Politicians courting endorsements from influential activists and party groups are used to being grilled on their policy positions or voting records. But in the #MeToo era, they’re facing blunt questions on potential sexual harassment skeletons in the closet.
The sexual misconduct scandals that have gripped the state Capitol — leading two legislators to resign and another to take a leave of absence pending an investigation into his behavior — are now rippling through endorsement season, the biannual routine where candidates rack up seals of approval from the state’s most committed political foot soldiers.
Politicians are being asked in explicit terms to divulge any history of sexual harassment. In Sacramento, a formal survey on the matter sent by activists has forced one lawmaker, Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), to relitigate an allegation from 2005.
Tamie Dramer, a Sacramento-based community organizer, said she thought up the questionnaire after considering the string of controversies at the Capitol and wondering if there were more allegations about elected officials to come.
“What’s going to happen if we accidentally endorse somebody who there are [sexual harassment] reports about that we just aren’t aware of yet?” she said.
Dramer and a group of fellow local delegates to the California Democratic Party sent a letter to the Sacramento region’s congressional and legislative representatives and contenders asking if they or their employees had been investigated, arrested, prosecuted or had been the subject of verified claims regarding sexual harassment. It asks if the respondents or their employees had been involved in paid settlements regarding sexual harassment cases. It also asks for the politician’s stance on a long-stymied bill to extend whistleblower protections to legislative staff.
All nine responses came back the same: no history of sexual misconduct in their past. Cooper was among them, and had a slightly different approach. “To my knowledge I have never been investigated or convicted of sexual assault or sexual harassment,” he wrote, a response that raised eyebrows.
Two local news outlets have reported that Cooper had been the subject of a 2005 sexual harassment investigation while working in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. The Sacramento News and Review, citing anonymous sources, reported in 2009 that Cooper grabbed his crotch while telling a female co-worker she needed some “jungle love” before her upcoming wedding. The paper reported that someone who overheard the comment, which was made in the office, filed an anonymous complaint to the department’s internal affairs division. The employee in question was not identified in the report.
In a 2010 article in the Sacramento Bee about the “jungle love” comments, Cooper, who is black, said he shouldn’t have made what he called an “off-color joke.” He denied it was sexual harassment. At the time, Cooper was mounting an unsuccessful bid for Sacramento County sheriff. The Bee reported that the staffer said through an attorney that she supported Cooper and felt the issue was overblown. Cooper left the department in 2014, after winning his first Assembly race. He has served in the Legislature ever since.
Mike Ziegler, a spokesman for Cooper, said the 2005 investigation was spurred by an anonymous complaint, was not for sexual harassment and that Cooper was never disciplined.
“He was being honest in answering that questionnaire,” Ziegler said.
Sgt. Shaun Hampton, a spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriffs Department, said he could not immediately comment on the 2005 investigation but noted that the department generally does not publicly speak about personnel matters due to legal constraints.
Cooper is not the only legislator under scrutiny. Activists in the Los Angeles area want to make it harder for state Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) to get the Democratic Party’s endorsement. Mendoza is on a leave of absence for the month of January while he faces an investigation into allegations he improperly behaved around young staffers.
Both legislators face a key test Saturday, when local parties meet to consider preliminary endorsements. Incumbents typically have an expedited path to endorsement at the state convention, but delegates who make the local-level decisions can force elected officials to go through more hoops to secure the party’s blessing.
Eric Bauman, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said questions about sexual harassment, bullying or intimidation are reasonable ones to pose to anyone running for office.
“If somebody is not honest in their answer, that creates something that voters and party activists … get to use in their evaluation of that candidate,” Bauman said. “The question is how do we avoid people being unfairly convicted without any ability to defend themselves? Honestly, I don't know the answer to this.”
Shanna Ingalsbee, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, said her group’s endorsement committee asks hard-hitting questions of candidates, but harassment hadn’t typically come up in the past. Not so anymore, she said, noting they’re wrapping up interviews of contenders for statewide office.
“Is there anything in your past that could come up and surprise us? Any skeletons in your closet? Are we going to regret this down the line? Those things are being asked,” Ingalsbee said.
“It's one of those things you shouldn't have to ask,” Ingalsbee said. “You would assume that if they had been perpetuating that behavior, then they wouldn't run for public office. The idea they could do it and get away with it is what's adding to the problem and why it's gone on for so long.”
The queries could be coming to local politicians as well. Michelle Pariset, one of the delegates behind the Sacramento-area questionnaire, said she’s working to ask all levels of government officials — from county supervisors and mayors to school board and water board members — about their history when it comes to sexual harassment.
The state Republican Party has a much less centralized endorsement process, with most of the action occurring at the local party level. GOP Chairman Jim Brulte said he was unaware of any sexual harassment queries being posed to candidates at the local level. But he noted that probing questions into a politician’s past are nothing new.
Fifteen years ago, as Senate Republican leader, Brulte compiled a five-page questionnaire which helped candidates scour every inch of their private lives, business record and criminal histories. The second question on the list: Have you ever been sued for sexual harassment?
The question feels particularly urgent in this current climate, especially for Democratic activists who see many politicians in their party claiming to champion women’s rights.