Tony Mendoza was a 36-year-old Assemblyman with the power to hire and fire. He paid for a staff intern to attend a California Democratic Convention in San Jose in 2008, reserving a hotel suite for the two of them to share, then inviting her to drink from the hotel mini bar, as told to The Sacramento Bee’s Taryn Luna by the now 28-year-old Jennifer Kwart.
Kwart extricated herself and got on a flight home to Southern California with help from her mom.
This past summer, Mendoza, now a Democratic senator from Artesia, invited a college graduate half his age who wanted a job to his home multiple times, supposedly to review her résumé, Luna reported.
The 23-year-old, a Senate fellow placed by Sacramento State, turned down Mendoza, too, though he persisted. In August, Mendoza reportedly suggested the fellow spend the night in his hotel room before a golf-fundraiser at Cache Creek. She avoided the encounter by arriving the next morning.
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A week later, after an Aug. 31 fundraiser at The Mix, he went to another evening event, and texted the young woman a photo of himself, repeating the invitation that she join him at a house in Natomas. He shares that house with Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León.
Mendoza answered Luna’s questions about the 23-year-old with a lame non-apology apology: “If I’ve communicated or miscommunicated anything that has ever made a female employee feel uncomfortable, then I am deeply embarrassed and I will immediately apologize.” Mendoza’s spokesperson denied Kwart’s account.
Yet a pattern of exploitation and entitlement is emerging in this Legislature as in other workplaces lately: Powerful people abuse their positions and are enabled by their peers, unless some brave soul speaks up, or a dogged reporter starts asking questions.
Senate Rules Committee executives say they’ve been investigating the 23-year-old’s claims since the end of September. The probe seems less than diligent.
Mendoza said the Senate has not called him in for questioning. Additionally, de León’s spokesman said the outgoing Senate leader had no knowledge of the incidents involving his roommate until Luna began making inquiries.
Clearly, there was a lapse. Busy though De León is organizing his run for the U.S. Senate, he remains Senate Rules Committee chairman, and staffers who supposedly have been looking into the matter report to him.
De León needs to get to the bottom of it and publicly detail his findings. Pending a public accounting, De León should suspend Mendoza from committee assignments, and the Democratic Party should recruit another candidate for his seat, which is up in 2018.
The Senate and Assembly need to set up an independent entity to investigate such matters. Both houses should establish a policy of publicly releasing details of harassment cases and identifying the perpetrators.
Sacramento State, which administers the fellows program, needs to answer questions, too. Luna reported that the fellow disclosed the incidents to David Pacheco, who directs the Senate Fellows program; he would not speak to Luna. The fellow told others that Pacheco advised her against taking immediate action and suggested she might get a job in Mendoza’s office. What horrible advice. What a terrible message that sends to current and future fellows.
Mendoza, a former elementary school teacher, served six years in the Assembly and now chairs the Senate Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee. The married father of four must have known better. Or maybe not. Maybe what Luna described is all too common when the Legislature is in town.
Certainly, stories are oozing from the Capitol. Scores of female staffers, lobbyists and consultants signed a #MeToo letter last month detailing indignities they’ve endured as they try to make a living proposing, shaping and implementing public policy.
Mendoza has represented the 32nd Senate District outside Los Angeles since 2014, having replaced Sen. Ron Calderon, who is serving prison time for corruption. Thanks to donations from labor, the insurance and banking industries, and others who need his vote, Mendoza has $560,000 for his 2018 re-election.
Whether donors continue to pay tribute to Mendoza depends on how de León and the Democratic Party respond. If he runs for reelection, we hope voters give his résumé a close look. They deserve better.