In her own words: Women of California politics tell their stories of sexual harassment and unwanted touching
It started as a chain of text messages among women complaining about sexism in California’s Capitol, then snowballed into a searing open letter about a culture of sexual harassment in Sacramento, released in mid-October.
The letter was originally signed by 140 women who work in state government and politics, and The Times has been reaching out to them and others to learn more.
Many didn’t want to be interviewed. Others were willing to talk, but not about their personal experiences. Even as the letter sparks a long-awaited public dialogue about sexual harassment, there’s still a pervasive fear about speaking out.
Despite that, some of the women decided to share their stories. Here’s what they had to say.
Jessica Yas Barker
Director of corporate relations for Ovation, an independent television network
Jessica Yas Barker’s stories go as far back as her teenage years, when as a 17-year-old she interned for her first campaign in Los Angeles.
“The person who was running a campaign — the campaign manager at the time — was significantly older and told me that we should go out for my 18th birthday. I assumed that meant a group of people from the office,” she said. “To be fair, I was young and looked up to this person and was flattered by the offer and the attention. In retrospect, I realize it was not appropriate.”
She got to his house and realized there were no other colleagues there. He handed her another woman’s ID — she was still too young to get into bars.
She felt flattered, but unsure of how to handle the situation.
“I did not drink anything. I was really nervous. He had a few drinks, and I think there was a bit of an irritation on his part that I wasn't drinking.”
She was uneasy as he drove them back to his place, unused to being in a car with someone who had been drinking. She said they went inside his apartment, which was “the point at which he screwed up the courage to put the moves on me. He grabbed me by both of my shoulders and tried to kiss me a couple times. I told him I had a boyfriend, which seems to be the typical excuse for women, rather than just saying no.
“When it was clear he didn't want me there unless it turned sexual, I left.”
She kept in touch with him over the years, knowing he would be an important contact as she built her career in politics. She saw him as a mentor.
But one night, she canceled dinner plans with him, explaining she was cash-strapped. He replied that she should have him over instead for ramen in her apartment, she said.
“Even though I thought I had handled the situation over the years fairly well, it kind of all came crashing down on me when I realized he was absolutely done, in his eyes, with playing games with me. He didn't want to be my friend, didn't want to be my mentor. Something short of a sexual relationship wasn't interesting to him.”
Later on, she applied for a job in an elected official’s office. She introduced herself to the chief of staff at an event a week before her interview. He complained their morning appointment got in the way of his gym routine to work on various muscle groups.
“This is before I even interviewed for the position, which just goes to show — I should've walked away from this position before even interviewing for it.
“After getting the job, the next year and a half working for him was a constant barrage of inappropriate comments and self-aggrandizing,” she said. ”This person would constantly talk down to women in the office — whether walking into a conference room where a group of women were sitting and asking, ‘How’s that glass ceiling working out for you?’ to calling me ‘Ellen DeGeneres’ for wearing pants instead of dresses.”
At professional events, with no alcohol present, he would explicitly talk about sex, she said.
“He loved being able to point out women in the room whom he had sex with. He was bragging about women whom he had sex with or the women he perceived to desire him.… He would talk about his sexual exploits.”
Barker said she decided to speak out after hearing stories from other women who have worked in politics in Los Angeles and Sacramento. She said she wanted to add her voice “so people know that they're not alone.”
“We're doing this because we want to change the professional culture that women have to work in in politics. We're not just coming out because it's cathartic. There's a goal here.”
— Melanie Mason
Lobbyist, DiMare, Brown, Hicks & Kessler
“Why don’t you shut your mouth and open your legs because that’s what you do best.”
That’s what Amy Brown said a male lobbyist on the other side of an issue said to her in front of a large group of people at the entrance to the state Senate chamber about a decade ago.
By then, Brown, 45, said she was at a point in her career when she no longer feared that standing up for herself would cost her job, or make clients drop away like flies.
“I peppered him with every derivation of the f-bomb I could think of — loudly — and it certainly made me feel better,” Brown said.
She hadn’t always been so bold.
During her first tour in the state Capitol as a legislative staffer fresh out of college, a former assemblyman more than twice her age had offered to become her mentor. Things went well at first, but then he chose to deliver his career advice over dinner, she said.
“I thought it was odd that we weren’t going to lunch, but I was 24 and hungry to learn some new skills,” Brown said.
The dinner meeting quickly devolved into a series of intimate questions whispered across the table. Then his hand went under the table and rested on her knee, Brown said.
Before long, the late night phone calls began, upsetting her live-in boyfriend. Then the former assemblyman started accosting her in person at events he knew Brown would have to attend. Finally, Brown said, she told her boss what was going on and she filed a complaint.
The former assemblyman retaliated, Brown said, accusing her of slander and threatening to seek a restraining order against her.
Even though her boss and colleagues believed her — the former assemblyman had a reputation — Brown said she was thoroughly humiliated.
“I immediately got the hell out of town, physically moved away,” Brown said. “I felt like the people — the person — I was relying on for advancement in my career was preying on me.”
She took a job as an auditor for the city of San Jose, sitting in a cubicle running numbers all day.
“I didn’t wear certain clothes, I started making jokes. Nobody wants to hit on a clown,” Brown said. “I learned to create an image of myself that didn’t attract the wrong kind of attention.”
Five years later, bored by cubicle life, Brown said she mustered the courage to head back to Sacramento. The culture there hadn’t changed.
“I still had legislators say, ‘You want my vote? You know how to get it,’” Brown said, but her approach had.
— Jack Dolan
Executive director of the California Republican Party
The Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal changed how Cynthia Bryant feels about misconduct around the Capitol.
“Six months ago, I would have said, ‘It’s just the way things are, you just have to deal with it,’” she said. “Today I wouldn’t say it. I would fight for the person. I would stand up for them. I would tell them to report it. My thinking has completely changed.”
In her own career, one series of encounters stands out.
“I had a lobbyist kiss me on the head every time he saw me for an entire year in my last government job at the Department of Finance,” she said.
She said it left her feeling awful.
“It’s disgusting. It feels kind of gross. You roll your eyes and cringe inside and then you laugh it off and say, that’s OK. And it’s not OK. It’s an unwanted physical touching, and it’s a harassment.”
Bryant said voters should be aware of the problem.
“If the people in the Capitol are going to use their power over women, voters need to know that. Voters give politicians power.”
Los Angeles-based political consultant
Politics is about access and relationships, which is why some women are reluctant to speak up about harassment, said Lindsay Bubar, a Los Angeles political consultant who focuses on electing women and progressive candidates..
Bubar has taken meetings that she thought were professional get-togethers, only to discover the other person had different intentions.
“If you call out that type of behavior, all of a sudden, you’re faced with a circumstance where you’re hurting the relationship with someone that you need to have a relationship with, someone you need to have access to,” Bubar said.
Getting more women elected is critical to changing behavior, she said.
“When you have more women in [elected] office, you shift the balance of power. No longer is it men who are sexually harassing or assaulting women and women feeling like they can’t speak out for fear of losing their careers or losing their seat at the table.
“Now, it’s the women who have the power in that dynamic. To me, that’s so critically important.”
— Dakota Smith
As a first-term lawmaker, Assemblywoman Laura Friedman said she hasn’t experienced sexual harassment in the Capitol.
“But I know women that have,” she said. “People I know who are serious people, people who haven’t come forward publicly, but have had some pretty nasty experiences. That ranges from people actually being groped, to sometimes men who are in power think something is being consensual when the other person feels pressure, or there will be retribution, or opportunities won’t be open to them.
“Even if it is, quote-unquote consensual, if you’re the boss of somebody, you should not be putting your people in a position when there's even a chance of that.”
Men need to be aware of that power dynamic, she said.
“A lot of these men, if you ask them, they would say, this is absolutely consensual, without realizing there is a power hierarchy that is absolutely unequal, and they should not participate in that.”
Lobbyist, Roxanne Gould Government Relations
The state assemblyman, a member of the banking committee, was sitting in an auditorium before a speech. Roxanne Gould had organized the event on behalf of her client, Bank of America. She saw the assemblyman, who is no longer in office, and sat down beside him to ask if there was anything she could do for him before his presentation.
“The only thing you can do for me is give me a good f—,” she said he told her.
Other legislators have hit on her over the years, Gould said, but that one stood out.
“He was an ultra-conservative family man,” and the coarseness caught her off guard.
More typical examples of unwanted attention are the legislator who Gould said ran his foot up and down her leg under a table, or another who kept texting her messages such as, “Am I too fat? Too skinny? Are you too pretty? Am I not good enough?”
“That’s not as egregious,” Gould said, “but these are people in power making it far too difficult to do your job.”
Elise Flynn Gyore
Chief of Staff to Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside)
Elise Flynn Gyore was at a well-attended after-work event at a Capitol bar in 2009, waiting for her then-boss to arrive.
“I noticed that this person was kind of creeping on the perimeter of conversation.… He looked familiar, but I didn’t know who he was.”
At one point, she made her way through a group of people who were dancing.
“And all of a sudden, there he was. And he put his hands up and kind of down my blouse very aggressively. And scared the crap out of me — oh my God. I jumped out of my skin.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry. No. I’m married.’ And he said, ‘That’s OK, I am too.’ He didn’t miss a beat, just said it — and I have no idea if he is or not, I’ve never even asked. So I said, ‘Well, I don’t know about your marriage, but I know about mine, and I’m not OK with that, sorry.’ And just kind of quickly got away from the situation.
“What really kind of unsettled me and what really led me to complain was the fact that afterward, he was there. He menaced me that evening. Every time I turned around, there he was. I would go to the bathroom — if I came out, there he was. If I went and talked to a group of friends, there he was.”
When her then-boss, Democratic state Sen. Ron Calderon finally arrived, she clung to him, she said.
“At one point I said to him, ‘Senator, I need to let you know something happened to me’ … I said, ‘That guy over there’ — and I pointed right at him — ‘He’s not OK. He is not acting OK towards me. And I’m not feeling good about being around him.’
“But it continued throughout the night — if I left his side for even a second, he would show up. Or if I was over getting water or something, he’d be over at the end of the bar just staring at me,” Gyore said. “He felt OK putting his hands on me, but he also clearly sees me pointing him out, standing next to a member, and he doesn’t seem particularly intimidated by that. And that’s what really scared me.”
She ultimately found a friend she could leave the bar with.
“I called my husband on the way home and I just burst into tears. I was just like,‘I can’t believe this just happened.’”
Government affairs manager for the western U.S. for Visa and organizer of the We Said Enough campaign
In a way, Adama Iwu was lucky. She started in Sacramento when she was in her late 20s — “a little bit older, maybe a little bit wiser” than when women typically begin their careers in the Capitol, potentially saving her from the most predatory behavior.
Still, “I’ve absolutely had my share” of brushes with sexism, she said. She recalled one boss, apparently well-meaning, congratulating her as she settled into a new job.
“‘We're so thrilled with you, Adama,’” she recalled him telling her. “‘We knew you had great relationships, but we never expected you'd be able to grasp the subject matter the way you have.’
“I just looked at him thinking, ‘You thought I was just a pretty face.’ Those kinds of things really do wear on women. Those aren’t the things that they would say to a man.”
“Men feel they have the right to grab you, tell really lewd stories in front of you,” Iwu said. “You have to act like one of the boys. You absolutely — in order to be trusted and be part of the crowd — you have to act like one of the boys. So you laugh off lewd jokes, you laugh off sexual innuendos, you make excuses for men.
“I also haven't had some of the horrific experiences that other women have. I always felt like I was relatively protected. I always think I can more or less take care of myself. And I always have had men who will protect me to an extent.”
When an acquaintance made an inappropriate advance on her in front of a group of people, it was hardly the most egregious thing she had experienced, she said. But something snapped.
“The fact that at the same time we have a president who says things like, ‘This is what I can do to women,’ and then we have the [Harvey] Weinstein conversation — for this to happen in front of men that I work with and love, that are good friends … I don’t know why, but I was furious after it happened,” she said. “I was furious it happened in front of people I like and respect and trust. The person who came up and was drunk and obnoxious was someone I like and respect and trust.”
What began as a text message venting over the incident spiraled into an open letter with more than 140 women publicly signing on — more than 100 others joined later. She and her friends set up a website to collect other women’s stories.
“I’m seeing stories on the website from women who have no recourse. They left politics,” Iwu said. “They are clearly in fragile mental states.
“I'm not and I can talk about this. And I will talk about this.”
Legislative staffer for the state Senate
As a young intern in Sacramento, Sadalia King was working at a news conference in the state Capitol building. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the room was crowded.
Despite the professional setting, a man walked up to and propositioned her, she said, using an “extremely vulgar” remark. She didn’t know who he was, but he was wearing a suit and looked like he belonged at the Capitol, King said.
She’s never seen him since but hasn’t forgotten the jarring experience.
“I’ve never felt more alone and more small than at that moment,” King said.
Today, she hears “horrible stories” from her Sacramento colleagues about harassment, she said.
“You toughen yourself up. It’s about resilience and perseverance.”
Political consultant and managing director, The Pivot Group
Natalie LeBlanc has been harassed and discriminated against by men “probably her whole career,” she said.
There was a time a man thrust his hand down her pants at a political fundraiser. Another time, she was attending an event at a hotel when a consultant pushed her up against an elevator wall and propositioned her, she said.
She also remembers the time she pitched a client at an office meeting.
“He spent the first half of the meeting not listening to what I was saying and staring down my dress.” LeBlanc said. “At the end of the meeting, he ran his hand down my leg.
“I have been called a staffer or an intern by male members of the Legislature, by lobbyists, by consultants,” LeBlanc adds. “I have been working for 20 years, I’m almost 40. To be called or assumed to be an intern is really discouraging.”
In politics, there’s “such a disproportionate amount of power consolidated with men. It just makes the opposite sex vulnerable.”
Communications director at California Independent Petroleum Assn.
For people working in California politics, it quickly becomes clear that the job’s requirements extend beyond the typical workday.
“You have your office job in the Capitol, and there’s times that your job takes you outside the Capitol, and outside the usual 9 to 5 work hours,” said Sabrina Lockhart, communications director for the California Independent Petroleum Assn. “Sometimes those situations can skew people’s behavior, and that can invite some problems.”
There can be long hours inside the Capitol, as well.
“You’re there really late at night working on things. There was a time when there was a lock and you needed a code to go into the rest room [on the thirrd floor of the Capitol],” Lockhart said. “I was told when I first started working in the Capitol that it was for women’s safety. It freaked me out when I heard that. Then I felt grateful that if I was working late and needed to use the rest room, I didn’t need to worry about someone not there to use the rest room being there.”
The lack of job security can make it hard to report problems, she said.
“The Legislature has at-will employment. They make it very clear that you can be let go at any time and for any reason.”
Not many people are willing to risk their livelihood when facing harassment, Lockhart added.
“It’s a career based on networking — not just what you know but who you know. Speaking up could make it more difficult, if not impossible, to advance your own career.”
Board of Equalization member
Fiona Ma, a former Democratic assemblywoman from San Francisco, said there’s not an adequate system for reporting problems in the Capitol.
“Who do you call? There is no sort of hotline, oversight body. I don’t even know who you would report to.”
She hopes the number of women speaking out changes that.
“I think with this letter, it will give a greater sense of security to those who have been harassed to come forward and report, as opposed to feeling threatened or intimidated or fear of losing their jobs.”
Campaign finance and elections attorney in Los Angeles and chair of the board of Emerge California, which trains Democratic women to run for office
Amber Maltbie was having a networking dinner five years ago with a legislator’s chief of staff when he excused himself from the table. As he returned, “he swooped in behind me and went in to kiss me,” she said.
The chief of staff, who is now an assemblyman, then tried to coax Maltbie to come up to his hotel room.
“He said, ‘I love my wife, but she’s not enough.’
“It was disappointing, because I thought, ‘I’m meeting with someone, professional to professional. It was almost as if he was taking advantage of my ambition and using it as a prelude to get me to come to this dinner,” Maltbie said.
Women are trained to be polite, she said.
“I was thinking, ‘How do I get out of this graciously without embarrassing him because I need this relationship down the road?’”
Operational director, California Democratic Party
Tina McKinnor was the chief of staff for Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey) when she saw some of the harassment that exists in state politics.
“We had a very powerful elected official walk up behind my member and rub her shoulders at a dinner,” she said. “And when I say rub your shoulders, you would have thought he was her husband.”
The situation was uncomfortable.
“I didn’t know what to say to this guy. I turned around and looked at him. I gave him the ‘older black woman’ stare. I didn’t take my eyes off of him. I made him so uncomfortable that he stopped.”
No one said anything, she said.
“It made us angry. But surprisingly not angry enough to speak up. It was an accepted behavior, which it shouldn’t have been. What we did is, we just avoided the person.… As a staffer, it hurts that’s the staffing that you had to do.”
Executive director, California Women Lead
Years ago, Rachel Michelin worked in Southern California as a district director for a state lawmaker, and lobbyists would sometimes make her uncomfortable.
“I was in my late 20s, maybe, my mid-20s,” she said. “He called me up, said, ’I want to talk to you about an issue that’s facing the district.’ I said sure. The next thing I know, we’re at this really expensive restaurant in Orange County. And he’s saying, ’We should go out, I have tickets to an Angels game. I have a box.’”
The conversation didn’t involve public policy, she said.
“And I thought, we’re not talking about the legislative issues. It was a really uncomfortable thing. I was so unprepared. I didn’t know how to handle it.
Michelin said finding someone to tell was difficult.
“There was no one to talk to within the Legislature, especially as a young woman. I wasn’t going to be comfortable talking to my boss. Not like he would do anything wrong, but I didn’t just feel comfortable.… In retrospect, I just dealt with it.”
Director of California advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council
Annie Notthoff decided to sign the open letter to help change the atmosphere in the Capitol.
“I wanted to speak up to create a safe space for all women and also for men to speak up in defense of having a level playing field to work in a professional environment where everyone feels safe.”
As a veteran of Capitol politics, she sometimes finds herself giving advice to younger women, she said.
“Don’t put yourself in a situation where you could feel uncomfortable. Always make sure you’re conducting official business in official locations. Things like that.”
It’s not a problem unique to the Capitol, she noted.
“I don’t think there’s any women who work in politics or business or the public sector who haven’t experienced some unwanted pressure.”
But problems extend beyond the Legislature.
“I don’t think everything should just be focused on the elected officials in the Legislature,” she said. “The apparatus of government decision-making extends far beyond the Capitol. All the boards and commissions, appointed positions, staff — lots of people have very significant decision-making authority.… Power and access and influence are brought to bear at all of those levels. It’s not something that’s just unique to the elected officials.”
Lobbyist for TrattenPrice Consulting
Jena Price was starting her career as a lobbyist about five years ago when she asked to meet with a lawmaker about a particular issue. He suggested chatting over a beer.
“I spent the first 10 or 15 minutes trying to discuss this policy,” she said. “It became fairly apparent that he had no desire to talk with me about this legislation or any legislation whatsoever. He continued to bring it back around to my personal life, which I found to be pretty invasive.”
It was so uncomfortable, Price said, she texted a friend to help rescue her from the situation.
“It became very apparent to me, there and afterwards, if I wasn’t going to play into his advances, I wasn’t going to be able to really communicate with him at all,” she said. “I think that’s a fear for a lot of women. I did not leave immediately because of that fear of losing access. And as a lobbyist, my job is entirely about access.”
Pursuing a lobbying career can involve fending off problems like the one she experienced, Price said.
“Every woman who becomes a lobbyist wants to be a strong, domineering presence, and very effective. And around every single turn, you can find a male lobbyist, a male staffer or a legislator who wants to find a way to take advantage of that.”
Price, now a partner at a lobbying firm, said it’s lawmakers like that who can make the Capitol a difficult place for women to work.
“The majority of these members are good, thoughtful people who want to make things better for the people in California,” she said. “The handful of members who don’t make it really, really bad.”
As a young Senate staffer, Traci Stevens met with an influential lobbyist, thinking that he could help her career. But he had a different idea of how the night would end and refused to let her out of his apartment building, she said.
She’d parked in his garage, so was effectively trapped.
“I’m not a shrinking violet,” Stevens recalled. “I got in his face and threatened him.”
She worked in the state Senate and for three governors — Pete Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown. During that time, she’s seen the power imbalance between men and women in Sacramento. She wants more transparency in the way that sexual harassment cases are dealt with by human resources officers in each house — who are overseen by legislative leaders — including protection of individuals, rather than protection of the “institution’s reputation.”
“Settlements need to be made public. If a case has been resolved and someone has been found guilty, I believed that human resources should make that public,” she said.
Amy Thoma Tan
Director of public affairs at Kaiser Permanente
Amy Thoma Tan was working her first campaign. Most of the time, she was the only woman in the office.
“I was 22, straight out of college,” she said. “For a lot of the time, I was the only girl and the youngest person in the office.
“Some of our senior staff and funders were guys who would make comments like ‘yeah, I'll approve your press release if you take your shirt off' or they'd make jokes about my body.”
Once, when she saw a colleague’s computer screen, she saw two men were exchanging instant messages about her body.
“When I quit and moved to Sacramento, one of the guys said, ‘Your work was good, but what I'll miss the most is your tight butt.’
“I don't think I even knew at the time that that wasn't OK. If I had known that, I’m not sure who I would've gone to because it's a problem all the way up.
“When you don't have any years of work to back up your actions, it's really scary,” she said. “If something happened now, I have 15 years of work and relationships to back me up. At that time, I was so desperate to prove myself. It was just terrifying. Or you just think, this is the way the world works, and that's what I have to endure to work in the world.”
In her very first lobbying gig in Washington, D.C., Paula Treat was assigned to work an issue in the House Banking Committee.
“The chief of staff of the banking committee told me, ‘I do my work on the mattress or the golf course. What’s it going to be?’” she said. “‘Well, I’ll work on my golf game,’ I told him.”
A lobbyist for more than 40 years, Treat said she was used to men coming onto her.
Things didn't change when she moved to Sacramento.
In the early 1980s, she went out to dinner with a legislator who chaired a powerful committee.
“I was going to get in my car,” she said. “He reached over and started kissing me. I said, ‘No. This isn't my idea of what kind of relationship we should have.’
“He said, ‘Well, fine then. If you don't sleep with me, I'm going to kill all your bills.’ I got in the car and locked the door.
“And then he killed a whole bunch of my bills. He made my life pretty miserable for about a year.”
She moved to Nevada for three years, focusing instead on lobbying there. When she returned, she simply avoided him.
After he retired, he sought an executive branch appointment, which must be approved by the Senate.
“I went to the Senate Rules [committee] and said, ‘If you put his name up, I’ll bring 200 women in the building who will tell you how awful he was.’”
His nomination was withdrawn.
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