SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California’s Capitol is awash in allegations of sexual harassment, creating an atmosphere that’s affecting how men and women interact.
Holding meetings over drinks or winding down at a bar after a hectic day in the Legislature is a regular part of business in Sacramento, where policymaking and deal-cutting often depend on personal relationships. After-work campaign fundraisers and other evening events provide numerous opportunities for colleagues to do business and socialize.
Those days may not be gone, but there’s unquestionably a changed sensitivity toward them.
Jodi Hicks, a lobbyist and partner at the women-led Sacramento firm DBHK, said after she gave a radio interview about the Capitol culture, a man emailed her to say he wouldn’t hire her firm because he’d have to “walk on eggshells.”
“We’re hearing grumblings, and men are upset” about having to think about where and when they meet women, and if alcohol is involved, Hicks said.
“That’s something we deal with all of the time,” she said. “Every time someone asks to have drinks, women have to be concerned with what that means and where they’re having drinks and making sure it’s in public.”
Even in public places behaviour has crossed into inappropriate territory.
It was recently revealed that Democratic Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, of Los Angeles, was disciplined in 2009 when he was a legislative staff member. Elise Gyore, another Capitol staffer who had never met him, accused him of stalking her around a Sacramento nightclub and putting his hands down her blouse.
Following an Assembly Rules Committee investigation, Bocanegra was told to stay away from Gyore but wasn’t otherwise punished. She had wanted him banned from attending work-related social events involving alcohol, but the Assembly said it couldn’t control after-work behaviour.
Gyore, who still works at the Legislature, said alcohol is nearly always present at after-hours gatherings.
“It can make people who have already decided that they’re OK with doing some not-good things even more brazen,” she said.
It also causes other problems.
The Senate in 2015 briefly offered free round-the-clock transportation to lawmakers in Sacramento after four lawmakers in five years were accused of drunken driving. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon discontinued the practice after the perk was revealed.
While lawmakers can’t require their office staff to go to after-hours political and campaign events, many see attendance as critical to their jobs. The events are plentiful when the Legislature is in session and lawmakers from out of town stay in Sacramento from Monday through Thursday.
Lawmakers held at least 30 evening fundraisers over a five-day period in August, according to invitations compiled by Capitol Morning Report.
The Legislature has faced criticism over its handling of sexual misconduct allegations since nearly 150 women signed a letter in October outlining a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and a system that does little to stop perpetrators.
On Friday, de Leon recommended fellow Democrat Tony Mendoza be stripped of his chairmanship of the Insurance, Banking & Financial Institutions Committee. De Leon, until recently a housemate with Mendoza in Sacramento, made the move after it was revealed a third woman who worked for Mendoza had alleged inappropriate behaviour, including several one-on-one meetings over drinks or dinner.
For lobbyists, evening events are an “extension of our workplace,” said Jennifer Fearing, who owns a firm.
“Part of your influence-peddling, above board, involves needing to be at these events,” Fearing said.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia said it is men who choose to misbehave, not the events, that create problems.
“I would say that most of the public realizes that our job is based on relationships, and so we are expected to go out there and socialize,” said Garcia, a Bell Gardens Democrat who co-chairs the Legislative Women’s Caucus. “I think our public also expects us to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
Fearing said there are plenty of ways for lawmakers, staff members and lobbyists to socialize and build essential relationships that don’t involve alcohol. Some lawmakers hold fundraisers at breakfasts or at special events, like a cooking class.
“I think developing a level of diversity with regard to these types of events would be healthy. It could be productive,” she said.
Hicks said ensuring women feel safe in all settings is paramount. She and her co-partners recently held sexual harassment training for their employees that included creation of safe words that female staff members can use if they feel uncomfortable at events.
It’s all part of what she hopes will bring lasting change for men, willingly or not.
“If men’s behaviour changes just out of fear of it no longer being covered up, then that’s a good thing too,” Hicks said.