When Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa entered the governor’s race, it was widely assumed that their past extramarital affairs were behind them. The details about their relationships when they served as mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, had been aired more than a decade ago, both men had settled down and established families and voters seemed uninterested in politicians’ peccadilloes.
Then, the #MeToo movement happened. Multiple detailed accounts of sexual misconduct emerged in Hollywood, the media and statehouses across the nation.
Neither candidate has been accused of harassment. But heightened scrutiny of powerful men’s behavior has led to a new focus on Newsom and Villaraigosa’s relationships while in office, and questions about whether the affairs will affect their chances of being elected California’s next governor.
Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a confidante of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said it depends on whether voters believe Newsom and Villaraigosa have learned from experience and changed.
“In both Antonio and Gavin’s case, to a certain extent, I think most people believe they were settled and in the past,” she said. “The American people are smart as hell and they’re amazingly forgiving. They believe people deserve a second chance but they’re going to watch people in both cases: ‘Is this true?’
“We’re talking about one-offs, but when it starts to look like it’s a pattern, that’s not a mistake,” she added. “It’s wrong and it’s behavior.”
Christine Pelosi, the chair of the California Democratic Party's Women's Caucus, said anyone running for governor of California should expect intense scrutiny of their sexual indiscretions.
“Of course they’re going to have to have a personal reckoning of how they treat people,” said Pelosi, the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “All those things go to character.”
In recent days, Newsom was publicly questioned about his 2005 relationship with his then-appointments secretary and the wife of a top aide, Ruby Rippey Gibney. Rippey Gibney put out her first significant statement about their relationship Wednesday, and the GOP candidates in the governor’s race hammered both Newsom and Villaraigosa over their past indiscretions.
Legislative records released just over a week ago also revealed that Republican gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen, an assemblyman from Huntington Beach, was among the state lawmakers accused of sexual harassment in recent years. Allen called the allegation, which included making a woman uncomfortable by being “unnecessarily close,” totally unfounded. But he’s still come under attack by rivals in the race.
It’s a different conversation from the fall, when some assumed that the affairs would be a footnote in the campaign. And it comes as Americans are rethinking past scandals, including President Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“Even within the feminist movement, people are starting to rethink this. Is consent — can you have consent when there's such a power differential, right?” said Kirsten Powers, who worked in the Clinton administration, in a November interview with NPR. “… At the time, yeah, I did think that [Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky] was a consensual relationship and that, you know, he certainly shouldn't be held accountable for it. [But] now I do believe that he should have resigned.”
Both Newsom and Villaraigosa have repeatedly apologized for their transgressions. And they have handled their affairs and their responses to the #MeToo movement differently in their gubernatorial bids.
Villaraigosa kicked off his campaign by having his two oldest daughters indirectly address the most recent affair in an introductory video. Both Prisila Villar and her sister, Marisela, are Villaraigosa’s daughters from a relationship prior to his marriage to his first wife Corina.
“He’s made mistakes and he’s admitted them,” Prisila Villar says in the video.
“I think one of the biggest lessons that my dad had to go through for himself was … forgiving himself,” Marisela Villar said. “As a result he’s shown us what humility looks like.”
Newsom has answered questions about his affair with Rippey Gibney, including during a Monday forum sponsored by Politico and the University of San Francisco.
"I acknowledged it. I apologized for it. I learned an enormous amount from it,'' Newsom said at the event. "We were very open and honest about it."
When asked if there was anything else in his past that might derail his bid for governor, Newsom responded, "Absolutely not."
Both candidates' indiscretions were widely publicized when they emerged months apart in 2007. Newsom acknowledged a relationship with Rippey Gibney as he was going through a divorce.
Villaraigosa and his and wife Corina separated after two decades of marriage, and the then-mayor of Los Angeles revealed that the cause of the split was his relationship with Telemundo reporter Mirthala Salinas, who covered City Hall. It was his second acknowledged extramarital affair; the first occurred in 1994 as Corina recovered from thyroid cancer and led her to file for divorce the day after he first won his Assembly seat. Two years later, they agreed to reconcile.
Newsom and Villaraigosa alienated some longtime supporters because of their affairs, but their political careers survived. Villaraigosa is recently remarried, and Newsom has four young children with his second wife.
Newsom has been outspoken about his support for the #MeToo movement. At campaign events and debates over the last two months, he has railed against "toxic masculinity," blaming it for the flurry of sexual harassment allegations disclosed in Sacramento, Washington and Hollywood.
Villaraigosa has said it is important to ensure women who work outside politics and entertainment are not excluded from the discussion about workplace harassment.
“It's critical we also work to expand the conversation to include women who work in all — in hotels, in restaurants, in our fields and in our factories,” he said in a statement to the Times on Friday. “For many of these women, this isn't just about personal respect, it's about their ability to put food on the table and make ends meet.”
Democratic political consultant Rose Kapolczynski, former Sen. Barbara Boxer’s top campaign strategist, said she expected both men’s extramarital relationships to remain a campaign issue, but added that it was a good idea to directly address them.
“It’s smart for candidates who have a transgression in their past to try to shape the way voters see it and preempt the power of a negative attack,” Kapolczynski said.
But attempts at deflection annoy other Democratic women.
"I've been sitting on the sidelines watching candidates and consultants use the #MeToo movement for political and professional gains throughout the state and I think this race is a prime example,” said Shawnda Westly, a former senior strategist for the California Democratic Party. “In the governor's race, #MeToo is being used in an attempt to advance political careers and that degrades the movement at large — and I for one am not buying it."
Newsom’s relationship is being more heavily scrutinized because the woman he had an affair with worked for him.
Villaraigosa has pointed to that workplace relationship to argue his affair was different than Newsom’s.
“I made a lot of mistakes, but Gavin Newsom has made them too with his best friend´s wife, and she was actually working for him,” Villaraigosa told La Opinion in November, in response to a question about his affair.
Rippey Gibney specifically pushed back against such assertions in her Facebook post Wednesday and an interview with The Times on Friday.
“All I can answer to is my own behavior. I made a choice. It was a reckless choice — not a coerced choice,” she said when asked if she believed Newsom acted inappropriately. “As important and brave as it is for women to come forward with their stories as it relates to #MeToo, it’s equally important for women to speak up when it doesn’t apply and not conflate the issue.”
But some questioned whether it is ever possible to have a consensual relationship in the workplace when one employee has power over another, especially between a political leader and a subordinate. Others in the office may feel pressure to keep the affair secret to avoid damaging their own careers, or demoralized that a person romantically involved with the boss is getting special treatment in the workplace, Pelosi said.
“You’re never going to compete with pillow talk,” she said.