Capitol Journal: California’s Capitol always has been a sexual playground with bullies from both parties. Now, empowered women could change things

Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) has written a bill to enshrine whistle-blower protections into law for those legislative staff members who come forward with allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Face it, a few men are pigs. Creeps. They’re the sexual harassers.

We’ve known about them all our lives, even if most of us have diverted our eyes.

They’re every place where men hold power over women. They especially infect the movie industry and politics.

I don’t know about Hollywood. But I’ve been closely watching Sacramento for half a century. It’s my observation — OK, a guess, because no one keeps statistics — that sexual harassment at the state Capitol is about the same now as it was decades ago. Sexual bullies of both parties have always plagued politics.

They’re feeling more empowered. There are more of them. They rank higher generally on the career ladder and aren’t as intimidated. And they have unlimited access to social media. It’s no longer just whispers over coffee. It’s telling mass audiences.

“I think it’s on a par with what it’s been in the past,” says Delaine Eastin, who was an assemblywoman from 1986 to 1994 and state superintendent of public instruction after that. Currently the Democrat is running an uphill race for governor.

Legislative “members were less hit upon than staffers and lobbyists,” she says. “But almost every woman I know has a story.”

In her case, “a guy indicated he wanted to have an affair,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m happily married.’ And he said, ‘So am I.’ I was amazed.”

After she became state schools chief, Eastin continues, “I hired a staffer away from the speaker’s office. She said, ‘Thank you for taking me out of that toxic environment.’” The staffer too had been asked to have an affair. “She said, ‘I’m happily married.’ He said, ‘That has nothing to do with anything.’”

I called Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), one of the first Navy women to fly aboard spy planes. Asked about pigs in the Legislature, she said, “There are always a handful.”

“It’s been going on for a long, long time,” she says of sexual harassment. “We’d be hard pressed to find any industry or organization that doesn’t have it at some level. You mix people who have great power over others’ lives, and unfortunately it happens sometimes. I feel sorry for women who feel if they say something, they’ll be blackballed or fired.”

Aside from one male lawmaker who occasionally “says inappropriate things,” Melendez continues, she hasn’t been hit upon. “I’m pretty good about giving off the vibe, ‘Don’t screw with me. Don’t even bother.’”

Melendez keeps introducing bills to protect legislative whistle-blowers who report improper or unethical activity. Four times her bills have passed the Assembly unanimously but then been buried in the graveyard Senate Appropriations Committee. “No one has ever said there’s any problem with the bill,” she says.

The problem is political: Democrats are not going to allow a Republican to get credit for shepherding such a PR-rich measure into law.

State government provides its employees with whistle-blower protection, but the Legislature has excluded itself from the law.

The Legislature does investigate employee complaints — like a fox guarding the henhouse, some women complain — and sometimes slaps the culprit’s wrist. It also occasionally pays out big settlements to sexual abuse victims and tries to hush it up.

But covering up sexual harassment is getting tougher. It would have been unthinkable 20 years ago that more than 140 women — legislators, staffers, lobbyists and political consultants of both parties — would sign an open letter denouncing the “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment that contaminates the Capitol. That happened recently.

“Each of us has endured or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces,” the letter read.

“Why didn’t we speak up? Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes out of shame. Often these men hold our professional fates in their hands. They are bosses, gatekeepers and contacts.”

More precisely, they are weirdos with psychological demons.

The Capitol always has been a sexual playground, but most commonly for garden-variety adultery.

Nearly 40 years ago, the late Times reporter Jerry Gilliam and I looked deeply into the personal lives of legislators. We interviewed 40 — one-third of the Legislature — plus several female staffers. We offered anonymity and got candid admissions.

Here are some examples from the May 7, 1979, story:

A married senator: “In politics, it generally is the wife who was very active in your campaign — walked precincts, ran the office, licked stamps and cried for you, died for you and lied for you. Then when you get here the casting off process begins. And that’s obscene.”

Another married senator: “After you get a big bill out, you don’t just shut your desk, walk off the [chamber] floor and go home and have a tuna casserole. One of the first things you want to do is to get laid. All thoughts of wife and family go right out the window.”

A male lawmaker: “If somebody comes up here wearing a shroud of hypocrisy, he soon drops the shroud. Someone who used to sneak around cheating on his wife can do it openly here because no one says anything about it. It’s fine.”

But it isn’t fine when it sinks into demented abuse. There must be consequences. Wrist-slapping won’t do. A good slug on the nose and humiliating words would be a start. Then public exposure, the thing politicians fear most. You’d think.

Sadly, Americans elected a president last year who was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s crotches.


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