How the #MeToo movement changed the California Democratic convention

Delegates gather at the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego.
Delegates gather at the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

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There were the usual speeches, endorsement votes and late-night parties over the weekend when about 5,000 state Democrats gathered for their party’s convention in San Diego.

But there were also difficult conversations about a troubling issue that’s rocked the state capitol. Few could escape talk of the recent flood of sexual harassment allegations, some directed against state lawmakers. 

Convention officials took steps to increase security to ensure delegates could attend the event safely. John Vigna, communications director for the state party, said this year there were more security personnel plus a new hotline for anyone to report problems.

"You need to have somewhere to call that is safe, and anonymous, confidential and where there will be a response," Vigna said.

The convention changes reflect a further awakening for a party that’s been hurt by a wave of departures following reports of inappropriate behavior by politicians. Among them is Los Angeles area state Sen. Tony Mendoza, who has been accused of harassing multiple women.

Although he stepped down last week, he’s challenging the Senate investigation into the allegations against him, calling it is unfair and suggesting racism may have played a part. He also is running for his old seat.

One young convention delegate, Zenaida Huerta, lives in Mendoza’s 32nd Senate district. She was among a group of delegates who organized an effort against Mendoza to ensure he didn't earn the party's endorsement. Although he made a short plea, he received only 10 votes of support while 35 voted for no district endorsement.

Huerta said she heard many conversations about sexual harassment at the convention, and she’s happy to see the issue emerge from the shadows.

“One of the youngest people who accused Senator Mendoza was 19 years old. And I’m also 19 years old ... I’m trying to get involved in politics, I’m looking for an internship, I’m getting involved in the California Democratic Party, and I’m in this environment,” she said. 

For Huerta, the issue really matters. She said she doesn’t want a future where these problems become hers.

In the 58th Assembly District covering southeast Los Angeles County, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia voluntarily took unpaid leave earlier this month after reports of sexual misconduct against her were made public.

Garcia has denied the allegations. The charges are especially disturbing to women's advocates since Garcia was a leader in the #MeToo movement. Garcia earned the party's endorsement at an earlier district gathering but Vigna noted the state party is not obligated to campaign for an endorsed candidate. 

Two other Democratic lawmakers were also caught up in allegations of misconduct that have brought down politicians across the country. Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra from Pacoima resigned in November and Assemblyman Matt Dababneh who represented western San Fernando Valley stepped down in January.

Special elections have been scheduled in their districts on April 3. The candidate endorsement for Assembly District 32, which Bocanegra represented, went to Democrat Luz Rivas. There was no consensus on an endorsement for Assembly District 45, represented by Dababneh before he resigned.

More lawmakers could see their political careers flame out as investigations continue in Sacramento. The Associated Press reported last week that the Assembly is looking into at least 10 claims of sexual misconduct while the Senate is reviewing at least six.

This story has been updated.