How one woman started to chip away at Sacramento's corrosive culture.
San Francisco magazine
January 15, 2018
Last night, Pamela Lopez got sprayed by a skunk. She washed most of the smell off with vinegar, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide, but as she greets me in early December in her second-floor office a few blocks from the State Capitol, it lingers. She doesn’t apologize for it or feel ashamed. Why should she? It’s something that happened to her, not something she did.
Days earlier, in a hastily assembled press conference, the 35-year-old lobbyist identified the assemblymember who she alleges sexually assaulted her during a party in Las Vegas in 2016. According to Lopez, Matt Dababneh, a Democrat who represented the San Fernando Valley, pushed her into a bathroom, blocked her with his body, and masturbated into a toilet.
Four days later, on Friday, December 8, Dababneh resigned. “The allegations made against me are not true,” Dababneh wrote in his resignation letter. “However, due to the current environment, I, unfortunately, no longer believe I can serve my district effectively.” But for Lopez—as for many of the women in Sacramento and beyond who have shared stories of sexual harassment and assault—the point was never simply to force the worst offenders from office. “I’m tired of talking about this creep’s dick,” she tells me. (Full disclosure: We were good friends in college.) “My intention then and now was that this story would contribute to an environment where everyone in our professional community could start talking about how to fix our culture.”
Throughout our conversation, Lopez stresses that each of the women who have come forward with stories of harassment and assault in Sacramento speak for themselves. “I’m my hero,” she says—no one else’s. “I want other women to feel that way about themselves. They don’t need me to speak on their behalf.”
In Mid-October, Lopez and Deanna Johnston, who works in government relations, were cohosting a baby shower for a mutual friend when their phones began to buzz with text messages and emails. Adama Iwu, a lobbyist whom Time magazine recently named as one of its People of the Year, had just drafted an open letter calling out the “dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces.” Lopez and Johnston both signed it and began discussing which of them would share their own story.
“There was a text message going around asking who could go on the record, not naming her perpetrator, but naming herself,” Lopez says. “As terrifying as it is, I thought, I can do this.” Lopez went on to speak with reporters from the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, and has since repeated her story to other journalists, members of the legislature, and the women who have reached out to her with their own stories.
One of them, Jessica Yas Barker, who worked for Dababneh (before he was elected) in the district office of Sherman Oaks congressman Brad Sherman, told Lopez that Dababneh had sexually harassed her as well, mocking her clothing, showing her a stash of condoms in his desk drawer, and bragging about his sexual prowess.
Barker’s story about Dababneh resonated with Lopez, since it echoed what had happened to her a decade earlier, when, at 26, she was harassed while working for a lobbying firm. When Lopez complained, her employer fired her. “I had worked my whole life to build something, and it was like I was cheap meat,” she says. Age has emboldened her. Lopez went on to open her own lobbying firm, one of the youngest women in Sacramento ever to do so.
At first, Lopez declined to name Dababneh, and in media interviews she changed the location of the assault from Las Vegas to Sacramento, for fear that giving away too much information would allow reporters to identify him. But as the L.A. Times prepared a story that would name him, Dababneh preemptively attacked, sending Lopez a cease-and-desist letter. It was a poor decision. Lopez had been encouraged by a recent public statement from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who had called on women to name their assailants. So five days after a blog outed Dababneh, Lopez and Barker held the press conference—and opened the floodgates. “After Pamela and I spoke, about 14 or 15 women told us about their stories with Dababneh,” Barker says.
Afterward,the women decamped to a restaurant. They had earned a stiff drink: shots of tequila, followed by a bottle of Domaine Carneros pinot noir. “I woke up on Tuesday and felt light,” Lopez says.
We live in an unsettled time. The revolution is long overdue, but disorienting. The credible accusations have come so quickly, and against so many men, that even Lopez herself has not had the time to keep up. As we talk, I notice a copy of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days on her bookcase. A few weeks ago, Keillor had been fired by Minnesotan Public Radio after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced. Lopez had forgotten she owned the book. “This cultural reckoning has affected all of us,” she says, and pulls the book off the shelf and throws it into the recycling bin. “We have to take the reckoning not only to the people we don’t like for other reasons, the Roy Moores, but also to our own. That’s hard,” she says.
There are policy changes she would like to see: a fully independent process for investigating and handling allegations, a ban on confidentiality clauses in harassment settlements, and changes around the statute of limitations. She and her attorney have had many long conversations about restorative justice—not just punishing the perpetrator but also healing the victim. “Punishing does not lead to cultural change,” she says.
She also worries about how to protect women from retaliation, which she says has already happened. “[A] prominent man in the Capitol community approached my business partner and warned him that ‘perhaps he shouldn’t be seen around the Capitol with me’ as frequently,” Lopez says. “He intimated that it was bad for our business that I had stood up against important men, and that it could permanently alter my business partner’s career to continue working with me.” She also fears retaliation of a more subtle kind. Years from now, she might “need that sixth vote in a committee hearing, and a member just won’t show up,” she says. It isn’t just men that Lopez has to worry about, either: Women who are ostensibly her allies went off the record during the reporting of this story to share rumors attacking her credibility.
But there’s one area in which even Lopez’s closest supporters think she’s wrong. “It’s not up to Pam to tell other people that she’s not their hero,” Barker says. “She doesn’t get to pick who she inspires. I think Pam is a hero. She opened a door that a lot of people were too scared to open.”