Op-Ed: I Was Harassed and Intimidated. Mayor Steve Ly Refused To Stop It.
In the 2018 campaign, my first political campaign for elected office, I worked side-by-side with Mayor Ly on a team of candidates hoping to be elected. Throughout the campaign, I suffered harassment and abuse from one of Mayor Ly’s paid campaign staffers.
After being notified many, many times about the harassment that I was enduring, Mayor Ly failed to act and sided with the abuser; thereby, allowing the harassment to continue and additional harm to transpire.
Sometimes, when women come forward, the systems and leaders that are in place fail them. Mayor Ly’s refusal to act failed me. The harassment I went through was intense and something that no person should have to go through. However, it did not break me. Despite the harassment that I endured, I pressed forward and won my election. I am now proudly serving my community on the board of the Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD).
I have been and continue to be a fierce advocate for equity and the dismantling of systems, including patriarchy, that continue to hold back women and communities of color. This is part of the reason I must speak out. If I want our daughters and granddaughters to have the opportunity to step into their power without fear of being harassed, I must tell my truth.
To those who will read my story and inevitably ask the question, “why wait two years to report it?”, my answer is a simple one. Until recently, I believed Mayor Ly’s failure to be unique to me. I now know that it’s not.
Hearing the stories of the many women in our community who have chosen to come forward with their personal accounts of the harassment and bullying they have experienced either directly from Mayor Steve Ly or from people Mayor Ly chooses to surround himself with, I am seeing that the ethical misconduct Mayor Ly engaged in during our campaign in 2018 was not an isolated incident. Instead, it demonstrates a disturbing pattern of behavior that needs to be addressed — another reason why I’m choosing to tell my story now.
The #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #WeSaidEnough movements have placed the harassment of women in the spotlight. They have demanded safer workplaces, organizations, cities, and states and, by coming forward, I hope to accomplish this for my city, the city that I love.
Here is my story.
During the 2018 campaign, a few Elk Grove candidates joined forces so that we could pool our money and resources together. We called ourselves “Team Elk Grove.” We began meeting in May, 2018 and we would frequently meet up until the November election to discuss campaign strategy and prepare campaign materials. Most of the time we met at Mayor Ly’s campaign office and most of the time, Mayor Ly’s paid campaign staff were present.
In addition to meeting at the campaign office, sometimes our team of candidates would attend community events together. Mayor Ly’s campaign staffers were often present for those events as well.
Almost from the beginning of my encounters with a particular campaign staffer, I had extreme concerns.
During our meetings, I directly observed this staff member disparage members of the LGBTQ community multiple times. This occurred directly in front of me and people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. He made racist comments. In fact, in front of another team member, he referred to Elk Grove students who chose to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance as “jigaboos.” He made sexist comments about women, sometimes referring to them as “bitches” and frequently making fun of the “Me Too” movement. He frequently referred to Muslims as “terrorists” and to those that didn’t agree with his views as “commies.”
I found myself defending the targeted groups frequently. I tried to stand my ground and send a message that I would not tolerate the hate that he was spewing about entire groups of people. These interactions occurred, on occasion, while the Mayor was present. In addition, I approached Mayor Ly directly several times regarding my concerns about his staffer’s behavior. Mayor Ly agreed that his associate’s comments were inexcusable, but he continued to employ him.
A few months prior to the election, I became a target.
On July 10th, 2018, at a South County Endorsement Meeting, this campaign staffer told me that “I would look better if I smiled more.” I asked him if he would ever tell a man that and then I walked away.
Shortly after that, at a campaign event and completely out of the blue, he looked me and said, “Your eyes are beautiful.” I felt extremely uncomfortable and I quipped back, “I’m really smart, too” then I walked away.
On a group text message with other candidates, he called me “blue eyes.” Then he texted, “[No] one is sweeter than me. I kiss girls and they get cavities.” I texted back one word: “Stop”.
I reported every incident to Mayor Ly. He would agree that the behavior was inappropriate, but he continued to employ him.
Mayor Ly’s staff member’s behaviors continued to escalate culminating at an event on October 12th in which all of “Team Elk Grove” (including Mayor Ly) and Mayor Ly’s paid campaign staffer were present. At this event, I endured what I believe to be retaliation in response to my frequent reports to Mayor Ly regarding this staff member’s behavior.
Exclusion and harassment are two very well-documented types of retaliation and, often times, women fear reporting harassment for fear they may be retaliated against. Examples of exclusion orchestrated by Mayor Ly’s staff member at this event included:
- When standing in a group of people including other “Team Elk Grove” members, he introduced everyone in the group to an important attendee, except me, completely ignoring my presence. This occurred twice.
- Also, when standing in a group, he approached other candidates and told them how much he liked them and how he hoped they would win their elections. Again, he completely ignored my presence in the group.
- At this extremely important event of hundreds of voters where exposure is key to the success of a campaign, Mayor Ly’s campaign staffer invited all the candidates on our team, except for me, to the front of the room to be introduced, completely robbing me of my chance to further the success of my campaign and leaving me sitting at the table by myself.
In addition to exclusion, I also experienced the following harassment at that event by Mayor Ly’s campaign staffer:
- Twice, when needing to walk by the staff member, he refused to move to the side so I could pass. He stood firm in his place, knowing I was trying to pass which required me once, to go around the room to get where I was going and once, to maneuver past him in an extremely uncomfortable way.
- Knowing that I took the #MeToo movement seriously and knowing that I am a sexual assault survivor, this campaign staffer repeatedly called me “Me Too” on at least three occasions that evening.
- After the third time that he referred to me as “Me Too,” I approached him and told him that his behavior was unacceptable. I asked him not to call me that again. He “puffed up” his chest and then told me to “Sit down.”
The bullying and harassment were intense and I left the event in tears.
Mayor Ly and the rest of “Team Elk Grove” followed me outside. At that time, Mayor Ly acknowledged the severity of his staff member’s behavior.
That same evening, after the event, I learned from other team members that this campaign staffer had been disparaging me in the campaign office over the last several months. I was told that he often referred to me as a “cunt” and a “bitch” and often spoke negatively about me.
I spoke to Mayor Ly on the phone later that evening after the event and again told him that I would no longer put up with the harassment and that I expected Mayor Ly to do something about it.
Mayor Ly’s solution was to mediate a conversation with his campaign staffer and me to see if we could work things out. We scheduled the conversation for four days after the event on October 16th, 2018.
At this conversation in which Mayor Ly, his wife, his campaign staffer, along with several “Team Elk Grove” candidates, the campaign staffer denied most of the accusations that I brought up. He painted the picture that I was over-reacting. Mayor Ly’s response in the moment was to state that he wasn’t sure who to believe. I was beyond frustrated and emotionally drained.
Since Mayor Ly continued to allow this behavior to occur and his campaign staffer was continuing to lie about his involvement in the harassment, I ended the meeting by making several demands:
- I wouldn’t have to see this campaign staffer at the campaign office for the remainder of the campaign;
- His campaign staffer would not attend any events that I would also be attending; and,
- His campaign staffer would refrain from talking about me and calling me names such as “bitch” and “cunt.”
Mayor Ly stated that he would not be able to meet my demands because his staffer was a valuable part of his team.
I left feeling unsupported, frustrated, and fearful that I would have to continue to endure harassment and exclusion.
After that meeting, I started to receive far less campaign opportunities. Since Mayor Ly refused to act, I missed out on events because his staffer was present and I didn’t want to be put in a situation in which there was the potential for more harassment. I texted “Team Elk Grove” in a group text several times about this. Here is one of those exchanges:
Me: Please note that you will all now get invites to events that I won’t get invited to due to [Mayor Ly’s campaign staffer’s] difficulty with telling the truth and inability to recognize misogyny.
Mayor Ly: Sorry, I should have invited everyone. I knew about this event in advance.
Me: I just mention this so that you know that I’m not flaking on events, I’m just not getting the same opportunities.
Mayor Ly: Ok, I will be better.
Me: This, my friends, represents a real-life example about why, when women are being harassed, they don’t speak up about it. Because doing so results in less opportunities which can affect their career, political or otherwise.
Again, Mayor Ly knew that his employee was harassing people, he understood the affect it had on a woman on his team, and he did nothing.
A couple of days before election night, the following text exchange occurred in our team group text:
Me: I want to be very clear: I will not be attending our election party if [Mayor Ly’s campaign staffer] is there. I made it clear the night we met a few weeks ago — his harassment was uncalled for and I do not want to be in a place with him where that can happen again. Also, I will not bring my children around him. I do not trust that he will treat my children with respect. I would like to share election night with you guys but I will not be there if [he] is present.
Mayor Ly: I understand, Jaclyn
Me: So, [he] will be there?
Candidate #1: Its more important that Jaclyn be there, she’s a full & equal member of the team and needs to be there with all of us.
Candidate #2: I understand. I’ll be hosting a watch party earlier in the evening (7:30pm) near my home on [removed for privacy]. Later, I’ll head down to Elk Grove and hope to meet up with you all. Could we have [Mayor Ly’s campaign staffer] come early, then leave?
Candidate #3: I support Jaclyn. We must have her there, not [him].
Candidate #2: Can we all join together at 10:30pm? I’m fine with asking [Mayor Ly’s campaign staffer] not to come at all, but I’d still like to meet up as a team and share how we want the Team to deliver on the last days.
Candidate #2: I won’t be there until 10:30pm. I support Jaclyn 100% and think we should let her make the call on what’s most comfortable for her. The Team has her back. Let her set the boundaries.
Candidate #2: Let’s not lose sight that this Team needs to stay strong for at least 5 more days!
Candidate #1: So then it’s settled, no [campaign staffer] at the election night party.
Mayor Ly: As an elected, I have to often times go into places that is uncomfortable and even hostile, i.e. city council. I will take your recommendations into consideration but as you know there are only three employees in my campaign and they are [names removed for privacy]. Each of them have distinct personalities and duties in which they performed.
Mayor Ly had another opportunity to act. Most of the other candidates expressed their support knowing that Mayor Ly’s campaign staffer had engaged in harassing and bullying behavior. Yet, Mayor Ly, again, did not act.
He proceeded to tell me that enduring harassing behavior is just a part of the experience of an elected official.
Mayor Ly’s staffer attended the election night party, so I did not; thereby, missing out on another opportunity.
Unfortunately, what I endured is not new. It’s something that women who dare to seek power experience all the time in all kinds of settings. But, what is clear is that this type of behavior is wrong. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.
The women and girls of Elk Grove deserve a Mayor who will go to the ends of the earth to protect them from harassment and the men and boys deserve a role model who will model the behavior of a strong ally. Make no mistake, because Mayor Ly has shown an inexcusable, detrimental pattern of behavior as an elected official, he should be held accountable.
But, be clear, there was misogyny and sexism before Mayor Ly rose to power and there will be misogyny and sexism after Mayor Ly is gone.
Because of that reality and the realization that my story is not unique, I would like to call on our city elected officials to use this momentum to institute the following changes:
- Strengthen the city’s harassment policy to include more accountability for elected officials just like I spearheaded at Cosumnes CSD shortly after I was elected.
- Create a clear reporting and investigation process for both employees and citizens.
- Create a third-party compliance hotline where employees or citizens can make reports of discrimination and harassment, as well as other claims and issues, particularly if the employee or citizen does not feel comfortable making the report to any manager or supervisor internally.
- Create a city-wide committee on the status of women and girls who can be tasked with collecting data on the violence against women and girls, sex trafficking in our community, and overall barriers for the advancement of women and girls. This data can be used to implement future policies and programs.
Someone once asked me, “what does justice look like to you?” For me, justice would be changes to the systems that currently allow for the Patriarchy to persist. Let’s work together to make that happen.