The future looked bright for Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia when she coasted to reelection in 2016. She had gained clout in the Capitol and statewide attention for notching hard-fought victories for environmental advocates and championed women’s rights.
Now, she’s in a fight for her political life, facing a well-funded opposition campaign from typically Democratic allies and damaged relationships with many of her colleagues in Sacramento.
It’s a stark reversal of fortune for a leader of the #MeToo movement in California’s Capitol, who forcefully criticized male colleagues accused of inappropriate behavior, only to face similar accusations of harassment and misconduct herself not long after their resignations.
The completion of a legislative investigation into her conduct enabled her to return from a three-month voluntary leave of absence last week. Still unresolved is the controversy’s impact on her reelection prospects and her influence in Sacramento, particularly after being removed from all legislative committees by the Assembly speaker.
“It is incredibly difficult for her to be an effective representative,” said Jessica Levinson, law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “She can only do floor votes. She has no power in committees, which is where all the power is.”
Garcia went on a 103-day unpaid leave during an investigation into a complaint by Daniel Fierro, a former legislative staffer, who accused her of inappropriately touching him during a legislative softball game four years ago. His allegations were first reported by Politico, which also reported on an accusation from an anonymous lobbyist about Garcia’s behavior at a Sacramento fundraising event. A group of former employees, most of whom did not accuse her publicly, alleged she fostered an inappropriate work environment. One ex-staffer said she once encouraged aides to play “spin the bottle” after a fundraiser.
An Assembly investigation did not substantiate the complaint made by Fierro, who said he plans to appeal. But it did find that Garcia had “commonly and pervasively” used vulgar language, had used staff to run personal errands and had “disparaged other elected officials.”
After the investigation began and in response to news reports, Garcia acknowledged in March that she had made a homophobic comment about former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles). She apologized then for the remark, and also to constituents when announcing earlier in May that the probe into her conduct had concluded.
It’s an open question whether those constituents — who have history of not turning out in big numbers for elections — are even paying attention before she appears on the June 5 primary ballot. Garcia faces six fellow Democrats and a Republican in the heavily Democratic 58th Assembly District, which stretches across southeast Los Angeles County from Montebello to Downey and Pico Rivera. The crowded ballot is a far cry from her last two reelection campaigns, when no one even appeared on the primary ballot to challenge her candidacy.
Over half of registered voters there are Democrats, while about a quarter of voters have no party preference and just 17% are Republican.
It is not the typical setting for a heated campaign, particularly with an incumbent in office. But interest groups have aggressively mounted a campaign to oust Garcia, who has never before faced significant spending against her from outside groups.
The state building trades union — which represents construction workers — has been the primary driver of the opposition. The labor group has spent more than $500,000 since late April on anti-Garcia television ads, mailers and phone banking.
“Cristina Garcia embodies every part of the bully that we teach our children not to be,” said Erin Lehane, a spokeswoman for the union’s campaign. “She was intolerable to so many because of her conduct.”
The trades are not alone in their opposition. A campaign group representing charter school backers spent $300,000 against Garcia and nearly $600,000 in favor of one of the Democratic challengers, Friné Medrano, a staffer for state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).
A spokesman for California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates, a political action committee, pointed to legislation Garcia introduced this year that would ban Teach for America educators from teaching in low-income public schools.
“No one should be surprised by our campaign to unseat Cristina Garcia. She’s been pulling the lever against families who’ve chosen to enroll their students in high-quality charter public schools since she was elected in 2012,” Carlos Marquez, a spokesman for the charter group, said in an email.
The investigation has made Garcia politically vulnerable, giving the interest groups and other candidates a lane to openly attack the three-term incumbent in hopes of unseating her this year.
Leo Briones, a political consultant for Garcia, called the attacks “an affront to the voters in the district” and suggested the assemblywoman’s constituents “know that Cristina is a fighter for them.”
In her reelection bid, Garcia has touted her voting alignment with key Democratic constituencies, such as environmental interests and reproductive rights advocates. Some prominent players, though, have kept her at arm’s length, including the California Labor Federation. When Garcia’s campaign played up her strong voting record on the group’s top issues, the federation pointedly announced it had not endorsed her for reelection.
Garcia does have the official backing of the state Democratic Party, but unlike other candidates with state party endorsements, she is not appearing on mailers and California Democrats have not provided financial help to her campaign. The only expense has been $26,000 to conduct a poll in her district.
Her own fundraising efforts have cratered.
Some candidates are pitching themselves as fresh starts without the drama that has surrounded Garcia for months.
“If it wasn’t for her behavior, I wouldn’t have gotten into the race,” said Republican candidate Mike Simpfenderfer, who is on the board of a nonprofit organization that advocates for survivors of sexual violence. “We are getting all this international attention for all the wrong issues.”
Thanks to California’s top-two primary, it’s not impossible for Garcia’s numerous Democratic challengers to splinter the vote and allow Simpfenderfer to advance to the November election.
“Is Cristina going to perform at 70% or 80% like she had in the past? Probably not,” Briones said. “But we’re very confident she’s done the work in the district. And at the end of the day, she’s being attacked for standing up for her district” by pursuing environmental protections for the area.
Briones said the opposition campaign was not motivated by concerns over Garcia’s behavior, as they have claimed, but on differences over policy — specifically, the aggressive air-quality measures she has sought that have been opposed by oil companies, who employ union members in their refineries. Some of the building trades groups have said Garcia seeks to put their members out of work, but Lehane said overall it was her conduct, not policy positions, that was the motivation.
A group of women affiliated with the trades union, dressed in Rosie the Riveter garb, loudly rallied outside Garcia’s Capitol office on Monday. The assemblywoman was not in the Capitol at the time. On Friday, during the first floor session after her return, protesters briefly stood in the gallery wearing T-shirts that spelled out “R-E-S-I-G-N.”
One Garcia staffer, who wished to remain anonymous, said the demonstrations left the office’s employees feeling intimidated and on edge.
At a tense private meeting Tuesday, Assembly Democrats grappled with Garcia’s imminent return. Several members expressed anger and frustration over Garcia’s behavior, according to attendees who requested anonymity to discuss what had happened behind closed doors.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) earlier this month publicly chastised Garcia for her use of homophobic slurs. After the investigation substantiated her use of vulgar language, Rendon stripped her of all committee assignments, including her chairmanship of the Assembly Natural Resources panel. There is no set timeline for that punishment to be lifted.
Rendon said Friday he believed Garcia should apologize in person to her colleagues.
“She’s embarrassed the caucus,” he said. “She’s offended a lot of our members.”
But he has also forcefully condemned the opposition campaign against Garcia, calling the construction workers union’s effort attacking one of his members an “affront to his speakership.”
If Garcia is reelected, she will have to mend relations with her colleagues, said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist and editor of the nonpartisan election guide California Target Book.
“When you are a member of either house, you are member of a pretty exclusive club, and there are plenty of examples of members of the club who for whatever reason were viewed as having transgressed and were essentially treated as a persona non grata,” he said.
“In those cases, it is very, very tough to get anything done,” he said. “It is tough to achieve your own legislative objectives.”