REGION — A former San Diego mayoral candidate and social justice advocate who recently publicized sexual assault allegations against the chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party believes the situation is being mishandled by party leadership and is emblematic of a culture that fails to empower victims.
Tasha Williamson is a longtime Democratic party activist who posted on Facebook last week about an alleged sexual assault perpetrated by Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chair of the San Diego Democratic Party. Rodriguez-Kennedy announced on Friday he will take a leave of absence while authorities and party officials investigate the matter.
“The Chair of the San Diego Democratic Party needs to tell the Party about the allegations against him! Allegations of sex without consent are rape!” Williamson wrote in her Facebook post.
Within hours of Williamson’s post, Lauren Bier, co-chair of the party’s ethics committee, confirmed the group was launching a formal investigation into the alleged incident.
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office later confirmed to the San Diego Union-Tribune that it was investigating the allegations against Rodriguez-Kennedy, although no criminal charges have been filed.
Rodriguez-Kennedy denied all wrongdoing in a formal statement provided to the media last week.
“The allegations against me are completely false and I will work vigorously to clear my name and prove my innocence but that takes time and in the meantime our Party has critical work that must continue on,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said. “To balance the equity of providing a way for accusers to be heard while also balancing the rights of the accused to due process I have requested that the San Diego County Democratic Party’s Ethics Committee review the claim. To ensure the independence of this process, I will be taking a leave of absence from the Party to allow this work to be done and so that I may focus on proving my innocence.”
In an interview with The Coast News, Williamson shared more details about the specifics of the allegations and lambasted senior party officials for their handling of the affair.
Williamson said the victim, a male adult whom she chose not to identify, approached her in April and told her about the purported incident involving the Democratic chairman. The victim apparently told Williamson that Rodriguez-Kennedy had nonconsensual sex with him while intoxicated.
According to Rodriguez-Kennedy’s statement, the purported victim was someone with whom he had been “in a committed relationship.” Rodriguez-Kennedy also did not identify this individual.
The victim filed a police report and told party leadership about the incident, but Williamson said the group’s response was largely anemic, with little or no resources being offered for the victim. In fact, Williamson alleges some party officials behaved in a hostile and threatening manner toward the victim after the initial report was filed.
“They did not treat this man like the victim of a sex crime, they were unable to offer him resources, services, or support,” Williamson told The Coast News. “I believe that members of the party were aware of what had happened and I know that there were people that were told that evidently either didn’t know the process for handling a complaint like this or were afraid to take it any further, they were afraid of losing their careers or standing out within the party.”
Williamson said the response this victim received is typical and unsurprising from her standpoint, based on the party’s past treatment of similar allegations.
“This victim is very afraid, there’s been accounts from other people in this party of situations where there’s been retaliation,” Williamson said. “People have told me that they’ve been forced out of town, that they’ve lost jobs when folks have come out with information that they believe is factual, so that causes a lot of fear in this victim because he is aware of the victim shaming that’s already started going on. And yes, there’s even been attacks on myself for making this public.”
Specifically, Williamson referred to past allegations against regional Democratic party figures, including former state Democratic party chair Eric Bauman, former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and labor union leader Mickey Kasparian, claiming these incidents, and other similar situations, have demonstrated alarming lethargy among Democrats when it comes to handling cases of misconduct or abuse.
“This party clearly has a long way to go when it comes to ensuring that victim’s needs are met and that the proper supports are provided,” Williamson said. “I want a party that protects victims, that has an accountability to lessen the risk to anyone else who will experience this, but if I was a victim watching this process I would have a difficult time coming forward. This party is cliquish and it can be brutal when you go against the grain, leaving some people at a disadvantage and in fear.”
According to Williamson, Rodriguez-Kennedy did not disclose the incident to the Democratic party’s ethics committee after it had occurred.
Williamson, angered at the thought of a potential cover up, said she then made the decision to publicize the allegations in last week’s Facebook post.
Since Rodriguez-Kennedy is also the chair of the party’s ethics committee, Bier said the group’s investigation of the incident will be handled by the committee’s chair pro tem.
“It will be going to the committee’s formal process and will be investigated per our procedures,” Bier said. “The Chair will not be involved outside of the testimony he provides. Our chair pro tem will step in to observe the process and take the tiebreaker slot, should we need one.”
However, Williamson cast doubt on the impartiality of the investigation, claiming that multiple members of the committee had already publicly expressed their biases on the matter via social media. Due to Rodriguez-Kennedy’s intimate connection to the committee, Williamson argued the in-house review would likely not be impartial and should have been referred to a third-party investigator.
Williamson also shared screenshots with The Coast News of a Facebook post from Ryan Michael Darsey, a Democratic committee member, who wrote: “There is a special place in hell for people who disgustingly lie to try and tear people down” — an apparent reference to the accusations against Rodriguez-Kennedy, Williamson believes. Numerous other central committee members, including Kate Bishop, who is also a member of the ethics committee, reportedly “liked” Darsey’s Facebook post.
Bishop told The Coast News she could not comment on the situation due to her position on the ethics committee.
Such behavior on social media from party officials is not only unacceptable but undermines the objectivity of the group’s investigation into the incident, Williamson said.
“For these people to post and then like this post who are in the ethics committee, it’s a problem,” Williamson said. “There should be an independent investigation, not an investigation within the ethics committee, because there’s just too many biases. These people are all friends and friends of friends, but that’s how this party has functioned and that’s how this party has handled power.
“It’s disheartening to see because these are the biases that we all know exist and this is what makes it hard for victims to come forward, and it makes it harder for other victims to come forward that are witnessing and watching this unfold so that they can be supported and provided services, so I don’t think that these people are aware of how far this damage really goes.”
Biers and other party leaders did not respond to requests from The Coast News to comment on Williamson’s claims.
In a Facebook post regarding the impartiality of the ethics committee, Biers issued the following statement:
“We strive to maintain objectivity by having a diverse group of members, some of whom have legal training or qualifications in mediation. It is our job to examine the parties, their evidence, and their witnesses as objectively as possible and to recuse ourselves from the consideration if we are unable to do so. We sign agreements to maintain the integrity of the process and could ourselves be subject to ethics complaints if we do not comply.”
Going forward, Williamson said she hopes for more transparency and accountability from party officials, as well as a greater emphasis on connecting victims with meaningful resources when similar incidents transpire in the future.
“They should make it effortless for people to come forward, even letting them do so anonymously,” Williamson said. “Everyone should know that there is a process for this. I don’t believe that people understand that there’s a clear cut process, that they know when the meeting take place for the ethics committee, that there even is an ethics committee.
“They need to take a deep dive and streamline that process so that it’s not hidden so that people are well aware that the party is moving toward a process and a generation of supporting victims immediately. I want a party that protects victims, that has an accountability process to lessen the risk to anyone else. I’m not demanding a party that ensures that there are no victims but there has to be a process to ensure that we’re not just throwing everybody away, but that we’re making sure that people are safe.”