By Alexei Koseff

It's unusual for an incumbent in the California Legislature to draw a challenger from his or her own party. But last week, backed by two Assembly members in nearby districts, Democrat Vicky Santana announced her campaign for the southeast Los Angeles County Senate seat held by Sen. Tony Mendoza.

The Artesia Democrat is currently on a leave of absence while the Senate investigates complaints that he made inappropriate advances on young female employees. As revelations of Mendoza's behavior dovetailed last fall with allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore pursued sexual relationships with teenage girls, and with lingering anger over President Donald Trump's comments about grabbing women, Santana said she began to consider jumping into the race for the 32nd Senate District.

"There's nothing I could do in Alabama. There's nothing I could at the national level. But there is something I could do in my own community," Santana, who serves on the Rio Hondo College board, said. "When women are in office, the conversation changes a little bit."

A national movement against workplace sexual harassment has rocked the Capitol over the past four months, driving at least two lawmakers from office, and the reverberations continue in politics statewide. Female lawmakers say it is helping inspire a new wave of candidates and momentum in their ongoing efforts to elect more women to Sacramento.

While their numbers have ebbed to the lowest level in more than two decades -- there are just 27 women in the 120-member Legislature -- a trio of special elections in Los Angeles-area Assembly seats offers an early opportunity to reverse the trend. At least one woman has filed to run in each of these districts vacated by men, including those of Democrats Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, who both resigned last fall amid accusations of sexual misconduct.

"There are people who see a poetic justice in replacing someone who was a sexual predator with a woman," said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, who chairs the committee overhauling the Legislature's sexual harassment policies. She recently endorsed Tricia Robbins Kasson, the only woman among eight candidates running to succeed Dababneh.

But, Friedman added, "we need more women, regardless of who they're replacing."

The push to increase female representation at the Capitol precedes #MeToo and Trump. Outside groups like EMILY's List, California Women Lead, Emerge California and Close the Gap CA have recruited, trained and promoted candidates for decades.

Women In Power PAC, created in 2010, works with Democratic members of the California Legislative Women's Caucus and has aggressively stepped up its fundraising in the past two years. Last fall, the political action committee spent nearly $67,000 to help Wendy Carillo win a special election for a Los Angeles Assembly district after Jimmy Gomez was elected to Congress. Caucus leaders estimate that if women win half all open legislative seats, they can achieve parity by 2026, once lawmakers under the new 12-year term limits start terming out.

Female legislators say having more women at the Capitol brings a different perspective on priority issues, such as child care, and changes a culture of sexual harassment that led nearly 150 women to publish an open letter last October decrying the treatment they've faced in California politics.

"It is our time to make a difference by electing more women to office," Sen. Connie Leyva, a Chino Democrat who is vice chair of the women's caucus, said. "As women, we've got to have each other's back."

Friedman said there's "no question" that it's more difficult for women to run for office. They often come to politics later, she said, and don't have the same deep roots as their male opponents do from lengthy political careers to raise money and seek endorsements.

"You traditionally don't see women waking up when they're 23 and deciding to run for Congress, but men do it all the time," she said. "There's a sense of entitlement for men, and a sense that they belong in the executive chair."

Friedman said that she and her female colleagues are working to develop a "farm team" of women politicians at all levels of government. When she was on the Glendale City Council, she said, she appointed a lot of women to boards and commissions so they would be prepared to run for office when opportunities became available.

"They don't just pop up out of nowhere. They have to be developed. And it's up to us as people that are elected to look around and look for those women that are in positions where they could take that next step," she said. "It's our responsibility as people that are elected to actually ask them."

Women are also stepping up more since the attention on sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct last fall created a conversation about power imbalances in industries from Hollywood to Washington, D.C.

Four women are running to replace Bocanegra and two have filed in the 54th Assembly District, where Sebastian Ridley-Thomas stepped down in December citing health problems. Leyva said the women's caucus still needs to meet to decide if its going to endorse and financially support any of those female candidates.

"It's a wonderful problem to have," she said.

Republican Senate Leader Pat Bates said she's been using the energy around #MeToo in her recruiting for the California Women's Leadership Association, an advocacy and politics training organization for conservative women that was instrumental in kickstarting her own legislative career in the 1990s. She is focused on "building a bench" of Republican women at the local level in California.

"I've heard women say it's time for more women to get involved," she said. "So I say, 'Is that you? Are you ready?'"

"The opportunities are there significantly now. Another Year of the Woman is upon us," she added.

Recent sexual misconduct allegations against the women's caucus chair, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, may complicate their efforts.

The Bell Gardens Democrat has been a driving force behind the increased fundraising for Women In Power PAC, but she took a leave of absence last week while the Assembly investigates a complaint that she drunkenly groped a young male staffer at a legislative softball game in 2014. The Riverside County Republican Party has already tried to use the accusations against Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, one of the most vulnerable legislative Democrats in this year's election, calling on her to return $4,400 in donations from Garcia.

"They're just that at this point -- accusations," Leyva said. She said the women's caucus will let the investigation take its course and allow candidates to make their own decisions about endorsements and money.

Though it is the central issue at the Capitol right now, it's not clear how much sexual harassment will permeate into legislative races throughout the year.

Luz Rivas, who won the California Democratic Party endorsement for Bocanegra's old seat, said she hears more concerns from voters about health care, housing, education and getting higher-paying jobs.

The founder of local nonprofit to get young girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math, Riva entered the race because she felt it was "the time to have a strong woman leader representing this community. That's what I would have wanted even if it wasn't me." Aside from occasional questions, however, residents of the 39th Assembly District seem to have largely moved on from Bocanegra's behavior.

"When I talk to people, they don't talk about it too much. They're already looking to the future," Rivas said.

(c)2018 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)