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Capitol misconduct accusations gather momentum

On the ground floor of the rotunda in the state Capitol in Sacramento. (Photo: trekandshoot, via Shutterstock)

The seemingly endless series of sexual harassment accusations swirling through the Capitol carries implications beyond the fates of individual lawmakers. The political fallout from all of it might endanger the Democrats’ supermajority and reverse the Legislature’s recent surge in approval among California voters.

The latest lawmaker to face allegations is Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a former Assembly speaker. Three current and former legislators told the Sacramento Bee that the lawmaker, long known as “Hugs” Hertzberg because he often hugged colleagues and others when meeting them, touched them inappropriately. He apologized for his conduct and did not deny the allegations.

Nearly 150 women at the Capitol came forward in October to allege pervasive harassment in state government, precipitating the turmoil that promises to continue into the new year.

Last week, Democratic Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, announced his resignation following public accusations of sexual transgressions that included masturbating in front of a female lobbyist.

The surprise announcement – he earlier denied the allegations – came quickly, and reflected the depth and impact of the sexual harassment issue in the Capitol.

Dababneh will leave the Legislature on Jan. 1, dropping the number of Democratic Assembly members from 54 to 53 and ending, at least temporarily, their two-thirds majority. It could be restored with election of a Democratic replacement in a special election in Dababneh’s San Fernando Valley district, where a Democrat would be favored.

On the other side of the Capitol, a resignation from accused Sen. Tony Mondoza would end the Democrats’ fragile two-thirds majority.  Mendoza has denied wrongdoing.

Thus far, the Legislature has enjoyed favorable ratings from the public.

Nearly 150 women at the Capitol came forward in October to allege pervasive harassment in state government, precipitating the turmoil that promises to continue into the new year.

Will the recent spate of lurid accusations and subsequent resignations indeed send the Legislatures’ approval rating into decline?

“How could it not?” Assembly Rules Committee chairman Ken Cooley told Capitol Weekly in a telephone interview.

Thus far, the Legislature has enjoyed favorable ratings from the public.

An April poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Affairs said that a majority of Californians – 54 percent – believe that the state is generally moving in the right direction.

“I don’t want to have a situation where parents are telling their kids ‘How could you even think about going to work in such a place?’ ” — Ken Cooley

“Voters also offer their most positive assessment of the state legislature in nearly thirty years,” the IGS added. “The current poll finds a 57% majority approving of  the job the legislature is doing, up from 50% last September.  Prior polls conducted since 1988 have consistently shown voter approval of the Legislature at less than 50%.”

Cooley, himself a 40-year-plus Capitol veteran, said he will ensure that bills sponsored by women lobbyists do not suffer retaliation solely on grounds that the women stepped forward.

“I feel deeply that our staff members need to feel safe as they go about their work,” Cooley said. “We need to attract the brightest young people, and I don’t want to have a situation where parents are telling their kids ‘How could you even think about going to work in such a place?’ ”

“This is not how I would choose to spend my Christmas,” he said.

“At events or fundraisers, he would eye up women in the room and talk about his conquests — who he’d slept with, who wanted to sleep with him.” —  Jessica Yas Barker.

Although the situation could be complicated by unforeseen events, a drop in voter approval of the Legislature could mean:

1. More difficult re-election challenges for incumbents, prompted by a new guilt-by-association increase in voter distain for lawmakers.

2. Even more trouble than the usual for any ballot measure with a perceived connection to Sacramento – and opponents will, more than ever, seek to establish such a connection.

3. An increase in voter cynicism, resulting in a decrease in voter turnout, which, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, would benefit Republicans.

4. Even more than they have in the past, campaign spots will accuse opponents of being part of the vile nest of sexual predators that is the Capitol.

In a letter to Cooley, lobbyist Pamela Lopez wrote that the unmarried Dababneh blocked her exit from a restroom at a Las Vegas hotel during a January 2016 party and masturbated in front of her.

“It was a terrifying experience,” Lopez wrote.

Lopez repeated the accusation at a Sacramento news conference at the offices of her firm, K Street Consulting. She was joined by Jessica Yas Barker, who worked with Dababneh when he was chief of staff to Rep. Brad Sherman. Dababneh, a Democrat, was Sherman’s district director before being elected to the Assembly in a 2013 special election in his San Fernando Valley district.

“At events or fundraisers, he would eye up women in the room and talk about his conquests — who he’d slept with, who wanted to sleep with him,” Barker told reporters. “At the office, he would open his top desk drawer to reveal a storage of condoms. And once he was certain that I had gotten a view of it, he would make a joke or smirk about it and make comments.”

“Too often, my female colleagues are outnumbered at bill signings, committee hearings or discussions about the big issues facing Californians.” — Matt Dababneh

A few days before announcing his resignation, Dalabaneh, 36, issued a heated denial, saying “I affirmatively deny that this event ever happened – at any time. I am saddened by this lobbyist’s effort to create this falsehood and make these inflammatory statements, apparently for her own self-promotion and without regard to the reputation of others. I look forward to clearing my name.” He continues to deny the accusations.

Ironically, Dababneh had issued an Oct. 12 statement declaring his support for politically involved women:

“Today, I was honored to stand next to my colleagues from the Legislative Women’s Caucus as we watched the Governor sign a package of bills that protects and advances the rights of women, children and working families throughout our state.

“While on stage, I realized that the Governor and I were the only two men in attendance to celebrate this moment alongside all these accomplished women that fought hard for these legislative victories. Too often, my female colleagues are outnumbered at bill signings, committee hearings or discussions about the big issues facing Californians. I hope this serves as inspiration and motivation to everyone – on behalf of our moms, sisters, daughters, grandmas and all the women in our life – to fight so women have more opportunities to have a seat at the table and their voices heard.”

Dababneh’s 45th District includes Bell Canyon, Calabasas, Canoga Park, Chatsworth, Encino, Hidden Hills, Northridge, Reseda, Sherman Oaks, Tarzana, West Hills, Winnetka, and Woodland Hills.

His political history is that of a mainstream Democrat. A fourth-generation native of the San Fernando Valley, Dababneh graduated from UCLA with a degree in political science and history, then worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign. For eight years, he served as the district chief of staff to Sherman. He is a three-term Assembly member.

 

 

 


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