Ruben Kihuen, facing ethics investigation, was propelled to office by women

Updated December 15, 2017 - 11:12 am

Facing a fresh accusation of sexual misconduct in a Congress that has become increasingly less tolerant, U.S. Rep. Ruben Kihuen will be under the scrutiny of an ethics investigation.

A lobbyist said Kihuen on several occasions touched her thighs and buttocks while he was a state senator, and made repeated sexual advances during Nevada’s 2015 legislative session. The accusations, reported Wednesday by the Nevada Independent, come less than two weeks after a former staffer said Kihuen harassed her during his 2016 congressional campaign.

But not even a year ago Kihuen stood on the stairs of the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse in Las Vegas and declared himself a champion for women.

“This is not the time to be quiet. This is not the time to roll over. This is not the time to be complacent,” the Democrat told a Women’s March crowd a little more than two weeks after he took office in Congress.

“This is the time to speak up, to fight back, to push back and to make sure that we hold every single elected official accountable.”

Minutes earlier, Kihuen had marched through downtown Las Vegas with his fist raised in solidarity. Now, standing before the crowd, he gripped the microphone and pointed at his audience.

“An attack on women,” he declared, “is an attack on all of us.”

Calls to resign

Kihuen’s office on Thursday sent a statement saying the lawmaker will not discuss details of relationships he has had with women while in elected office. Kihuen, 37, is unmarried.

“During my 10 years in the legislature, I dated several different women. Out of respect for their privacy, I won’t discuss my communications or any other details of those relationships,” the statement read.

But as sexual harassment and misconduct allegations continue to rock Capitol Hill, Democratic leadership has taken a strong stance on the issue, and called for Kihuen — a Mexican immigrant and once undocumented U.S. citizen — to resign.

The House Ethics Committee announced Friday that it has launched an investigation into Kihuen’s actions.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday said Kihuen should step down. She was echoing her previous statement, released the day after the first account of sexual harassment was made public.

“I’ve asked him to resign from the start,” Pelosi told reporters. She initially wrote that “the young woman’s documented account is convincing, and I commend her for the courage it took to come forward. In light of these upsetting allegations, Congressman Kihuen should resign.”

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, has also called for Kihuen to step down. But other Democrats have stopped short of calling for such drastic measures, including Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

Kihuen is among a growing number of lawmakers whose political careers have been thrust into uncertainty or ended altogether by allegations of sexual misconduct.

Last week, three lawmakers announced their departures from Capitol Hill after facing accusations of inappropriate behavior, including Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. Each had faced an ethics investigation.

On Thursday, embattled Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold, who settled an $84,000 sexual harassment lawsuit with his former communications director in 2015, said he will not run for re-election after the House Ethics Committee announced it would conduct an investigation. In recent days, former staffers also shared accounts of a toxic work environment in which Farenthold berated and bullied staffers.

Culinary support

Kihuen campaigned as a champion for the working class people who are the backbone of the Strip’s workforce. That, and a blessing from retiring Sen. Harry Reid, helped win him the endorsement of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226.

The Culinary is Nevada’s biggest union, with more than half its 57,000 members Latino. Nearly half are women. One of those is Kihuen’s mother.

Strip cocktail server and Culinary member Brittany Bronson said if not for union protection, these low-wage workers — housekeepers, bartenders and other resort and casino employees — risk losing their jobs by speaking out against harassers.

“Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace is something I would say our members deal with on a weekly basis,” Bronson said.

“I think that’s why this example is particularly poignant and frustrating.”

Union leadership has said nothing publicly about Kihuen, but did release a statement from secretary-treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline:

“Our union’s history is one of challenging a discriminatory status quo. As a union of strong women who have never accepted sexual harassment and gender discrimination, we respect the women who come forward to change what should never have been. We demand equality and a harassment-free environment at home, at school, at work, and everywhere we go.”

UNLV associate professor of history Michael Green said Kihuen’s political career hinges on the union.

“If the Culinary withdraws its support it is the final nail,” he said.

In 2016, “that was one of his most important group of supporters, if not his most important supporter,” Green said. “The union has been very organizing get out the vote efforts, ranging from door knocking to transportation and in that way can deliver a lot of votes, or not deliver them.”

According to the union’s website, its members visited more than 85,000 households and volunteered hundreds of hours to propel Kihuen to victory in an eight-way primary.

Much of the responsbility fell on the shoulders of then-Culinary political director Yvanna Cancela, who has called Kihuen a friend and mentor.

A friend and mentee of Kihuen’s who was appointed to his state senate seat after the 2016 election, Cancela, who was appointed to Kihuen’s state Senate seat after he was elected to Congress, said in a statement after Kihuen’s first accuser came forward that she was heartbroken by the allegations.

“I’m struggling to reconcile the fact someone who has been a leader in our community and who I worked hard to elect is being accused of indefensible behavior,” Cancela said in the statement, also calling for an investigation.

For others, like union member Bronson, there’s already no room for leniency.

“As much as I’ve supported his policies — and I know he has fought for women’s issues and women’s right in his lawmaking — that doesn’t excuse his behavior,” she said. “If we really want to be a party of women or you want to be someone who supports women I don’t think we can let this go without consequences.”

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @davidsonlvrj on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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