Lawsuit against California Democratic Party details alleged harassment by former chair Eric Bauman
Three current and former employees filed a lawsuit this week against the California Democratic Party and its former chairman, Eric Bauman, alleging discrimination and a culture of harassment and sexual misconduct that was “well-known and apparently tolerated” by top officials.
The complaint, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges a workplace where drinking during the workday and inappropriate comments went largely unchallenged, and claims that some party leaders retaliated against those who reported allegations of harassment. The plaintiffs are seeking payment for lost wages in addition to punitive damages.
The lawsuit comes amid continued upheaval in the state party after the resignation of Bauman, who stepped down following claims of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior toward party staff members and activists, and said he planned to seek treatment for health issues and alcohol use. It details allegations against Bauman first reported by The Times in November, and includes new accusations of harassment against him and others.
Through his attorney, Neal S. Zaslavsky, Bauman declined to comment.
“Mr. Bauman has not been served with any lawsuit and has no further comment at this time,” Zaslavsky said.
As of Thursday afternoon, the party also had not been served with the lawsuit, according to spokesman Roger Salazar, who declined to comment on the allegation, citing pending litigation.
“The California Democratic Party is strongly supportive of our staff,” Salazar said.
“There’s no question we all must do more to eliminate harassment in the workplace. Everyone deserves a safe and positive work environment,” acting party chair Alexandra “Alex” Gallardo-Rooker said in a statement. “Our officers and senior staff are committed to creating a better culture for our staff. As I’ve said before, we must do better and we will.”
The three staff members who filed the suit were hired in the weeks leading up to the November midterm elections: Kate Earley, 21, who has worked as the party’s digital director since September, and Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, 31, and Alton Wang, 24, who were hired that month to help run a voter outreach effort.
Wang was let go in December; Earley and Rodriguez-Kennedy are still employed by the party. The lawsuit claims Wang was terminated in retaliation for his complaints of harassment.
Salazar said Wang was hired on a “temporary basis” and that his contract with the party ended after the November election.
In the complaint, Rodriguez-Kennedy alleges Bauman asked him about his boyfriend during preliminary discussions about a job opening and speculated about their sex life.
Bauman also engaged in unwanted touching, the lawsuit alleges, including massaging Rodriguez-Kennedy’s back and neck in front of others and placing his arm around Wang’s waist.
In statements provided by their attorney, Esperanza Cervantes Anderson, the plaintiffs said they felt they had to speak up.
“This behavior is not new. Harassment and abuse of power were tolerated in our Party for such a long time because so many were complicit,” Wang said.
Rodriguez-Kennedy, who is president of the California Young Democrats, said, “I do not know how I can champion these causes if I do not oppose sexual harassment directed at me and other young members in my own Party.”
Other allegations detailed in the complaint stem from a campaign bus tour that rallied support for California Democratic candidates in the days before the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
The lawsuit alleges that the state party paid for additional insurance coverage to allow alcohol consumption on the bus and that Earley observed Bauman drinking heavily as early as 9:30 on a Thursday morning.
In one incident, which was earlier described in The Times report, Bauman is alleged to have asked Earley and another female staffer, Grace Leekley, in front of other staffers whether the two were having an affair.
The lawsuit also alleges that Dan Weitzman, the party’s controller, made comments about Leekley’s physical appearance to Earley.
In an interview with The Times, Weitzman said he did not recall making comments to Earley about Leekley’s appearance.
“If I did say that, I deeply apologize,” he said.
Weitzman also said he didn’t recall Bauman’s alleged comments to the two women during the lunch or on the bus.
During the bus ride, Weitzman said, he mostly sat up front talking on his phone and working.
“I remember getting off the bus that night and saying, ‘Oh, that was pretty mellow,’ ” he added.
Earley, who said she was the only woman on the bus at one point on the tour, said the atmosphere “felt like a men’s club.” According to the lawsuit, Earley felt unsafe, so she texted her supervisor John Vigna, a former party spokesman, and Tina McKinnor, who was operations director at the time.
After Vigna reported the matter to the party’s human resources department, the lawsuit says, Vigna and McKinnor “appeared remorseful” and McKinnor told Earley that “women should not have been on that bus.”
“Their conduct demonstrates a disturbing pattern of senior staff being powerless or unwilling to stop inappropriate behavior,” the lawsuit alleges.
McKinnor and Vigna left the party in a clearing-out of top staff by Gallardo-Rooker last month. Party delegates are expected to elect a new chair at their May convention in San Francisco.
Vigna and McKinnor declined to comment through their attorney, Micha Liberty.
“My clients have their own legal claims that they’re going to pursue and any comment at this juncture would be premature,” Liberty said.
After hearing of the complaints, Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and chair of the party’s women’s caucus, “disinvited” Bauman’s bus tour from a San Francisco rally for Democratic candidates that featured her mother, the lawsuit says.
The complaint says McKinnor encouraged Earley and Leekley to talk to Christine Pelosi, who then spoke with other party leaders and unnamed representatives of then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign for governor. The lawsuit does not detail the discussions.
Newsom called for Bauman to step down as party chairman one day after The Times reported that 10 party staff members and political activists said the chairman made crude sexual comments and engaged in unwanted touching or physical intimidation.
“The campaign took the allegations seriously. As soon as the campaign got the facts, Newsom became the first state official to call for Bauman’s resignation,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman and political advisor for Newsom.
Pelosi confirmed in an interview that she communicated to party officials that the bus tour should not stop in San Francisco, and said the San Francisco Democratic Party hosted the Nov. 2 rally instead. She said she spoke to Earley and Leekley in an attempt to “navigate an informal solution.”
“I wanted them to be heard,” Pelosi said. “I wanted Eric to get help.”
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