Jerry Brown's administration from 2011 until earlier this year, said she is working with a group of political operatives who are pressing politicians and organizations to withdraw previous support for Hernandez.

"Roger Hernandez has shown a tremendous lack of integrity and these accusations are serious," she said in an interview. "I think it is time for him to step down."

In April, when Rubio first came forward with the allegations of domestic abuse, leaders of the California Legislative Women's Caucus  said he should step down from his post as chair of the labor committee.

She said in the court declaration seeking a restraining order that Hernandez had hit and choked her repeatedly since they were married in 2013.

A political mailer attacking state Assemblyman Roger Hernández was paid for by Rep. Grace Napolitano's campaign.
A political mailer attacking state Assemblyman Roger Hernández was paid for by Rep. Grace Napolitano's campaign.

As the hearings continued and Rubio provided more graphic testimony, the calls for Hernandez to resign became louder.

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State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) withdrew his endorsement in a May letter to Hernandez two days after Rubio testified in court that he had assaulted her more than 20 times, including once when he choked her with a belt.

Rubio's allegations came two months before Hernandez was set to face Napolitano and first-time Republican candidate Gordon E. Fisher in the June primary for the 32nd Congressional District seat.

Napolitano finished with 51% of the vote in the primary, while Hernandez came from behind to eke out a second-place finish after initially falling behind Fisher.

Hernandez denied beating Rubio in a court declaration and testified she had fabricated many of her accusations to hurt him politically.

In her ruling, Kaufman said she did not find his testimony "credible" compared with Rubio's detailed accounts of specific incidents of abuse.

The order requires Hernandez to stay at least 100 yards away from his ex-wife, her workplace and her home until July 1, 2019. He must stay at least 15 feet away from her at public events.

Dayana Partida, Hernandez's deputy district director, told The Times the lawmaker is out of the country and that he declined to comment about the effect the restraining order will have on his campaign. He also would not comment on being stripped of his committee assignments. He has just a few months left before he leaves the Assembly because of term limits.

Rubio's allegations, as well as previous accusations of domestic violence made against Hernandez, were used in attack mailers by Napolitano's campaign during the primary and are sure to resurface before November.

Luis Alvarado, a Los Angeles County-based GOP political consultant, said he plans to rally Republican voters in the area to vote for Napolitano in November.

"It is not about helping Grace," he said. "It is about keeping him out of office."

For her part, Rubio says the entire ordeal can help other women.

"Only positive things can come from me speaking out. Besides inspiring people to come out of the shadows, there's a conversation already happening on a much larger scale in terms of society not accepting domestic violence as a norm and holding people accountable, no matter who they are," she told The Times in an email. "In addition, politicians that say they support victims of domestic violence will be held to a much higher standard."

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