Mickey Kasparian San Diego Working Families Council
Mickey Kasparian speaks at Voice of San Diego’s Politifest 2016 / Photo by Vito Di Stefano
Mickey Kasparian speaks at Voice of San Diego’s Politifest 2016 / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

The night before the #MeToo movement started and kicked off a wave of reckoning for powerful men across the country, five local elected officials appeared with labor leader Mickey Kasparian at the first meeting of a group he was launching, the San Diego Working Families Council.

The Working Families Council was the outcome of a rift in the labor movement following multiple allegations that Kasparian had sexually harassed, assaulted and discriminated against women.

One of the elected officials who stood with him on Oct. 4, San Diego City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, now says she was not aware of the allegations against Kasparian when she attended the meeting. The allegations were made 10 months earlier, the subject of multiple reports that provoked an intense intra-party conflict that continues to rage among Democrats.

Kasparian, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, had earlier in the year left his leadership post at the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council – a powerful union of the region’s unions – after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment to gender discrimination.

The new Working Families Council was holding its first delegates meeting. It sent a signal that he still had support from major figures in the local Democratic Party.

Cole, Assemblyman Todd Gloria, State Sen. Ben Hueso, San Diego Unified School District Trustee Kevin Beiser and Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas all attended the event.

At the end, they all gathered together around Kasparian for a photo, fists raised in solidarity.

The Oct. 4, 2017 delegates meeting of the San Diego Working Families Council. / Via San Diego Working Families Council Facebook page.

The next morning, on Oct. 5, the New York Times released its investigation into Hollywood media mogul Harvey Weinstein and his years of abusive treatment of women in his industry.

What became the #MeToo movement had started. Powerful men resigned after dozens of women came forward to report inappropriate behavior. Where figures may have previously weathered a few bad news cycles, they were now promptly being forced to resign.

In the political world, people who had been allies of those accused of abhorrent behavior began stepping forward to demand resignations.

But that has largely not been the case in San Diego.

Kasparian was accused of gender discrimination and sexual assault in December of 2016, nearly 10 months before the #MeToo movement started. Until last month, Councilman David Alvarez was alone in calling for him to resign over the allegations.

Then Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, following a new lawsuit against Kasparian, said he should resign from the the local Democratic Party’s central committee, but said the members of UFCW should decide whether he continues to run the influential and well-heeled union.

Union-Tribune reporter Josh Stewart this week began seeking yes-or-no responses to a series of questions from elected officials and candidates running in 2018. Four candidates or elected officials have said he should resign.

I was instead interested just in the responses of those who raised their fists in solidarity with Kasparian 10 months after allegations against him came to light, and the day before the start of the #MeToo movement.

In interviews this week, those officials declined to say whether he should resign, nor did they express any hesitancy in continuing to work with him.

One official even said she had never heard of the 10-month-old allegations against Kasparian when she took the photo.

“This photo was taken at the Working Family Council Delegates meeting,” Cole spokeswoman Paulene De Mesa wrote in an email. “Members of several unions are in the picture including Mickey Kasparian. Council President Cole was not aware of any allegations against Mickey at that time.”

De Mesa said the union members who make up the Working Families Council should be left to determine its leadership, and said she’d speak with them directly if they wish.

Likewise, Gloria said the members of UFCW Local 135 should determine who leads them.

“Mickey has been elected by his members and, therefore, Todd feels it is up to the membership to decide whether or not to keep him in that position,” Gloria spokesman Nick Serrano wrote in an email.

He said Gloria wouldn’t hesitate to continue working with Kasparian and UFCW.

“Of course he will continue to work with UFCW,” Serrano wrote. “It represents thousands of grocery store, retail, meat packing, food processing, and distillery workers that live and work in the 78th Assembly District. These workers have a right to support elected officials/candidates of their choice regardless of who leads the union.”

In a phone interview this week, Salas said she was upset that Kasparian’s situation has split former allies on the left. She said she just wants to get back to people with common cause working to improve workers’ lives.

She said she attended the Working Families Council’s delegates meeting because it was about workers, not Kasparian.

When asked whether she factored the allegations into her decision, Salas said she had said enough on the topic and hung up the phone.

A spokeswoman for Hueso had not provided a response by close of business Thursday.

Beiser did not respond to a request for comment.

Also in the photo with Kasparian and the officials is Dale Kelly Bankhead, a former leader with the Labor Council who left with Kasparian to form the Working Families Council – a group that includes UFCW and other unions like SEIU Local 221, Teamsters Local 542 and OPEIU Local 30.

In a letter to allies in late 2016, Bankhead responded to the allegations against Kasparian, before they created their new splinter group.

In it, she said many of the accusations came from women with grudges against Kasparian, and said it all “comes in the context of a heated internal power play at the Labor Council stemming from unhappiness within the Building Trades about their inability to persuade other to support their agenda.”

She responded in two ways that have become common as the number of allegations against high-profile men has increased: she blamed fake news, and she said she normally believes women, though not in this case.

“I have also always said, ‘Believe the women,’” she wrote. “So anyone who wanted to drive a wedge between me and Mickey could not have chosen a more powerful weapon. On the other hand, I know enough about the facts of this situation, and of Mickey’s character, to be unwilling to support the efforts by some to force Mickey to step down as President of the Labor Council.”

“I also know, as do you, that the local San Diego media are no friend of the progressive community and that they lack the professionalism to present a balanced reporting of the facts.”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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