Su­per­vi­sors race­marred by ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Emily DeRuy ederuy@ba­yare­anews­

With sex­ual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions roil­ing the Santa Clara County su­per­vi­sors race, the out­come ap­pears far from cer­tain as vot­ers won­der whom to trust in the fi­nal weeks be­fore the elec­tion.

In just the last month, unions that op­pose San Jose City Coun­cil­man Pier­luigi Oliv­e­rio’s can­di­dacy for District 4 have dredged up a 2013 sex­ual ha­rass­ment com­plaint and sub­se­quent law­suit against him.

When the case first broke years ago, it largely fell un­der the radar, but in the charged at­mos­phere of the #Me­Too move­ment it’s taken on new weight.

And this week— with the June 5 pri­mary rapidly ap­proach­ing and vot­ers re­ceiv­ing their bal­lots — the cam­paign of Do­minic Caserta, a sit­ting Santa Clara coun­cil­man, is spi­ral­ing amid re­ports that he sex­u­ally ha­rassed

high school stu­dents and cam­paign staffers. Af­ter the Santa Clara Po­lice Depart­ment put out a re­quest Wed­nes­day night for other po­ten­tial vic­tims to come for­ward, mul­ti­ple peo­ple stepped for­ward with com­plaints, said city spokes­woman Jen­nifer Ya­m­aguma.

The two men had been among the front-run­ners in the race to re­place out­go­ing Su­per­vi­sor Ken Yea­ger. They are among a slate of seven can­di­dates — in­clud­ing fel­lowheavy hit­ters Don Rocha, an out­go­ing San Jose coun­cil­man, and Su­san El­len­berg, who un­til re­cently worked for the Sil­i­con Val­ley Or­ga­ni­za­tion but quit over the group’s re­sponse to crit­i­cis­mof its en­dorse­ment of Oliv­e­rio in the fight. But the race’s shift­ing land­scape has left vot­ers on shaky ground, ques­tion­ing what to be­lieve, with Caserta in par­tic­u­lar rapidly shed­ding en­dorse­ments and even staff amid the con­tro­versy.

“The tim­ing couldn’t be worse for Caserta and it doesn’t help Oliv­e­rio, ei­ther, be­cause it just keeps stir­ring this con­tro­ver­sial set of is­sues,” said Ter­ryChris­tensen, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at San Jose State Uni­ver­sity who spe­cial­izes in lo­cal pol­i­tics.

The specifics of Oliv­e­rio’s con­duct to­ward Denelle Fe­dor, his one­time chief aide, are shrouded in­uncer­tainty, in part be­cause of an agree­ment that helped set­tle Fe­dor’s com­plaint. The agree­ment pre­vents ei­ther party from cast­ing the other in a neg­a­tive light. Oliv­e­rio, who re­leased the pre­vi­ously se­cret agree­ment — signed in July 2015 — to this news or­ga­ni­za­tion, was even­tu­ally dropped from Fe­dor’s law­suit against the city and has de­nied the al­le­ga­tions. But he has been un­will­ing to dis­cuss the spe­cific ac­cu­sa­tions in the orig­i­nal com­plaint, in­clud­ing that he called Fe­dor a “bitch” and made sex­u­ally sug­ges­tive com­ments.

Af­ter years of de­clin­ing to speak about the case, Fe­dor re­leased a state­ment Thurs­day evening, say­ing that at the time of her law­suit the “‘Me Too’ move­ment did not ex­ist.” She did not elab­o­rate.

Re­fut­ing the al­le­ga­tions or dou­bling down on them could give the ap­pear­ance of ac­cus­ing the other of ly­ing, which could vi­o­late the agree­ment and pos­si­bly open ei­ther to a defamation suit.

But the po­ten­tial im­pact of the ac­cu­sa­tions is be­com­ing clear, as Oliv­e­rio’s union op­po­nents or­ches­trate press events and mail­ers fo­cused on Fe­dor’s ini­tial charges. The Santa Clara County Demo­cratic Party re­cently even took the un­usual step of cen­sur­ing Oliv­e­rio.

“Where was the emer­gency when it was front page” sev­eral years ago, a frus­trated Oliv­e­rio told this news­pa­per.

The Oliv­e­rio cam­paign’s ini­tial at­tempts to por­tray the charges as not sto­ry­wor­thy have given way to an un­usual mailer that fea­tures Oliv­e­rio’s girl­friend talk­ing about what a great guy he is and many prom­i­nent women in the county chim­ing in.

For a mo­ment, it seemed like the unions might get their wish to de­rail Oliv­e­rio’s cam­paign. But then the as­tound­ing al­le­ga­tions against Caserta sur­faced, pos­si­bly up­end­ing the race, which also in­cludes for­mer Camp­bell Mayor Ja­son Baker, Mike Al­varado and Maria Hernandez.

A re­port mis­tak­enly leaked to the en­tire staff of the Santa Clara Uni­fied School District where Caserta teaches out­lines at least two sex­ual ha­rass­ment com­plaints by his stu­dents. More re­cently, a 19-year-old for­mer cam­paign vol­un­teer has come for­ward with al­le­ga­tions that he made sex­u­ally sug­ges­tive re­marks and ges­tures to­ward her, in­clud­ing touch­ing her thigh and kiss­ing her cheek.

“I am not plan­ning to re­sign from the Coun­cil, and I’m not plan­ning to sus­pendmy cam­paign be­cause the bot­tom line is these al- lega­tions are false and I’m go­ing to con­tinue to move for­ward,” a de­fi­ant Caserta told the Mer­cury News on Wed­nes­day.

Still, the al­le­ga­tions have prompted his cam­paign ad­viser to flee, and the Santa Clara City Coun­cil is weigh­ing whether to ask Caserta to step down from his cur­rent post. The con­tro­versy has bal­looned enough that the city has retained high­pro­file spin doc­tor Sam Singer to help man­age the fall­out.

For vot­ers, the ques­tion comes down towhomto be­lieve and what kind of con­duct they con­sider over the line. Un­like Caserta, Oliv­e­ri­owas never ac­cused of any phys­i­cal mis­con­duct, and Fe­dor’s was the only such com­plaint lodged against him as a coun­cil­man.

Chris­tensen said that while Caserta’s cam­paign is ef­fec­tively over and he’s now a “very dam­aged can­di­date … I think Oliv­e­rio is still a strong can­di­date.”

Still, nei­ther is likely im­mune from the al­le­ga­tions, and women vot­ers — ener- gized in part by op­po­si­tion to Don­ald Trump — could help bump El­len­berg, who has fo­cused on chil­dren and fam­i­lies and earned sup­port from lo­cal women’s groups, to­ward the top in June.

“I think it gives a boost sig­nif­i­cantly to Su­san El­len­berg in the pri­maries,” Chris­tensen said, adding that the con­tro­versy could also help Rocha be­cause much of the union vote had been split be­tween him and Caserta.

“I think this now puts more em­pha­sis on some of the is­sues ( El­len­berg’s) long been po­si­tioned to fo­cus on,” agreed Gar­rick Per­ci­val, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at San Jose State who also has fol­lowed the race.

There hasn’t been any re­li­able polling in the race, so it’s un­clear ex­actly how vot­ers feel about the can­di­dates. There’s a good deal of sim­i­lar­ity be­tween El­len­berg, Caserta and Rocha, with Oliv­e­rio lean­ing more to­ward the right fis­cally.

“There’s not a lot of pol­icy dif­fer­ences be­tween can­di­dates,” Per­ci­val said. “When you don’t have huge pol­icy dif­fer­ences, it comes down to lead­er­ship styles, the ap­proach, char­ac­ter, per­son­al­ity.”

That’s par­tic­u­larly true if Caserta stays in the race, Per­ci­val added. If he drops out, pol­icy could be­come more of a fo­cus. So far, though, Caserta has said he will not quit.

In other words, Chris­tensen said, “It’s still a re­ally hot race.”



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