Women who have experienced or seen sexual harassment in the Capitol are speaking out, but many fear the consequences of telling their stories. Emily Zentner The Sacramento Bee
Women who have experienced or seen sexual harassment in the Capitol are speaking out, but many fear the consequences of telling their stories. Emily Zentner The Sacramento Bee

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Amid new groping allegations, Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra says he will not run for re-election

By Alexei Koseff

akoseff@sacbee.com

November 20, 2017 09:19 AM

UPDATED November 21, 2017 04:01 PM

Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, a Los Angeles Democrat accused of groping a woman in 2009 when he was a legislative staff member, announced Monday that he will not seek re-election next year.

The announcement came just hours before the Los Angeles Times reported allegations involving Bocanegra and six more women. If they are true, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said, he will move that Bocanegra be expelled from the Assembly.

“These allegations are extremely disturbing, especially since they come after Mr. Bocanegra had previously been investigated and disciplined as a staff member and agreed to stop any harassing or abusive behavior,” Rendon, D-Paramount, said in a statement. “The decision to deny constituents the representation of their elected official can be a difficult one, but make no mistake: If the investigation affirms the allegations, I will move to immediately expel Mr. Bocanegra from the Assembly.”

In a message posted to Facebook on Monday morning, Bocanegra said he would immediately resign from his leadership position as majority whip and suspend his campaign for the San Fernando Valley seat.

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“As you may know, news stories were reported a few weeks ago about a regrettable encounter when I was a legislative staffer in 2009. It was a moment that I truly regret, that I am very sorry for, and for which I have accepted responsibility for my actions,” Bocanegra wrote. “These news reports have since fueled persistent rumors and speculation, and I do not believe that this is in the best interest of my constituents to continue to serve next term.”

“I have sought counsel from community members and constituents,” he continued. “After much discussion and reflection, the most prudent decision to avoid another costly special election in Los Angeles and ensure our community is not left without any representation in the State Assembly would be for me to resign at the end of the legislative session. I will spend this time focusing my energy on serving my constituents.”

His decision comes more than three weeks after longtime Capitol staff member Elise Flynn Gyore spoke publicly, including to The Bee, about an after-hours event in 2009 in which Bocanegra, then a chief of staff, stalked her around a downtown Sacramento nightclub and grabbed her underneath her clothes.

The Assembly investigated Bocanegra at the time and ordered him to stay away from Gyore. She said she continues to deal with what she feels was an inadequate response by the Legislature.

Bocanegra apologized for that incident in a statement and said it “was something I regret and learned from.” But the Times story describes six more allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct since then. Bocanegra responded that the Assembly Rules Committee should investigate, “rather than adjudicate these allegations in media reports.”

One woman who worked for former Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes when Bocanegra was his chief of staff said Bocanegra asked her out on dates for years and repeatedly made comments about her appearance.

Two more former Fuentes employees described a drunken party in 2012 where Bocanegra touched one of them on the stomach and tried to get the other to stick her hand in his front pants pocket. Yet another former Fuentes staffer said Bocanegra came up behind her at a house party that same year and ran his hands down her neck and along the sides of her breasts, before grabbing her bottom.

Two other women shared separate episodes, in 2010 and 2014, where Bocanegra tried to kiss and grab them without permission during events at the same club where he allegedly groped Gyore.

Sylvia Castillo said she was living in Sacramento during the summer of 2010 for a temporary job with a nonprofit organization focused on youth leadership when a friend invited her to the Mix Downtown one evening. After visiting the restroom, Castillo was separated from her friend, and she circled the bar trying to find her.

At the booth where they had been sitting that night, Castillo found Bocanegra, whom she said she had met a few times through work. She sat down to ask him if he had seen her friend. Bocanegra told her he had not and asked how she was doing, Castillo said, then almost immediately lunged for her.

“It didn’t cross my mind that I had anything to fear,” she said in an interview with The Bee. “Before I could even finish my sentence, he grabbed me and put his hand up my dress. Grabbed me and put his tongue in my mouth.”

Castillo said she managed to push Bocanegra away and ran out of the club. She decided at the time not to report the incident, because she was leaving Sacramento in a few days and “I just honestly wanted to move past it.”

But she was forced to confront the memory earlier this year when she came to the Capitol to advocate for a bill, as part of her current job with a Bay Area nonprofit that works on women’s access to health care, and testified before Bocanegra in committee. She said she finally came forward because she read Gyore’s account and was shocked by the similarities.

Castillo said she wants male lawmakers to stop “preying on us” and realize, “We are your equals.” She also wants Bocanegra to resign sooner than the end of the legislative session next Sept. 1.

“He’s already proven he can’t play nice, he can’t play by the rules and respect women,” she said. “Those who work in the field, are we still going to have to face him in the hallways for ten very long months?”

In recent weeks, the Los Angeles Daily News and a handful of Bocanegra’s constituents have also called on him to resign, including former Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, a fellow Democrat who defeated Bocanegra in a stunning upset in 2014 and then lost to him again last November.

After his announcement Monday, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, demanded that Bocanegra resign immediately.

“@AsmBocanegra you are not the victim, you are the perpetrator who’s victimized untold #’s of women & girls & brought shame to the people you purported to represent,” she wrote on Twitter. “Don’t wait till 2018. Leave now. #WeSaidEnough #MeToo #IBelieveYou”

The allegations against Bocanegra have surfaced amid a broader discussion about sexual harassment at the Capitol and beyond. Hundreds of women in California politics launched a campaign last month called We Said Enough, urging changes to male-dominated power structure that they say has led to “pervasive” abuses.

Adama Iwu, a leader of We Said Enough, commended Rendon for saying he would move to expel Bocanegra from the Legislature if an outside investigation confirms the allegations. But she added that the Legislature’s process for reporting and investigating complaints remains “deeply flawed,” and she repeated calls for a confidential hotline.

Investigations are conducted by the the Assembly Rules Committee, an administrative office overseen by a panel of lawmakers, though the Assembly has said complaints against members are referred to outside counsel. Many women at the Capitol say they are reluctant to come forward about the harassment or abuse they have experienced, because they fear being seen as difficult or suffering professional retribution for speaking up.

Heather, the former staff member who said Bocanegra grabbed her breasts and bottom in 2012, told The Bee that she “would be shocked if they actually did anything” about the latest allegations. (She asked not to be identified by her last name, since she now works in politics in another state and does not want the story to follow her there.)

She said she didn’t report the groping to Assembly Rules because she felt they would “just sweep it under the rug.” At the time, Bocanegra was running for his first term in office.

“Women in California politics, in general, don’t talk about what happens to them and what they see, because it’s dangerous. You don’t want to be seen as someone who will tell on their boss,” Heather said. “It’s not about what Raul did. It’s about the women working in the field offices who know they have no recourse.”

Iwu also questioned how long the Bocanegra investigation will take and whether his fellow lawmakers will ultimately vote on his punishment. She pointed to Gyore’s experience in 2009 to show that the process failed to stop his alleged behavior in the past.

“A legislator is going to do what a legislator is going to do,” Iwu said. “They are going to cling to their power and privilege rather than be accountable. It seems like the system will let them. That’s why people don’t want to come forward.”

Taryn Luna of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff