Supervisors racemarred by harassment allegations
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.”