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California Lawmaker Cristina Garcia Takes Leave Of Absence Amid Capitol Sexual Harassment Investigation

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

California Asm. Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) calls for a tax on liquor products to pay for the removal of the sales tax on diapers and tampons at a state Capitol news conference on March 9, 2017.

Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio

California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia is taking an immediate — and unpaid — leave of absence as a sexual harassment investigation against her proceeds.

Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) announced her decision Friday morning after initially taking no action the evening before, when Politico first reported allegations against her.

“Upon reflection of the details alleged, I am certain I did not engage in the behavior I am accused of,” Garcia said in a statement Friday — one day after saying she had “zero recollection of engaging in inappropriate behavior.”

“However,” her Friday statement went on, “as I’ve said before, any claims about sexual harassment must be taken seriously, and I believe elected officials should be held to a higher standard of accountability.”

Garcia has been one of the most outspoken state lawmakers against sexual misconduct in California politics. When the #MeToo movement sparked nearly 150 women in and around the Capitol to sign a letter declaring “We Said Enough” last October, she was one of a handful of lawmakers who signed their names to that list.

The allegations against her, first reported by Politico, come from Daniel Fierro, a former district staffer for a neighboring Assembly member. He told Capital Public Radio on Friday that Garcia cornered and groped him in the Raley Field dugout after the 2014 legislative softball game.

“It was very apparent to me that she was very inebriated,” Fierro said. “She was slurring her words, she was swaying a little bit, she had trouble standing still.”

As the only other person in the dugout, Fierro says Garcia put her hand on his left forearm. “At first, I thought it was just to hold her steady,” he says — but she kept holding on.

“Then she moved her hand up to my upper back and to my upper left shoulder and started lightly stroking it,” Fierro continued. “And then she dropped her hand down to my butt and squeezed. And that’s when it crossed a line completely for me. And I was incredibly uncomfortable.”

He says he tried to exit the dugout. “And as I spun and started moving —  and I think I said, ‘Have a great night, assembly member,’ just trying to extricate myself from the situation —  as I did that, she reached out and grabbed for my crotch. And I just kept walking.”

The whole incident, Fierro says, took about 30 seconds.

“It Made Me Angry”

Though he told two colleagues about it at the time, Fierro did not report it. He largely put it out of his mind, until he saw Garcia leading the #MeToo movement in Sacramento.

“It’s about power, it’s about control,” Garcia told Capital Public Radio last fall after the We Said Enough letter was made public. “In the Capitol, where it’s a man’s world, oftentimes it’s about men pushing the boundaries of what they can get away with — and how much they can use their power to humiliate other folks who are below them.”

“It made me angry,” Fierro said of watching Garcia play such a prominent role in speaking out against sexual harassment in California politics. “The behavior that she is describing as inappropriate and wrong is exactly the kind of behavior that she exhibited with me.”

Now a political consultant, Fierro told his former boss — and current client — Asm. Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) early last month. Calderon then reported it to the Assembly, which hired an outside law firm to launch an investigation.

Fierro says the #MeToo movement is incredibly important — too important to be discounted because of a bad messenger. And that’s a very real fear of many of the movement’s supporters.

“Opponents of the #MeToo movement simply couldn’t buy this level of publicity,” says Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, who specializes in political ethics.

“It will allow them then to call into question so many other people who are champions of the movement,” she says. “It will allow them to call into question other allegations. It will allow them to say, ‘You know what? People just do bad things on both sides. There’s really no one to trust here.’”

So, how should the movement respond?

“I think we should hold her to the same standard that we would hold any male legislator,” Levinson says. “And I think it’s real important that we handle this in a neutral way and don’t give anyone a pass because of their gender on either side.”

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