When Zenaida Huerta CM ’20 was a high school senior, she spent the entire year working for former California state Sen. Tony Mendoza. Last month, she helped ensure that he was denied his own party’s endorsement by convincing Democratic delegates to vote against the state Senator.
Her change of heart came about after allegations of unwanted sexual advances emerged against Mendoza last September, forcing him to resign Feb. 22.
“My initial reaction was just shock,” Huerta said. “I figured that even though I’ve had a connection with state Senator Tony Mendoza, this is wrong and he shouldn’t be in office any more.”
One of the people who accused Mendoza was 19 — the same age as Huerta.
As the incumbent for the Senate seat in the 32nd District, Mendoza would normally automatically receive the Democratic Party endorsement. But Huerta, a Democratic party assembly delegate, petitioned other delegates to deny him the endorsement.
“We are setting a higher standard,” Huerta said. “If someone is sexually harassing someone than they’re out.”
The effort to deny Mendoza the endorsement wasn’t easy, Huerta said. To pull the Democratic endorsement, 20 percent of delegates had to sign a petition.
Throughout the process, Huerta had to speak to many of the delegates individually to convince them to vote against endorsement, and faced a constituency that still admired Mendoza. Others feared political retaliation.
Huerta said her group wrote press releases, contacted delegates one-by-one, and relied on other state Democrats to speak to delegates they did not know personally.
“In order to effect change, you have to make these connections, to sell people on the principle,” Huerta said. “This was about the principle of supporting women — it wasn’t about expediency.”
Throughout the process, Huerta said she consulted with her adviser, Claremont McKenna College government professor Jack Pitney.
“Zenaida is a profile in courage,” Pitney said. “As a college student, she stood up to an established state senator, not just symbolically, but in a very direct, material way.”
Over winter break, Huerta said, Mendoza met with her and some of the other delegates dedicated to stopping the party endorsement when he heard about their plan to petition for no endorsement.
Mendoza wanted to set the record straight, and said the allegations made against him were designed to support Sen. Dianne Feinstein, because one of the women who made allegations against Mendoza was a staffer of someone who supported Feinstein, Huerta said.
“Even though the allegations hadn’t been proven yet, [the meeting] made me feel more apt to believe them,” Huerta said. “It was just mental gymnastics, it didn’t make any sense.”
Huerta relied on public pressure and the media to help with her effort, but also said the #MeToo movement and “We Said Enough” — an organization that connects victims of sexual assault and harassment with each other — played critical roles in the campaign.
“The culture of sexual harassment has existed for so long and is so pervasive and nobody has talked about it, and when somebody did talk about it, it was brushed under the rug,” Huerta said. “So what #MeToo has done, it was like a liberation.”
Despite the shifting culture, when Huerta attended the party convention at the end of last month, she wasn’t sure her work had paid off.
“Very powerful people were backing him and it wasn’t until days before that the power started kind of pulling away and endorsing other candidates and I think that’s because a few days before [the convention] they released the full Senate investigation,” Huerta said.
Senate investigators determined that it was “more likely than not” that Mendoza had sexually harassed at least six women over a period of 10 years. Mendoza was denied the party endorsement in a 35-10 vote by the Democratic delegates.
“It’s unfortunate that there [have] to be [so many allegations] to get someone to believe in you,” Huerta said. “It should have just been one woman.”
Party endorsements help candidates stand out from competitors, Pitney said. Without it, he added, Mendoza will be cut off from important resources. The candidate receives no material resources from the party and cannot be distinguished from his or her competitors in the race for the nomination.
“[Mendoza] will probably cast himself as the outsider fighting nefarious insiders,” Pitney said. “Which is nonsense, but that’s what he’ll claim.”
Huerta said she was not surprised Mendoza decided to continue running for re-election despite being forced to resign, but hopes the Democrats pulling his endorsement could still serve as a national example.
“I’m hoping that various other state legislatures can set that standard too, knowing that this is the litmus test,” Huerta said. “This is a litmus tests that transcends political platform.”
Mendoza’s office did not respond to TSL’s request for comment.