My Steve Ly Story
By Nancy Chaires Espinoza
July 21, 2020
A few weeks ago, a couple of courageous young women speaking out helped me to reflect on the need to publicly share my experiences with Steve Ly. In sharing my hope is to inhibit his ability to harass and abuse women. I owe a debt of gratitude to Linda Vu and Jackie “Jax” Cheung, and I stand in solidarity with their call for Steve Ly to be held accountable for his years of directing aggressive attacks on women and for allowing abuse of women to take place in his name.
I first met Steve Ly in late 2013 when I was running for Elk Grove City Council. Having heard rumors that Ly, who had been elected to the Elk Grove Unified School District Board of Education less than a year before, would be running for the same seat. Over coffee on a Thursday morning, I told him that obviously no one had a claim to the seat, but I’d like to know if he was in fact running. He told me that he was flattered by the encouragement he’d received to do so, but was not going to run for city council. Two days later, I began to receive calls from local elected officials saying that Steve was running and had just called them to ask for their endorsement. Steve had nothing to gain by lying to me about his intentions. This was the first of many times I would witness Steve lying reflexively.
Contrary to what many people may think, the vast majority of people who run for public office do so in an honorable way. Steve’s campaign against me stood out for its personal attacks and constant pettiness. For example, I spent countless nights with my team placing lawn signs or larger campaign signs in view of the public across the entirety of the City of Elk Grove. The following day, Steve’s signs would be placed in front of mine by a few feet, blocking the view of my signs when there was plenty of room to space out his signs, in violation of city code. Eventually, he started placing his signs literally on top of my large signs. My smaller, lawn signs would be pulled out and thrown on the ground, sometimes torn in half. This occurred regularly for the remainder of the campaign. No one else’s campaign signs were moved, blocked, or damaged that year.
When they started placing his signs on top of mine, I called Steve and asked him to make it stop. He denied knowledge of these actions and claimed he had no control over what his campaign volunteers did. For those who don’t know, campaigns purchase these signs and choose who distributes them. Steve’s interference with my campaign was illegal, and along with his frequent placement of signs in prohibited areas, I could have reported him for that. I chose not to because I didn’t want to look like a victim. In my first-ever campaign, I was introducing myself to many voters, and I didn’t want to be seen as the woman who was too weak to engage in politics.
During the last month before the election, Steve’s campaign distributed potted plants to voters with a note purportedly written by his wife lauding him as a good family man. One might question why they chose a message so unrelated from the job we were both seeking or his qualifications for it. The reason is that they were simultaneously engaging in a whisper campaign to tarnish my ethical and moral reputation. Steve and his associates began to use false social media profiles to post comments online suggesting that I had secret transgressions and they urged the local press to investigate. They created false email addresses to impersonate my supporters and alleged that I had had an affair with my husband resulting in the end of his first marriage. They claimed to have court records of those divorce proceedings which described my unscrupulous behavior. They created false email addresses and false social media profiles. They claim that everyone in the State Capitol where I worked at the time, knew about this and shunned me for it.
In reality, my husband was never married to my stepson’s mother, and he and I met years after they had separated. We all enjoyed a successful co-parenting relationship and my stepson’s mom had been an active supporter of my campaign. No one who knew me believed any of these allegations, but campaigns are about introducing yourself to people who don’t already know you. I could have easily disregarded attacks that only involved me, but attacking a candidate’s family crosses an ethical line. My young teenage stepson had internet access and could have been confronted by his peers with these salacious stories at any time. I had to sit him down and explain the allegations and the true story. He had been too young to remember his parents being together and wouldn’t have known whether these allegations were true. He and his mother both felt exposed and upset at being dragged into this tawdry story by someone they didn’t even know. My husband and I had worked hard to give our son a positive impression of civic involvement and public service, but I saw his heart harden and cynicism develop as a result of this attack on our family. This all occurred about two weeks before the November 2014 election, when there was not enough time to correct the record or expose Ly’s tactics. With such a limited window to communicate with voters, I needed to use my resources to convey more important things about myself to the electorate. Steve won that election to City Council, I was pleasantly surprised to be appointed to seat he vacated on the Elk Grove School Board.
To this day, Ly continues to employ the same tactics against other women: fake email addresses, fake social media profiles, claims that things are done without his knowledge or consent, claims that he cannot control the actions of his volunteers or staff.
Two years later, In 2016, while I was hospitalized outside the area and on strict bed rest due to pre-term labor, Steve recruited someone to run against me in my re-election to the Elk Grove Unified School Board. Steve took advantage of my being unable to leave my premature baby in a Southern California NICU, to provide my newly-recruited opponent with space in his campaign office, featured him in campaign mailers, and contributed financially to his campaign. When I was finally able to return home in the summer, I was unable to heal from my emergency c-section or dedicate my maternity leave to nursing my preemie. Instead, I had to devote a significant amount of time to campaigning because Ly had manufactured an opponent for me, for no reason. He kept me busy attending local Democratic club endorsement meetings to defend myself from charges leveled by men he sent to allege that I was a “closet Republican.”
I want to reiterate that no one—myself included—has a claim on elected positions unless and until they earn them from the voters. What I take issue with is the intentional recruitment of an opponent simply to create a roadblock for a woman who is solely motivated by public service. A woman who did not pose a threat to Ly’s political aspirations. Ly has never cited any reasons related to public policy or governance to work so hard to oppose me, even when we weren’t actually competing for the same position.
I’ve been asked many times what caused the schism between myself and Ly. Having no knowledge of any actual disagreements or conflicts, I can only note the pattern that has developed with his behavior towards any woman who becomes involved in local democratic politics. Having shown his character, Ly has poor relationships with most local elected officials. This is one of the reasons he is ineffective and isolated from his colleagues on the Elk Grove City Council. He frequently has substantive disagreements with his male colleagues on matters that are not insignificant. But for some reason, he reserves his vitriol and attacks for women.
Here we are in 2020, and I’d rather be doing ANYTHING other than talking about Steve Ly. I’d rather devote my time to my young son, who like most others, has been away from his teachers and friends, to my job in education advocacy, and to my job on the Elk Grove School Board which is facing unprecedented challenges in serving our students. I also have a responsibility to engage in the democratic process in order to earn another term on the School Board this November 3rd. I fully expect that as a result of my speaking out against Steve, he will once again recruit someone to run against me, and devote his time and resources towards impeding me from continuing my public service. This is the threat that Ly has wielded over me for years, and I’m ashamed to say, is one of the reasons I have stayed silent.
I’m speaking out now because the stories Linda Vu, Jax Cheung, Bobbie Singh-Allen and many others tell bear a striking resemblance to my own. Ly’s harassment of them was allowed to occur because I have been unsuccessful in persuading partisan insiders to withdraw their support of Ly, despite his unnecessary and vicious wars on Democratic women. This was allowed to occur because I did not speak out publicly. Ly is unfit for public office. He has no interest in public service and uses these positions as nothing but a stepping-stone to his political aspirations. I am speaking out because the residents of Elk Grove have a right to know who their Mayor is, and because I hope they will join me in finally holding him accountable for his misogyny.
As with racism, individual incidents of misogyny can be easily dismissed as stemming from some other cause. In both cases, we have to step back and see the patterns that emerge. Please take my story in the context of what other women have shared and hopefully will continue to share.
Nancy Chaires Espinoza
Trustee, EGUSD School Board