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#MeToo shifts California Capitol culture, but with hitches

August 25, 2018
Joel Anderson
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FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2018, file photo, state Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, speaks at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. A lobbyist for the California Nurses Association has filed a complaint with the California Senate alleging Anderson threatened her with violence at a Sacramento restaurant Aug. 13, 2018. The close of the California legislative session brings a flurry of parties and after-work events, which have been the scene of some sexual misconduct allegations that surfaced after the #MeToo reckoning hit the California capitol last fall. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The close of the California legislative session brings a flurry of parties to toast victories and raise campaign cash, with more a dozen capital bars and restaurants hosting soirees on the busiest nights.

After-hours events have been the scene of some of the most egregious sexual misconduct allegations that surfaced after the #MeToo reckoning hit the California Capitol last fall, prompting the resignations of three lawmakers and pledges of a cultural change.

Staffers, lawmakers and lobbyists who spoke with The Associated Press said the party scene has mellowed in the year since. But bad behavior, sexual or otherwise, hasn’t ended entirely.

Allegations of misconduct surfaced from two fundraising events just this month. Republican Sen. Joel Anderson was kicked out of a bar across from the Capitol on Aug. 13 for allegedly threatening to hit a female lobbyist, and a union president was accused of shoving Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom at a different event on Aug. 8.

Both resulted in formal complaints to the Legislature.

The session ends Friday then election season kicks into high gear. With increased opportunities for socializing and the high-stakes nature of last-minute deal cutting, the coming weeks will be perhaps the best look yet at whether change has taken root.

Lawmakers and political committees held nearly 60 fundraisers over 11 days in August at restaurants and bars around the Capitol. The legislative softball game, an annual competition between Democrats and Republicans, also took place this month at the minor league baseball field in West Sacramento. Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia is under investigation for allegedly groping someone there in 2014 while drunk. She’s denied the allegation and an initial investigation couldn’t substantiate the charges, but it’s been appealed.

The charity event’s after party is typically one of the year’s rowdiest events. But in the post #MeToo era, several staff members said they passed on attending the post-game socializing.

That’s indicative of a wider trend of people choosing not to put themselves in situations where behavior could cross the line.

Socializing and building relationships, sometimes with a drink in hand, is a regular part of business in Sacramento. But some staff members and lobbyists say they’ve noticed people attending fewer events in one night, drinking less and generally being more careful about what they say and how they act. At January’s “Back to Session Bash,” an annual party to kick off the session, attendees were told that security guards were stationed around the downtown restaurant to take reports of harassment.

“The vast majority of people behave professionally,” said Democratic Sen. Ben Allen, who was at the event where Bloom was allegedly pushed and told the Sacramento Bee the union president, Dave Regan, appeared belligerent. Steve Trossman, the union’s director of public affairs, told the Bee alcohol didn’t play a role and denied that Regan became physical.

“The MeToo movement has probably led to some more folks stepping forward to report various incidents,” Allen said.

Others agreed, saying the fact that both incidents this month were reported to the rules committees is a sign that people are starting to trust the system more.

“The tolerance for bad behavior is less and people are reporting more, and it’s being talked about more,” said Jodi Hicks, a lobbyist who said when the #MeToo scandal broke last year, some men refused to work with the women-led firm she worked for at the time.

Despite high-profile examples of alcohol-fueled misconduct, several staff members said legislative leaders haven’t had a building-wide conversation about behavior at such events.

Asked this month at the Sacramento Press Club about whether a cultural change is underway, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said more work is needed.

“It’s one thing to change policies and procedures,” he said. “That’s good and that’s a start, but ultimately nothing changes until the culture changes. That cultural change takes a while.”

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