At a time when sexual harassment is at the center of a national conversation about men behaving badly, the accusations against Rafael Velasquez, a candidate for the Miami Beach commission, couldn’t be more toxic.
The national story turned local this week when three women accused him of sexual impropriety. First, Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez publicly alleged that he exposed his penis to her. Then another woman said he groped her, and a third said he had repeatedly made inappropriate comments.
Where these kinds of allegations might not have caused a fatal scandal in the past, they now turn a candidate radioactive — even as Velasquez denies most of the accusations and says he did nothing wrong other than be too flirtatious.
“It’s more toxic than it was a year ago,” said Ben Pollara, a consultant and Democratic fundraiser. He said he recently advised a potential political candidate with sexual impropriety in his past that if he ran, his candidacy would be doomed.
“I told him it’s a non-starter,” he said.
The list of high-profile men who have fallen from grace over reports of sexual harassment spans several industries. Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Media personality Bill O’Reilly. Comedian Bill Cosby. Over the past few years, allegations ranging from verbal harassment to rape have rocked the careers of these men against a backdrop of increasing awareness about harassment.
The most recent reports spawned a movement known by the social media hashtag #MeToo, empowering women to support each other and share their stories. The #MeToo movement was on Rosen Gonzalez’s mind when she decided to speak out. So too were the fact that she had vouched for Velasquez and urgent pleas from a girlfriend who implored her to go public.
A Democratic congressional candidate, Rosen Gonzales told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that she did not initially publicly speak out about the Oct. 8 incident because she feared being ridiculed.
Rafael Velasquez, who goes by “Rafa,” is running for the Group 2 seat on the Miami Beach commission against Mark Samuelian.
“When it happened, I kept campaigning because I wasn’t really sure what to do,” she said. “All I knew is I had told so many people to support this person. How could I go against my supporters?”
Many of her supporters have thanked her on her Facebook page, and her fellow commissioners commended her for coming forward.
A married man with children, Velasquez has maintained innocence and apologized for offending the women with his comments. But he is not heeding the outcry, including leadership of his own political party saying he should back off and the resignation of his campaign staff.
He’s tuning out the zeitgeist writ large. And political onlookers are baffled.
“It’s not only unusual,” said J.C. Planas, an elections lawyer and former state legislator, “it’s extremely unfortunate that someone with these types of accusations would treat it so trivially as to not want to remove himself from the race.”
So despite what many would deem a campaign under siege, Velasquez continues to tilt at the windmill.
Wednesday morning, Velasquez stood at the Beach end of the Julia Tuttle Causeway hoisting a sign that read “Standing up for you!” In a rambling Facebook Live broadcast, he reasserted his innocence in oddly conspiratorial terms.
“When the truth is on your side and your integrity is clear, there is nothing, there is no politicking, there are no evil powers, no conspiracy, there’s no establishment, there’s no civic or political interest group that will take you out,” he said.
Velasquez is steadfast and perhaps even more confident, even as scandal envelops his election bid. Polling before Rosen Gonzales went public showed him behind in a somewhat close race during a low-turnout election, but he is not a powerhouse candidate in terms of fundraising or name recognition.
Even if the municipal election is nonpartisan, he owed much of his political capital to his status as a boisterous Democrat in a largely blue city who had the backing of his party. That support quickly disappeared the day Rosen Gonzalez and the other women spoke out, when party leaders said he should drop out.
On Tuesday, Rosen Gonzalez filed a police complaint that includes more details on the incident.
She said that after the pair had dinner at Cafe Avanti the night of Oct. 8, Velasquez exposed himself while she was driving them back to his car which was parked at her house.
“C’mon you know you want this. You know you want to touch it,” Velasquez said, according to the complaint.
Velasquez then grabbed Rosen Gonzalez’s right hand and tried to pull it away from the steering wheel and put it on his erect penis, the report says.
Despite Rosen Gonzalez screaming at him to “put it away” and telling him to stop, he grabbed her hand several more times, according to her complaint.
Velasquez vehemently denied all her accusations and called the complaint “baseless.” He said he was considering filing a defamation suit against Rosen Gonzalez after the Nov. 7 election.
Rosen Gonzalez, a Democratic congressional candidate, told the Herald on Wednesday that she worried about being made to feel ashamed and dirty and feared she would be called a liar. These are typical reactions when someone has been the victim of sexual misconduct, experts say.
“There is fear of retaliation,” said Kerri Stone, professor at Florida International University’s College of Law. “The victim might be afraid of evoking the ire of the powers that be, or even the harasser himself or powerful friends of the harasser.”
Rosen Gonzalez has faced some backlash and skepticism. In Facebook posts and private messages, people have cast doubt on her account and castigated her for coming forward. In one instance, someone said her decision to go public was “not very congressional.”
She’s also received supportive comments from men and women thanking her for stepping forward, including from the two other women who have made accusations against Velasquez.
Frances Alban, the local publicist, said Velasquez grabbed her butt while posing for a photograph at a public event a few months ago. He followed up with suggestive texts where he told her “you felt good” along with a devil emoji.
A third woman, Roxanna Ayers, said Velasquez made inappropriate comments repeatedly when the two ran together on a slate of potential Democratic delegates backing Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
“We were never alone, but we would be in these situations where he would make comments to me on my appearance, saying, ‘Oh, you look sexy today,’ ” Ayers told the Herald this week. “Just inappropriate.”
On one occasion, she said, he pinched her cheek and said, ‘You’re so adorable, you should come work for my campaign.’ ”
Velasquez denied groping Alban but acknowledges the texts and comments. His response? He was complimenting the women.
Rosen Gonzalez said other women who have reached out to her are hesitating to come forward.
Even when the exposure of sexual impropriety is the topic of many daily news stories, an assault can shock a woman in a way that makes her second guess her own behavior with the aggressor and causes her to remain silent.
“When the assault happens to women, most of them are really surprised that a guy would actually do that to them,” said Eric Carpenter, an associate law professor at FIU.
When one victim comes forward, more victims speak up because their experience with the individual is validated.
“It normalizes their response,” Carpenter said. “It makes it a lot easier for them to come forward.”
Mired in a scandal that would have already ended most other campaigns, Velasquez remains undeterred. He’s insisted on letting the voters decide. He was resolute during Wednesday’s Facebook Live broadcast.
“Whether they threaten me a million tortures, I will never go down. I will stand up for you no matter what,” he said.