Democrats take cautious approach on sexual assault allegations against California congressman

Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif

(CNN)More than a day after the child sexual assault allegations against California Congressman Tony Cardenas became public, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she was withholding judgment on Cardenas until a House Ethics Committee investigation is complete.

A broad array of other Democratic officials in California and in Washington have declined to comment publicly.
The cautious response to a sitting congressman accused of assaulting a then-16-year-old girl more than 10 years ago is striking after a year in which the #MeToo movement and the Roy Moore scandal dominated the headlines. Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota resigned in December after being accused of lesser offenses and after several of his Senate colleagues called on him to do so.
But it underscored both the complexity of the case — Cardenas says the allegations are "categorically, 100% false" — and the political bind that Democrats are facing in California in the 2018 midterm elections.
    With control of the House of Representatives at stake, Democrats are on offense as they try to capture the seven seats held by Republicans in districts won by Hillary Clinton. They can't afford to lose a single seat -- much less a rock-solid Democratic district like that of Cardenas, who was re-elected to his third term in the San Fernando Valley with 75% of the vote.
    Surging Democratic enthusiasm has created a crowded field of candidates in several key races, meaning that California's top-two primary system -- where the top two vote getters from any party in the June 5 primary will advance to the November ballot — has complicated that effort.
    The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the state party and Pelosi have focused most intently on making sure that the fierce competition among Democrats in those districts doesn't result in a scenario where the party gets boxed out — with no Democrat advancing to the ballot in November.
    For now, Democrats appear to be hedging their bets on whether Cardenas can fight the allegations and survive. A few days before absentee ballots drop in California, neither the DCCC nor the California Democratic Party had a comment on the accusations or whether the party could bear the risk as Cardenas pursues re-election while fighting serious allegations.
    Only a handful of local Democrats from Los Angeles County weighed in on the matter Friday. Among them was Cardenas' only Democratic opponent, retired military officer Joe Shammas, who called on his opponent to resign for the good of the party.
    Cardenas has vehemently denied the claims outlined in the civil suit filed April 27 by attorney Lisa Bloom on behalf of an unnamed accuser, a 26-year-old woman who is alleging that he drugged and sexually assaulted her when she was 16, and who said she came forward because she was inspired by the #MeToo movement.
    The suit did not reveal the identity of the accuser or alleged assailant, but Cardenas went public to strenuously deny the allegation through his attorney Patricia Glaser, who said the "claims against the Congressman are absolutely false and are utterly inconsistent with who he is—in the workplace, in the community, and at home."
    The woman alleges that Cardenas gave her water with an unusual taste while they were playing golf in 2007, and that he then sexually assaulted her while driving her to the emergency room. The woman said she was stunned and pretended to be asleep because she feared what would happen if he knew she was awake.
    In a brief conversation Friday, Glaser said she had no further comment about the allegations beyond the Thursday statement, which said Cardenas expects "complete exoneration, as he is 100% innocent."
    "We ask that his constituents, the public generally, and his Congressional colleagues do the right thing and appropriately withhold judgment until there has been a full vetting of the facts," Glaser said in the statement.
    Shammas, the other Democrat on the ballot in the 29th Congressional District, sent a statement to CNN calling on Cardenas to resign so he could focus his attention on the "egregious allegations."
    "Congressman Tony Cardenas needs to face and address these in a court of law," Shammas said. "As we have seen time and time again in Hollywood and in our nation's capital, powerful men have preyed on young vulnerable women for far too long. Luckily we are at a time where victims are finally being listened to, and these disgusting men are being exposed for the predators that they are."
    "Victims of sexual assault deserve to be heard and their allegations should be taken seriously," Shammas said in the statement. "The 29th district deserves better, and I believe that Congressman Cardenas should step down from office immediately."
    Cardenas and his allies are clearly aware of the political headwinds that they face in trying to survive the allegations at a time when other elected officials, like Franken, have stepped down.
    Several longtime California political strategists, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the current political climate is so hostile to men accused of sexual harassment or assault that they doubted that Cardenas would be able to withstand pressure to resign if he is drawn into a protracted court case.
    Glaser touched on the current sensitivity toward victims of sexual assault in her statement: "We respect victims who have found the strength to come forward and call out misconduct when it has actually occurred, but the type of baseless and reckless allegations that are contained in the complaint against my client can ruin the lives and careers of innocent people," she said.
    Both friends and foes of Cardenas told CNN in interviews this week that they are still trying to sort through the facts of the case. Several said they did not want to comment because they said they believe there is a possibility Cardenas is being falsely accused.
    Richard Alarcon, a former LA City Council member who challenged Cardenas for his congressional seat in 2016, told CNN in an interview that he was approached by the accuser's father after Alarcon decided to run against Cardenas in 2016.
    During a meeting with the man, Alarcon said, the victim's father said he could give Alarcon negative information on Cardenas if Alarcon agreed to hire the man on his campaign. Alarcon declined. In an odd twist, the former council member said he got a text message from the man minutes after the meeting that, he said, he believed was intended for Cardenas.
    The text message said "Hey Tony, you'll never guess who called me and I just met with," Alarcon recalled. He said he assumed the man was trying to play both sides and turned over the information to the FBI.
    Through his attorney, Cardenas contends that the victim's father is a "disgruntled former employee" and his accuser "may be the victim of manipulation." The victim's father did not respond to a request for comment. CNN does not identify people who report sexual assault unless they choose to publicly identify themselves.
    Alarcon, who is supporting Shammas, said he believed Cardenas should step aside while he deals with the allegations.
    "If he is battling this issue in court while the election is going on through November, the Democrats could lose the seat," Alarcon said. "And so there's a lot of consternation about how to preserve the Democratic seat on the political side. On the court side, let the court do what it's going to do. But in the court of public opinion, it doesn't look very good for Congressman Cardenas."
    "These are not mild allegations and it's going to take a lot of energy to fight them, and so I would not be surprised if he decides he can't serve in Congress at the same time," Alarcon said.
    In addition to Cardenas and Shammas, three other virtually unknown candidates — one Republican, one Green Party member and one candidate who did not select a party — are also certified to run in the 29th District.
    Angelica Dueñas, the green party candidate, said that Cardenas must resign if the allegations are true.
    "While everyone is presumed innocent until proven otherwise, if these allegations of sexual assault are true, Rep. Tony Cardenas must resign immediately," the Sun Valley neighborhood council member said.
    The other two candidates could not be reached for comment.