By Melanie Mason
Eric Bauman, the powerful chairman of the California Democratic Party, made crude sexual comments and engaged in unwanted touching or physical intimidation in professional settings, 10 party staff members and political activists said in interviews with The Times.
When presented with the allegations, Bauman said in a statement Wednesday that he planned to seek treatment for health issues and alcohol use.
"I deeply regret if my behavior has caused pain to any of the outstanding individuals with whom I've had the privilege to work. I appreciate the courage it took for these individuals to come forward to tell their stories," Bauman said.
"In the interest of allowing the CDP's independent investigation to move forward, I do not wish to respond to any of the specific allegations. However, I will use the time I am on leave to immediately seek medical intervention to address serious, ongoing health issues and to begin treatment for what I now realize is an issue with alcohol," he said.
"Leading the California Democratic Party to historic victories has been the honor of a lifetime, and I look forward to continuing this important work upon the conclusion of the investigation and when my health allows," Bauman, 59, said in his statement.
The allegations come after a tumultuous week in which Bauman was accused of unspecified misconduct and took a leave of absence.
In a letter last week calling for Bauman's resignation, Vice Chairman Daraka Larimore-Hall referred only to "a clear and escalating pattern of Chairman Bauman's horrific and dehumanizing behavior."
Bauman, who is gay, is a fixture in California and LGBTQ politics. A former nurse who ascended to the top echelon of the state Democratic Party, Bauman has built a reputation for being brash and boisterous, with a large circle of allies within the party.
As chairman, he is the face of the Democratic Party in California and helps guide its campaign efforts, fundraising and policy positions.
But the people who spoke to The Times said his familiarity crossed the line into inappropriate conduct over more than a decade, behavior that at times appeared to be tolerated by some in the party.
Some of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear it could hurt their careers. Others said they felt conflicting emotions about speaking out, knowing it could harm the party.
"People just didn't know how to speak up about it," said Allan Acevedo, a political consultant who is active in the youth arm of the party. "There was a sense of loyalty. Not just to him, but to any advancement that any LGBT person makes in terms of us having representation at the table."
Eight current party staffers said that, while he was serving as chairman, Bauman would regularly make sexually explicit comments in the workplace to men and women, including remarks about sexual acts, his and other staffers' genitalia, and being sexually attracted to staff members.
One female staffer based in Southern California said Bauman made obscene comments to her at an official dinner in September 2017.
The staffer, who describes herself as a masculine-presenting woman, said Bauman, using explicit language, told her that she must have been a gay man in her past life because he wanted to sleep with her. She said he made another remark about men he liked to have sex with. Another party staffer told The Times that the woman discussed the incident with her soon after the event.
A gay male party official said that during professional interactions with Bauman, the party chairman inquired about his sex life with his partner.
The Times reviewed text messages between the official and Bauman that show Bauman making sexually suggestive remarks. The official also said he witnessed Bauman taunting staff members on multiple occasions about their sexual orientation and their physical appearance.
The eight staff members each said they also experienced or witnessed Bauman engaging in unwanted touching, particularly directed toward male staffers.
One staffer said that, starting in October and continuing through the November election, he received unwanted attention from Bauman, including touching his back and abdomen, and a prolonged hug in which the chairman groaned. He said Bauman also made sexually charged comments to him in front of colleagues, and whispered into his ear.
A current staff member told The Times that Bauman directed physical and verbal attention at the staffer and said the touching and comments appeared to make the staffer uncomfortable. The staffer said he spoke to a supervisor about Bauman's behavior, but the supervisor dissuaded him from pressing the issue.
In another incident, a harassment complaint was filed against Bauman following a November bus tour in which party officials and staff traveled the state to rally with Democratic candidates.
Grace Leekley, 21, a temporary worker in the party's communications department, said she had chosen not to go on the bus, in part because she did not want to be in close quarters with Bauman. She met up with the tour at a Nov. 1 event in Chico and joined the staff for lunch, where she sat next to Kate Earley, 21, who had started about six weeks earlier as the party's digital director.
Leekley and Earley said that during the lunch, Bauman shushed the staffers at the table and then asked the women, within earshot of their colleagues, if the two were having an affair. When both women said no, Bauman pressed the issue, they said, telling them he would not mind if they were involved in a sexual relationship so long as it did not affect the workplace.
"I felt really embarrassed, almost ashamed, and uncomfortable," Leekley said. "I'm basically bottom-of-the-barrel staff -- and he's the most powerful man in the party. I didn't feel comfortable saying anything."
A party staffer told The Times that he heard Bauman make the comments and said the two women told him afterward they felt deeply uncomfortable. Earley filed a complaint to her supervisor within 30 minutes of the incident and spoke with the human resources department later that day, she said. Her attorney said the complaint remains unresolved. As of the time he took a leave of absence on Monday, Bauman had not seen a formal complaint, according to a source close to the chairman.
The state Democratic Party's handbook prohibits harassment, including "verbal abuse of a sexual nature, graphic verbal commentaries about an individual's body, sexually degrading words used to describe an individual, and suggestive or obscene letters, notes, or invitations," as well as "physical conduct such as assault (unwanted touching), blocking normal movement, or interfering with work directed at an individual because of his or her sex or any other basis."
It also has a policy against alcohol use in the workplace or while performing official duties. Leekley, Earley and five other staff members who spoke to The Times all said they witnessed Bauman frequently consuming alcohol during the workday, sometimes as early as midmorning.
Just months into his tenure as party chairman last November -- with the country focused on the #MeToo movement -- Bauman said the party had a "100% no-tolerance policy" on sexual harassment.
"Nobody should go to work and be in fear, be looking over their shoulder or dodging down the hallway because a bully or harasser is coming," he said at a speaking event.
Before taking the helm of the state party, Bauman was Los Angeles County Democratic Party chairman from 2000 to 2017, earning a reputation as a gregarious and intimidating party boss.
"I am, in appropriate circumstances, very aggressive. But on the natural, because of my Bronx demeanor, I always come off like a tough guy," he said in a 2017 interview with The Times during his campaign for state chair. "People come up to me on the street all the time and think I am Joe Pesci. I try to work with that."
Bauman moved to Hollywood from New York when he was 18 years old. He would go on to work as a registered nurse, and met his now-husband, also a nurse, at a hospital coffee shop. He then became a union organizer at Los Angeles-area hospitals and became active in the Democratic Party.
He joined and later became president of the Los Angeles County Stonewall Democratic Club, a political group that advocates for LGBTQ rights, and from that perch launched his successful campaign to lead the county party.
One of Bauman's accusers, a Southern California man who is involved with progressive causes, said he was 17 and a high school senior when he met with Bauman, then the county chairman, in 2006 for an informational interview about building a career in politics. The man, who is gay, said he and Bauman were broadly discussing how the experience of LGBTQ people had changed over time.
He said Bauman told him in explicit language that, if it were the 1980s, Bauman would take him to the back alley and have sex with him without using protection. A friend of the man told The Times that the man recounted the incident to him in 2017.
"He was aware I was a high school student. I wasn't in college yet," said the man, who is now in his late 20s. "Even if I was 18, even if it happened now, it would be profoundly unacceptable."
Acevedo was getting his start in state Democratic politics in 2009 when he first met Bauman. He recalled Bauman hanging around with Acevedo and other young gay men. He said Bauman would make comments about which men he thought were cute and guessed at the preferred sexual roles of those in the group. The young men would make bawdy jokes as well, Acevedo said, and generally seemed to go along with his behavior.
Acevedo, now 29, progressed in party politics. In January 2016, while interim chairman of the California Young Democrats, Acevedo and his ex-boyfriend, a party staffer, had dinner with Bauman and his husband, Acevedo said. Acevedo planned to stay over at Bauman's house that night and said Bauman made a number of comments that evening about Acevedo having sex at his home. Acevedo said he told Bauman to behave, and teased that he could revoke his endorsement of Bauman for state party chairman.
He said Bauman then grabbed the back of his neck in what he described as a "vise grip" and told Acevedo he knew the endorsement would not be pulled. When Acevedo asked why, he said Bauman squeezed down on his neck and said, "Because I would crush you." Acevedo did not respond to Bauman and the night proceeded. When the two men later got into a political argument, Acevedo said he decided to leave.
Acevedo's boyfriend at the time told The Times that Acevedo told him about a troubling interaction with Bauman within days after it happened.
Acevedo said he also considered speaking out publicly in 2017, when Bauman was engaged in a bitter campaign for the state party chairmanship against Bay Area Democratic organizer Kimberly Ellis. The political clash exposed a growing schism between party factions, fed in part by lingering resentment from the 2016 Democratic presidential primary between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ellis' backers included a large faction of Sanders supporters, while Bauman had the support of many traditional Democratic Party groups who stood with Clinton.
Hilary Crosby, a former party official, said Acevedo told her that spring that Bauman had put his hands around Acevedo's neck and threatened him. Lori Saldaña, a former state assemblywoman, said Acevedo told her that spring that Bauman had generally acted inappropriately with him and other young people involved with the party.
Acevedo decided not to go public at the time, in part, he said, because he worried the allegation would be politicized in the midst of a grueling chair's race. But he said he felt guilty for not coming forward.
"It scared me how I didn't say something sooner and I didn't speak up right away," Acevedo said. He said the incident made him question how much he wanted to be involved in party politics.
Just weeks before the vote for a new state Democratic Party leader, Bauman sent out an email to party members strongly denying what he said were unfair, unspecified rumors of misconduct that he called the "politics of personal destruction."
"Last Thursday evening, my phone bank team started hearing from some delegates that they had 'heard' that I have been engaging in inappropriate behavior with 14- and 16-year-old boys," Bauman wrote. "When I first heard it, I could not believe it and I brushed it off. Then, we heard it again on Friday and I became really angry. I'm a pretty tough guy and I can take the attacks, lies, distortions, and mud that has been slung at me pretty well. But to accuse me of child abuse, especially of this nature, is beyond the pale and 100% unacceptable."
Ellis and other party officials immediately denounced the allegations.
Bauman went on to win the chair's race by just 57 delegate votes. The job currently pays about $123,000 a year.
Larimore-Hall, the party's second vice chair, said the rumors about Bauman during the 2017 race were "heavy on homophobia and light on specifics."
But when he learned earlier this month about specific allegations involving party staff, he privately encouraged Bauman to resign immediately. When Bauman did not, Larimore-Hall sent a letter calling for his removal the following day. He has since remained in regular contact with some of the accusers to discuss logistics, legal remedies and next steps.
The vice chair later told party delegates, "[I]t is completely unacceptable for Chairman Bauman to remain in office given these credible, corroborated and utterly heartbreaking allegations."
Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.
(c)2018 the Los Angeles Times