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Women have been rising in the ranks of political activism in recent years, and 2018 is a record year for the sheer number of women running for office.
Many first-time candidates, especially Democrats, cite the Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018, disgust with the Trump presidency and the powerful #MeToo movement as their impetus to run.
Activism, employment and candidacy within the San Diego County Democratic Party, however, remains unsafe, rife with potential for unchecked sexual harassment and worse, despite several attempts to create fair internal systems of accountability since the resignation of disgraced former Mayor Bob Filner in 2013.
We have had enough. Now is the time to reject silence and demand action from the party whose very success and future rests on the backs of women. Most telling about the current state of affairs: We have been meeting in private for months, keeping our activities secret, because we suspected our efforts to make change might be subverted by the very party whose ideals inspire us, and for whose successes we continue to work tirelessly.
No more hiding, no more private requests for help that go unheeded; no more silence. As April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it is more timely than ever to act.
Until now, party leadership has left us with civil and criminal litigation as our only due process remedy. As such, only a handful of the worst claims become known, and the survivors in our ranks remain unsupported and exposed, revictimized and suffering ridicule rather than receiving comfort and justice. While we are committed to supporting legislation that will ban confidential settlements and similar remedies in litigation related to sexual harassment, that is not enough. We demand options often superior to criminal justice, such as restorative justice.
The need for change to address our continued lack of safety has been evident for years.
In October 2013, Filner pleaded guilty to criminal charges involving three women at public events. In March 2016, a jury in a civil case against Filner agreed that he sexually harassed a female city employee. Despite this, the more than 20 women who publicly shared stories of his sexual harassment and the fact that the city paid out settlements to some who survived his mistreatment, there remain vocal supporters of Filner within the local party who deny this history and claim San Diego Democrats would be better off had Filner remained in office.
Last March, after calling for an internal investigation and the credentials removal of a member of the party’s Central Committee due to disturbing allegations in multiple lawsuits involving him, party leadership promised to create an internal process to resolve future harassment complaints. Another party-endorsed elected Democrat was accused in 2017 of sexual harassment, fraud and defamation among former contestants of the beauty pageants he runs, yet he remains prominent in a party-sanctioned club and is now running for higher office. A full year after we were promised a fair, internal process to address sexual harassment claims regarding Democrats in our ranks, this vow remains unfulfilled.
Primary season is now in full flurry, and heightened electoral activities foster more opportunities for mistreatment. Too many women are still exposed to harassment at every level of participation: from canvassing, clubs and campaigns to the highest elected offices.
This organizational body must enact the ideals we espouse. The Democratic Party platform commits to uplift those who are socially and economically marginalized in our society. This includes our most vulnerable: women who are poor, women of color, LGBT and genderqueer individuals, and women in jobs that are low-paying and carry low social status, such as domestic workers, hotel workers and cleaning staff. Candidates who run on this platform speak eloquently with promises of support and allyship, but words and actions are too often mismatched.
We demand that a party that claims to trust women with our own bodily autonomy acts like it when deciding whether a candidate who has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and assault is deserving of our money, time and talents. Our leaders should not turn a blind eye when candidates align themselves with funders who have settled multiple such claims. We demand that a party that claims to believe in science looks to the best evidence we have on what works to prevent sexual violence and gender bias when deciding how to clean its own house.
Women are the backbone of the Democratic Party and we are putting the party on notice. We will not absorb the impacts of inaction on these issues. We are not going away. We are rising: no longer timidly asking for help, but demanding change.
Our countless hours of volunteerism have built the profile and successes of democratic clubs, candidates, elected officials and the party itself. We refuse to continue to work within any environment that is unsafe. We reject the notion that we must choose between succeeding in our political careers and championing causes we love, or withdrawing to protect our own bodily autonomy and safety.
Yes, sexual harassment happens everywhere, and institutions are failing us everywhere. We know; we’ve lived it. But we are committed to transforming this Democratic Party into one that sets the gold standard for protecting the health, safety and welfare of all its members.
We will no longer be confined to protecting one another via whisper networks and the buddy system at events; ensuring our friends are not cornered by those who feel entitled to encroach on our personal space. No longer will young activists who are exposed to harassment be given the false choice to remain silent or risk tarnishing budding political careers. Banished are the days of a culture of silence reliant on women’s minimization.
A Women’s Advisory Committee has recently been established within our party structure to begin to address this need, but this committee must be further empowered to make long-awaited changes.
Through this group, the Democratic Party in San Diego is finally poised to make cultural change to prevent sexual harassment and assaults, and has the potential to become a positive organizational example.
At the party’s annual Roosevelt Dinner this April 7, we will be watching. We will be talking to our allies and building support for the committee. These leaders must be given the tools they need to move forward. In a democratic community, this support equates to our trust and our votes of approval.
We demand safety within Democratic Party spaces and activities and a fair internal system of accountability. You cannot move forward without women, but together with supportive allies, we can lead the way for like-minded Democratic institutions in our state and nation.
For the women coming up the ranks behind us: We are fighting for you.
And we will win.
Nora E. Vargas
Temika M. Cook
Andrea Beth Damsky
Victoria A. Barba
Estela De Los Rios
Lisa Maytorena Schmidt
Livia Borak Beaudin