Assemblyman Arambula is cleared of child abuse charges. Now he must regain our trust

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula testifies in his misdemeanor child abuse trial, in Superior Court, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula testifies in his misdemeanor child abuse trial, in Superior Court, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Fresno Bee file

It was an intensely personal trial of an important public official. As painful as the Joaquin Arambula child-abuse case has been to read about, the real challenge before the state assemblyman now is figuring out how he can regain the public’s trust while simultaneously helping his family heal from its ordeal.

In the quest to clear his name, the Fresno Democrat faced a key witness in his two-week misdemeanor trial: his 7-year-old daughter. It was her report of Arambula injuring her during a dispute that led to charges being filed against him.

Once the trial began, the girl gave conflicting accounts of just how she sustained a bruise to her head. Arambula steadfastly denied striking her, saying he swatted her on the rear end for discipline when she would not obey him as he tried to put her and her sisters to bed on the evening of Dec. 9. He said it was the first time he’d ever used spanking for discipline.

Following his arrest, Arambula stepped away from his Assembly seat to focus on his defense for the coming trial. Now that a Fresno Superior Court jury has found him innocent, Arambula has the chance to once again return to the Assembly, and represent the people of the 31st District.

Some will ask why he would go back to the statehouse when the trial has been so traumatic for his family. Shouldn’t his first priority be healing those relationships?

Witnesses for the defense told the jury that Arambula was a model father who loves his three daughters and dotes on them. Several witnesses described the eldest daughter as highly intelligent but also stubborn and insistent on getting her way. The family knows the truth best, yet it would seem having Dad leave for days at a time to work in Sacramento could be unwise at this moment in their lives.

That said, since Arambula has been found innocent, shouldn’t he have the right to return to elected office? To most, the answer is yes. But Democratic leaders in Sacramento have been following the trial, and some back-room chatter has focused around disbelief that he did not plea bargain, but went to trial, with his daughter taking the witness stand. The appearance of that sends the message that he put his own political ambitions ahead of his family. He could face a cool reception when he returns to Sacramento.

Arambula may be under another pressure to return to work — that of Fresno County Democratic Latino leaders who have been upset that charges were brought at all. Some of those Hispanic leaders have felt the prosecution of the case was the result of a conservative establishment political structure reacting to the blue Democratic wave of Hispanic candidates that swept through Valley races last fall.

Arambula’s attorneys raised the specter that the case was politically motivated, a point sharply denied by District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp. She said prosecution was done solely on the basis of the evidence her office had gathered regarding a crime.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for Arambula to resume duties in the Assembly is the important role he can play working for the interests of the 500,000 central San Joaquin Valley residents he represents. There is no shortage of issues: strengthening health care, developing more water supplies and supporting the advancement of farming and education.

Arambula is used to hard work, having been an emergency room physician in Selma before he being elected to the Assembly in 2016. But the challenge before him now exceeds even that trying profession: He must succeed at being both a political leader and family leader. The real proof of his exoneration will come not just from legislative accomplishments, but in renewing his relationships with his daughters, especially his eldest. In both public and private arenas, he has to regain trust.