Rising New Mexico Democrat fighting harassment allegations

By , , on November 21, 2017


Flag of New Mexico (Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
Flag of New Mexico (Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

SANTA FE, N.M. — A rising star in the Democratic Party who gained national attention for tackling poverty in New Mexico that he once faced is fighting for his political future amid new scrutiny on allegations that he sexually harassed women at a previous job a decade ago.

Now a candidate for the state’s second-highest office of lieutenant governor, Padilla said Monday in a text message that he was forging ahead with his campaign. Padilla has long denied the claims dating to 2006 that he links to issues of a hostile workplace environment, not sexual harassment.

Padilla “has done some great work, particularly on poverty issues, but he now has to face this issue,” state Democratic Party Chairman Richard Ellenberg said. “We would like to have our representatives avoiding these sorts of charges. It is dispiriting to have people who in many ways are thought of being very good and constructive accused of unacceptable behaviour.”

Padilla helped New Mexico this year become the first state to ban shaming children with unpaid meal accounts in public school lunchrooms. He drew on his own childhood growing up in foster care in one of the nation’s poorest states, citing his experience mopping floors in exchange for free midday meals.

The state Democratic Party announced plans to require all candidates to undergo training for sexual harassment prevention or lose access to its voter databases and communications apparatus. The Legislature plans to review its harassment policies and institute new training, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said Monday.

It comes as statehouses nationwide are dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct in a wave of claims against powerful people in politics, entertainment, business and elsewhere. A Democratic assemblyman in California who is facing sexual harassment allegations said Monday that he won’t seek re-election next year.

In New Mexico, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat running for governor, urged Padilla last week to abandon his run for lieutenant governor.

Padilla was accused in two federal lawsuits of harassing women while helping the city of Albuquerque overhaul a problem-plagued emergency call centre in 2006. The city ended up settling “sexually hostile work environment” claims stemming from Padilla’s six-week tenure as a supervisor.

He has adamantly denied accusations that he asked women on dates despite repeated rejections and made inappropriate comments, including saying that in his home, “women stay home, make tortillas and have babies.”

“I was raised at the end of my high school years by my three sisters, so I would never dream of saying something like that,” Padilla said. “This is not who I am, this is not a pattern. This was 11 years ago, and there has never been an accusation like this again.”

He has had to defend himself from the 2006 allegations during two successful runs for state Senate.

Padilla rose to Senate leadership as majority whip, acting as the party’s point person on longstanding efforts to boost spending on early childhood education as a remedy to poverty.

At the same time, the divorced father of two has built a prosperous consulting business for in-bound call centres across the U.S. and in Mexico, handling contracts that involve thousands of workers at a time.

The youngest of five children, Padilla had an abusive father and a mother who was unable to care for him. He said he passed through foster care in at least seven cities across the state.

Padilla frequently invokes his longtime ties to a state suffering from heroin addiction and chronic unemployment. The senator regularly holds “matanzas” — a traditional Hispanic gathering centred on the slaughtering of a pig — that attracts many New Mexico Democrats looking to make inroads with Latino voters.

Eleanor Chavez, a former state representative, brought up the allegations of sexual harassment in a 2012 Democratic primary against Padilla for a state Senate seat. He angrily denied the accusations, but Chavez kept bringing up the cases because she said the women were trying to deal with the trauma six years later.

“The pain was real and still there,” Chavez said. “But I think Padilla felt he was vindicated because he won.”

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Associated Press writer Russell Contreras contributed to this report from Albuquerque, New Mexico.