Dems' Struggle With 'MeToo' Charges Extends to California

Dems' Struggle With 'MeToo' Charges Extends to California
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Dems' Struggle With 'MeToo' Charges Extends to California
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Nearly a week has passed since the first of two sexual-assault charges surfaced against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and national Democratic leaders are still grappling with how to respond amid the fallout.

But that fallout is not limited to the Old Dominion, nor to the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls who were quick to weigh in on the burgeoning scandal in Richmond. It has spread from coast to coast and is now roiling the politics here in Southern California as well.

Over the weekend, calls for Fairfax’s resignation continued to stream in, as did similar demands days earlier when a medical school yearbook surfaced with racist images on the page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. Democrats were quick to urge Northam to step down only to be confronted with a dilemma when rape accusations from credible-sounding accusers were leveled at Fairfax – the Democrat poised to take over from Northam. Some Democrats adhered to standards they’d adopted in previous cases – that is to say, when Republicans were accused – while others have not. California Sen. Kamala Harris, an announced presidential aspirant, unequivocally urged the lieutenant governor to resign, as did her Senate colleague Kirsten Gillibrand, who is also considering a run for her party’s 2020 nomination. Gillibrand termed the allegations “sickening and horrendous.”  

But a Democrat-led effort to impeach Fairfax over the allegations fizzled on Sunday night when members of the Virginia House of Delegates held a conference call in which several members suggested hitting the brakes on such an irreversible, career-ending move.

Late Monday, the fallout was still grabbing media attention after several staffers for Fairfax — both in his lieutenant governor’s office and his “We Rise Together” political action committee — resigned.

Many Republicans pointed out that the pleas for due process – from Fairfax himself and his supporters — and against a rush to judgment in the case echo the arguments prominent GOP senators made just a few months ago when trying to stop Democrats from derailing the nomination of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh was facing even older sexual-assault allegations -- that he tried to force himself on Christine Blasey Ford at a high school party 36 years ago. The allegations against Fairfax date back to 2000 when he was a student at Duke University and to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

It’s not the first time in the past year that Democrats have failed to hold one of their own to the same #MeToo standard of believing the accuser they used against Kavanaugh in a largely unified way.

For weeks, some of the same Democrats who strongly condemned Kavanaugh remained silent on domestic-abuse allegations against Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman who won his race for state attorney general amid the controversy last fall.

After a stream of negative media stories, the Democratic National Committee, where Ellison was second in command, last year announced a review of the charges against him. Many prominent national Democrats used the existence of the probe to avoid answering whether they believed Ellison’s accuser.

In Minnesota last year, the state was still reeling from the abrupt resignation of Democratic Sen. Al Franken in late 2017 after prominent Democratic women, particularly Gillibrand, led calls for him to resign. When it came to Ellison, however, Gillibrand, Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another 2020 contender, were far more cautious about weighing in throughout his attorney general campaign – just weeks before sharply condemning Kavanaugh.

They and other Democrats who accused Republicans of whitewashing the Kavanaugh allegations also have yet to comment on an even more disturbing sexual misconduct allegation against another powerful lawmaker.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, a California Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s BOLD PAC, is being sued in court by a woman who claims he drugged and molested her when she was 16 and a rising golf star. Cardenas was a member of the Los Angeles City Council at the time of the alleged assault.

Even though Harris and Gillibrand have called for Fairfax to resign, their offices did not respond to a RealClearPolitics inquiry about the allegations Cárdenas is facing and whether he should step down from BOLD PAC at least temporarily while the suit wends its way through court.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge determined last fall that the charges have enough merit to move forward and has set an August trial date. Last month, the woman suing Cárdenas identified herself publicly for the first time as 28-year-old Angela Villela Chavez. A rising teenage golf star at the time of the alleged assault, Chavez pressed Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make good on her call last May for a House Ethics Committee inquiry. Chavez, the daughter of a former longtime Cárdenas aide, said she was inspired to come forward following Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

“As members of Congress, we each have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the House of Representatives, and any type of alleged misconduct must be investigated by the Ethics Committee,” Pelosi said in a statement nine months ago. “Congressman Cárdenas said he will fully cooperate with an ethics investigation.”

But that investigation has not taken place.

Chavez says Cárdenas molested her in 2007 while driving her to the hospital after she collapsed while playing golf with the congressman, whom she had considered a mentor. In her lawsuit, Chavez says Cárdenas had given her water that "tasted distinctly different from both tap and filtered water," and she collapsed. She says he fondled her breasts and genitals as he took her to the hospital. Cárdenas has vigorously denied the allegations, accusing Chavez of seeking revenge for her father, whom he has characterized as a disgruntled former staffer. His lawyer issued a statement arguing that the request for a House ethics investigation shows that Chavez has a "meritless and weak case."

Before the allegations surfaced, Cárdenas was credited with expanding BOLD PAC’s fundraising totals from $1 million when he took over its leadership two years ago to more than $9 million this election cycle.

Media stories touting the four-term congressman’s bright political future came to a halt in late April when the woman filed suit. Nearly 10 months later, however, Cárdenas has gone on serving in Congress without any discernible consequence.

It was Cárdenas who led a widely criticized congressional junket to Puerto Rico with more than 100 lobbyists during the government shutdown in early January.

The event was organized by BOLD PAC, and Cárdenas was quoted defending the trip in news stories. Members of Congress and Democratic candidates that the PAC supported also attended at least one fundraising event with Cárdenas just a few months after the allegation against him surfaced.

An Instagram photo montage of a July 18 fundraiser for BOLD PAC shows Cárdenas standing with several members of the Democrat-dominated Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Reps. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, and Nanette Barragan, Lucille Roybal-Allard, and Salud Carbajal, all of whom represent California districts.

"Great to spend some time with several members of the @hispaniccaucus @boldpac and can't wait to welcome several members after the #bluewave in November," wrote Cristina Antelo, who serves as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute vice chair, on her Instagram account.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a Democrat from New Mexico who last cycle chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s campaign arm, also was on hand. Lujan in late September tweeted his support for Blasey Ford’s decision to come forward with the allegations against Kavanaugh.

Twenty-four Democratic lawmakers and candidates for Congress also accepted donations from BOLD PAC in the 2018 cycle, including Kyrsten Sinema and Jacky Rosen, who won their campaigns to represent Arizona and Nevada in the U.S. Senate, respectively.

In an email Monday to RCP, Chavez’s attorney chided House leaders for failing to follow through with their promised probe.

“We absolutely believe that Congress should do what Rep. Pelosi said they were going to do: conduct an expeditious and thorough investigation into Ms. Chavez’s claims of sexual abuse against Rep. Cárdenas,” Lynne Ciani, Chavez’s attorney, said in a lengthy statement.

Ciani cited Chavez’s formal legal complaint, relaying that she “gained courage” to come forward with her allegations of child sexual abuse when she became pregnant with her daughter and she saw other “brave women coming forward as part of the #MeToo movement.”

Chavez, who filed a formal complaint against Cárdenas with the House Ethics Committee, also said through her attorney that she is “ready, willing, and able to testify before members of Congress if she is asked to do so in connection” with an investigation into her allegations against the California lawmaker.

She also notes that Cárdenas himself in late 2017 called for “expeditious investigations” into his former Democratic colleagues accused of sexual misconduct, including former California Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra. At the time, Cárdenas called the allegations against Bocanegra “behavior that’s unacceptable under any circumstance” and said that “he should resign immediately if he is found to be guilty.”

Six women accused Bocanegra of unwanted sexual advances; he stepped down in the fall of 2017. An Assembly investigation substantiated at least some of the claims. Cárdenas and Bocanegra are both Democrats who represent northeast San Fernando Valley and are longtime political allies.

Neither Pelosi’s office nor the House Ethics Committee responded to requests for comment. Cárdenas’ congressional office and his attorneys also did not respond to inquiries.

New Mexico Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is reported to have privately relayed concerns to Cárdenas about the lawsuit and allegations while she served as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, although she has not asked him to step down from running the PAC. 

Lujan Grisham told Politico last May that Cárdenas has "appropriately asked us to withhold judgment until there is a full investigation of the facts."

"Congressman Cárdenas said he will fully cooperate with an ethics investigation," she continued. "I agree there should be a prompt investigation by the House Ethics Committee."

Susan Crabtree is a veteran Washington reporter who has spent two decades covering the White House and Congress.

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