SACRAMENTO, Calif.– A Los Angeles-area assemblywoman has voluntarily taken leave of her seat Friday after facing allegations of sexual harassment, an unusual twist of the gender dynamics shaping the misconduct controversies engulfing California's state Capitol.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat, denied allegations that she made inappropriate advances on two men: a then-legislative staffer and a lobbyist. In a statement, she said she would take an unpaid leave of absence from the Legislature while she faces an investigation into her conduct.
"As I've said before, any claims about sexual harassment must be taken seriously, and I believe elected officials should be held to a higher standard of accountability," Garcia said Friday.
The 40-year-old lawmaker now finds herself in a stark reversal of roles, from vanguard of California's political #MeToo movement who shared her own tales of being groped while in elected office to one of very few women to be publicly accused of sexual harassment. She was so prominent last fall that she appeared in a Time magazine photo collage portraying the "silence breakers" as part of its Person of the Year issue.
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Only one other woman in American politics is believed to have found herself in that position in the current climate: Andrea Ramsey, a Democratic congressional candidate in Kansas, who denied wrongdoing but dropped out of her race after allegations of misconduct from her past re-emerged.
Sacramento was jolted by the allegations against Garcia, which were first published Thursday by Politico. The publication reported that Daniel Fierro, a former legislative staffer for Democratic Assemblyman Ian Calderon, alleged Garcia stroked his back and buttocks, and reached for his groin at a legislative softball game in 2014.
Fierro told Calderon about the incident several weeks ago, and the assemblyman then reported it to the Assembly Rules Committee, which initiated an investigation.
"Every allegation must be taken seriously and once I became aware of Danny's story, I felt I had an obligation to report it," Calderon said in a statement.
Fierro told the Los Angeles Times he was initially wary of speaking out publicly because of the unusual nature of his complaint.
"I worried before (the story published) it would be treated or received differently because of the gender dynamics involved," Fierro said. "There is clearly a culture that affects both men and women in the Capitol that needs to be improved on and made stronger so the Capitol can do the good work that it has to do."
Politico also reported on an unnamed lobbyist who said Garcia, who is unmarried, propositioned him and attempted to grab his crotch at a fundraising event in 2017. The lobbyist told the publication he did not report the incident formally.
The fallout continued Friday, with Garcia's decision to step aside causing vacancies in several key roles. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon tapped Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat, to fill in as acting chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. Female legislators conferred on calls about how to fill Garcia's post as chair of the Legislative Women's Caucus but did not designate a new leader.
The harassment allegations threaten to derail Garcia's burgeoning profile in state politics. A former math teacher, Garcia became a prominent community activist in southeast Los Angeles County by railing against exorbitant salaries paid to city officials in Bell.
She was elected in 2012 to her district, which neighbors Bell and includes Cerritos, Montebello and Artesia. In her upstart campaign, she bested fellow Democrat Tom Calderon, a former assemblyman, in the primary. The man she defeated is the uncle of the legislator who reported the Fierro allegation. The two Calderons are not on speaking terms.
Garcia has continued the rabble-rousing in the Legislature, with a reputation for blunt talk and defying Sacramento's staid conventions. (For a time, she dyed her black curls purple.)
Championing a pet cause of providing free menstrual products to students in low-income schools, she spoke openly about her period on the Assembly floor and toted a self-fashioned "Tampon Barbie." She later brandished the doll at a signing ceremony with California Gov. Jerry Brown.
In recent years, Garcia has aligned herself with environmental justice advocates who seek to clean up pollution in local communities. She authored legislation to pay for toxic cleanup around the shuttered Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon. She battled with oil companies and union laborers over a high-profile 2016 measure to closely link air quality improvements to the state's cap-and-trade program to combat climate change. The legislation failed, but Garcia pushed Brown to include air quality measures in the final proposal to extend cap and trade's life.
"Her entire elected career – and previous to that as an activist – has been the tip of the spear, charging forward to give voice to the underserved and voiceless," said Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, a Democrat and a Garcia ally. "When you play that role, you make yourself a target."
In a Capitol that has tended to close ranks in times of controversy, Garcia has adopted a more vocal posture. In 2016, she called on then-Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, a Democrat, to step aside after a judge issued a temporary restraining order against him amid domestic violence allegations.
She was quick to call for the immediate resignation of then-Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, a Democrat, in November, after The Times reported that multiple women accused him of unwanted advances. And she was outspoken about the allegations that Democratic state Sen. Tony Mendoza behaved improperly with female staffers, declaring she would not work with him and criticizing him for working while on leave during an investigation into his conduct.
Now, Garcia is being investigated by an outside law firm. Outside investigators also have been hired to look into accusations against her male colleagues.
The sexual harassment controversies gripping the Capitol have disproportionately ensnared men. Democratic Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, like Bocanegra, resigned after allegations of misconduct, which both men deny. State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat, has publicly apologized after being accused of giving hugs that made women feel uncomfortable.
The Legislature last week released details of around a decade's worth of substantiated sexual harassment claims. Of the 18 cases documented, two involved women. One involved a staff member who was terminated after sending sexually explicit emails and discussing the sexual activity of herself and others. The second involved Democratic Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, who acknowledged engaging in a conversation about anal sex with her staff but said the complaint had been filed by a disgruntled ex-employee.
The Garcia investigation was not included in last week's records disclosure, which only included completed and substantiated cases.
Abigail Saguy, a professor of sociology and gender at the University of California, Los Angeles, said reports of women harassing men have been rare in part because the power dynamic, often a driver of harassing behavior, favors men in the workplace. She also said culturally, women are seen as a "subordinated gender."
"There's quite a bit of social expectation that women wouldn't be sexual harassers," said Saguy, author of "What is Sexual Harassment?"
She said the Garcia allegations fit the mold because she has "considerable power" while her accusers do not.
Including Garcia, there are 10 ongoing sexual harassment investigations into Assembly members and staff. There are six open investigations in the Senate.
Eggman said she encourages the investigation into Garcia to move forward, but she defended her colleague, saying the accusations "are not consistent with what I know of her."
Samantha Corbin, executive director of We Said Enough, a nonprofit group formed to address misconduct in the Capitol, noted how hard it is for members of the Capitol community to unflinchingly investigate their peers. She renewed her group's push for an independent entity to conduct such probes.
"I cannot see how legislators could be objective in investigating or making a determination to censure or expel any one of their own colleagues or staff," Corbin said. "It's unfair we would ask them to try. It's also unfair to victims, to the accused – and to voters who have elevated these officials into office."