SACRAMENTO (AP) — Once a leader of California’s #MeToo movement and a shoo-in for re-election, Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia is campaigning for her political life under the cloud of a sexual misconduct investigation and against half a million dollars of blistering attacks from unions and a charter school group.
Investigators on Thursday cleared Garcia of the most serious allegation against her — that she groped a male legislative staffer in 2014. But it found Garcia frequently used vulgar language in violation of the Assembly’s sexual harassment policies, prompting Speaker Anthony Rendon, a fellow Democrat, to sternly rebuke her and remove her committee assignments.
The complainants have 10 days to appeal investigators’ findings, meaning the case could drag on through the June 5 primary. Garcia faces six Democrats and one Republican for two spots in the November general election for the district just south of Los Angeles.
The State Building and Construction Trades Council has raised more than $500,000 for an aggressive ad campaign against her, and the California Charter Schools Association Advocates just dumped an additional $300,000 into the race to oppose Garcia and support Frine Medrano, who works for state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles.
Leo Briones, a spokesman for Garcia, called it a “special interest hit campaign” that uses the allegations against Garcia to settle political scores over her clean air agenda and support for traditional public schools.
The #MeToo campaign Garcia helped lead at the Capitol has had a major impact on the California Legislature. Democratic Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh resigned after harassment accusations surfaced, setting up special elections in their Los Angeles-area districts.
And former state Sen. Tony Mendoza, also a Los Angeles Democrat, is running to recapture the seat he vacated in February when he was on the brink of expulsion by his colleagues after an investigation found he likely made advances on subordinates. The same charter school group has spent nearly $300,000 to oppose him.
The campaign against Garcia goes beyond sexual misconduct. Ads by the State Building and Construction Trades Council center on revelations Garcia once used a gay slur against a former Assembly speaker and said she wanted to punch an Asian person in the face. She’s admitted to both, apologized and said she learned from her mistakes.
Another television ad by the group centers on allegations Garcia was prone to heavy drinking and sex talk in her office. A San Diego lawyer made those claims on behalf of former Garcia staffers; investigators only substantiated vulgar language, as well as Garcia asking employees to perform personal duties and disparaging elected officials.
An ad released Thursday features a child saying Garcia “lies” and “says mean things about people because of the color of their skin, or who they love.”
Erin Lehane, a spokeswoman for the building trades, said it’s important for lawmakers to be role models for children.
But Garcia claims the unions are against her because of her voting record on environmental issues.
“All along I have felt this is retaliation for the work I’ve been doing for standing up for communities like mine that are treated like wastelands,” she told The Associated Press last month.
Lehane has acknowledged spending $25,000 starting last fall to look into Garcia, including hiring a private investigator to talk to Garcia’s former staff members and tenants who live in Los Angeles-area buildings Garcia owns. Lehane said she began the research because she had heard Garcia had engaged in inappropriate behavior.
She said she paid for the research herself and later gave it to the building trades, which then launched the anti-Garcia political effort, called Working Californians Against Corruption. Lehane, acting as the committee’s spokeswoman, said it’s about conduct, not policy disagreements.
Garcia chaired the Assembly Natural Resources Committee last year during negotiations on extending California’s landmark cap-and-trade climate change program and fought to add stringent new regulations on oil refineries and other polluters. The union sided with oil companies in a move Garcia has said killed her bill.
Her re-election campaign is touting that record and her strong “report cards” from groups such as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.
“I will continue to stand up for our communities and work to ensure that all Californians benefit from legislation to protect clean air, clean water and healthy communities” she said in a statement.
Garcia likely still enjoys support from her most ardent supporters because of that record, said Jaime Regalado, a professor emeritus of political science at the California State University, Los Angeles.
But she’s likely tarnished, and Rendon’s decision to take away her committee assignments, he said, leaves Garcia “looking more powerless than ever in terms of her ability to represent her district.”