Yesterday as lawmakers returned for a new year of work, the atmosphere was distinctly unsettled. In the months lawmakers had been gone, the national tidal wave of sexual harassment allegations made a direct hit on the Capitol dome, leading to allegations, resignations and an uncomfortable scouring of a workplace environment women say has been rife with misconduct.
Their return was punctuated by a protracted closed-door debate on the fate of state Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), who has been accused of inappropriate sexual advances toward staff members. Mendoza announced he would take a leave of absence for the month of January, unless an investigation into his behavior concludes earlier.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the disquiet infused the day’s proceedings in other, more subtle ways, from uneasy jokes and tentative hugs. Like homeowners returning from vacation to a house that was broken into, state lawmakers spent their first day back grappling with the upheaval that had occurred while they were away.
In the Senate, what was planned to be a routine opening session turned into an hours-long standoff, as Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) sought to expel Mendoza for his sexual harassment allegations. Mendoza, who is currently under investigation by an outside law firm hired by the Senate, has forcefully denied allegations that he acted inappropriately with a female Senate fellow assigned to his office and with two other former aides who alleged they were made uncomfortable by his attention. He has called on his colleagues to wait for the results of the probe before seeking additional sanctions.
In closed caucus meetings, Senate Democrats urged Mendoza to take a leave of absence or face an effort to suspend him without pay. Mendoza ultimately acquiesced to a one-month leave.