The Riggs Report: The Capitol’s harassment hangover

Lawmakers return to a charged atmosphere

With 2018 comes the final year of Jerry Brown’s governorship, which is historic in the sense that he will have served longer than any other California governor. And as lawmakers return to the Capitol, they face pressing problems, including the lack of affordable housing, fallout from the federal tax bill signed by President Trump and whether to pursue universal health care.

But right now, lawmakers are faced with the explosive issue of what to do with sexual harassment claims; an issue that has taken on even more volatility in an election year. What is normally a celebratory mood was subdued on Wednesday.

In the Assembly, Democrats have already lost their supermajority status. Two Southern California members, Matt Dababneh and Raul Bocanegra, have resigned their seats in the face of harassment allegations while denying any wrongdoing.

In the Senate, Tony Mendoza is also facing allegations of harassing a young female staffer enrolled in a Sacramento State Fellows program and punishing those who knew; charges he also has denied. He was asked last month by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon to take a leave of absence pending an outside investigation. His departure would also end the Democrats’ supermajority in the Senate.

Mendoza agreed late Wednesday to take a one-month leave of absence. But that came after he pushed back noisily, releasing a letter complaining that he had been denied due process in addressing the allegations, and after he requested an audit this week of how the Legislature handles sexual harassment claims.

Mendoza’s defiance of his own leadership creates an enormous headache for his fellow Democrats, who face pressure to do something about him, or face the perception that they are simply protecting one of their own. That’s why the first order of business for Democrats on Wednesday was to schedule a closed-door caucus meeting to consider options. Cue the fireworks.

Mendoza knew he was facing suspension by his colleagues if he hadn’t agreed to take a leave. Now, consider recent history.

The Senate, for the first time ever in its history, voted in 2014 to suspend three Democrats who had run afoul of the law. Rod Wright had been convicted in a voter fraud case involving use of a false address as his residence of record. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee both faced corruption charges in separate and unrelated federal criminal cases.

Those suspensions created another problem, since all three disgraced politicians continued to collect their state salary. It was a tough situation, handled well by then-Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. He then placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot, allowing pay to be withheld for suspended members. Voters approved the measure in June 2016.

With that background, Democrats had the means to suspend Mendoza and strip him of his pay, pending an investigation. By agreeing to a leave of absence, Mendoza avoids that consequence and is allowed to keep his pay and benefits. Critics will complain, but that’s how the law works.

Due process will come in time. But in politics, the court of public opinion won’t wait.

In the meantime, it’s an uncertain and unsettled time for lobbyists and lawmakers, who wonder what names and charges will surface next, and who will be the next to go.