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Ashton Simpson seeks to unseat a Democrat challenging sexual harassment allegations.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Rep. Diego Hernandez Four dozen prominent Oregon women have endorsed a third-party bid by Ashton Simpson to unseat state Rep. Diego Hernandez, a Democrat who is challenging allegations of sexual harassment and creating a hostile workplace in the Legislature.

Simpson is community asset director for The Rosewood Initiative and the nominee of the Working Families Party in House District 47, which covers East Portland. Hernandez was unopposed in the May 19 primary for his party's nomination to a third term. Ryan Gardner, a small-business owner, was unopposed for the Republican nomination.

COURTESY - Ashton SimpsonThe seat goes to whoever wins the most votes in the Nov. 3 election.

Though a couple of independent candidates have been elected to the Legislature going back to the 1970s, no third-party candidate has won.

Hernandez said in an interview Thursday, Oct. 8, he is confident he will win re-election and will be cleared of the allegations, which a House committee considered back on May 4. The committee has not met since then.

"I wanted to clear my name prior to the election," he said. "The investigation should have concluded in August and I do not know why it hasn't been."

None of the women backing Simpson is a sitting legislator, although three are former members. Hernandez has received contributions from at least six Democratic legislators.

Aside from the women's endorsement, which Simpson posted on his Facebook page, Simpson himself has made no direct mention of the other candidates.

In announcing an endorsement from Teamsters Joint Council 37, Simpson wrote: "Join us in this campaign to ensure the rights of labor to organize; to expand economic opportunities and housing options for workers and their families; and to provide a sustainable future worthy of our children."

District 47 has a Democratic registration edge, according to state Elections Division figures. As of September, 41.8% of the voters were registered Democrats, 36.6% were not affiliated with any party, and 15.2% were registered Republicans. Working Families Party voters accounted for 398 registered voters, about 1% of the 41,018 total.

Simpson endorsers

Among the 48 signers of the Simpson endorsement are three former Democratic legislators from Portland: Jessica Vega Pederson, who held the District 47 seat for two terms before she was elected a Multnomah County commissioner in 2016; Lisa Naito, also a former state representative and county commissioner, and Margaret Carter, who was in both houses for a total of 23 years. Dacia Grayber, Democratic nominee in House District 35 that straddles Multnomah and Washington counties, also is a signer.

Maria Hernandez Segoviano, a member of the group, said this in the group's press release: "We must work to dismantle sexism in Salem and across the state. We believe there is one candidate in this race with the moral compass and integrity that the office deserves."

Hernandez said: "The (Simpson) campaign is releasing this press release to get more political support for their candidate."

Although Reyna Lopez was among those listed as Simpson endorsers and quoted in the release, Hernandez said he received a text message from Lopez saying that her name was used without permission. Lopez is executive director of the Oregon farmworkers union known as PCUN; the union is not involved in the campaign.

"I told them I didn't want to sign on to the press release," Lopez said in the message. "But I guess it happened anyway."

Lopez said Sunday, however, that she stands by her endorsement of Simpson. She said she was unaware that Hernandez would disclose her text message.

"It was disappointing to see that the representative (Hernandez) continues to throw brown women under the bus for his political gain," she said in an email to Pamplin Media Group.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Rep. Diego Hernandez Allegations against Hernandez

Hernandez, 33, was urged to resign by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, on the same day the House Committee on Conduct set in motion an investigation into the complaint against Hernandez. Kotek had suspended him from committee assignments and granted him a leave, which has since ended.

The committee has not met publicly since May 4 and has taken no action.

Hernandez, through Salem lawyer Kevin Lafky, served notice to the state Department of Administrative Services of a potential tort claim against how the House committee has proceeded. A tort claim alleges a civil wrong, such as physical injury or emotional distress, and usually seeks monetary damages.

Kotek, through a spokesman, declined comment on the tort-claim notice.

During its May 4 meeting, the committee heard that seven women had stepped forward, but five chose not to add their names to the formal complaint and they were not interviewed as part of the investigation. No names have been made public.

Hernandez said Thursday an investigation proceeded anyway after reports were filed by Kotek and Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who as legislators are required under House rules to report conduct that may be subject to an investigation.

"I know I am innocent," Hernandez said Thursday. "This process that is supposed to keep the environment at the Capitol safe is being politicized to target me this way."

Under House rules, the Committee on Conduct is chosen by the full House, not the speaker, and it must have the same number of members from each party.

The complaint may have arisen in part from a request that was dismissed in court.

Andrea Valderrama, chair of the David Douglas School Board, had filed for a restraining order against Hernandez on March 3, based on a 2019 incident alleging violent behavior by Hernandez while he was drunk. They apparently lived together at the time. She withdrew her request on March 25 — Valderrama said she no longer feared for her safety — and a Multnomah County judge dismissed it the next day without issuing a restraining order.

The tort claim filed by Lafky on Hernandez's behalf mentions only that "a personal acquaintance" filed and then withdrew the request for an order.

Valderrama said she did not file a complaint with the Legislature. She is not on the list of Simpson endorsers.

Third-party history

Hernandez has reported contributions from Democratic Reps. Teresa Alonso Leon of Woodburn, Janelle Bynum of Clackamas, David Gomberg of Otis, Mark Meek of Oregon City, Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego, and Democratic Sen. James Manning Jr. of Eugene. All but Gomberg are members of the Legislature's People of Color Caucus.

"There is more coming; I do have support," he said. "I've been holding off on announcing it."

As of Oct. 8, he had raised about $6,800 to Simpson's $19,000, including $5,607 to Simpson from Local 555 of United Food and Commercial Workers. Gardner, the Republican nominee, had raised $700.

Hernandez said he continues to help constituents with unemployment claims and other pandemic-related issues, and to prepare for the 2021 Legislature.

If Simpson wins, he would be the first minor-party candidate in recent Oregon history to win a legislative race.

Bob Jenson of Pendleton won re-election as an independent to the Oregon House in 1998, two years after he was first elected as a Democrat. He switched parties again after the 1999 session and was elected as a Republican in 2000 and afterward. He retired from the House at the end of 2014.

Charles Hanlon of Cornelius was elected as an independent to the Oregon Senate in 1974. He became a Democrat in 1976 and was re-elected twice until he retired from the Senate in 1986.

In 2018, Democrats officially dropped their support of Nathan Boddie, then a Bend city councilor and the party's nominee for the District 54 seat vacated by Republican Knute Buehler in his losing bid for governor. Boddie faced allegations of improper conduct.

Democrats then backed Amanda La Bell, the Working Families Party nominee, but she faced her own questions about misrepresenting her education in the voters pamphlet and misspending funds in a nonprofit she ran. La Bell is now fighting criminal charges, including embezzlement, emerging from her work with a different employer.

Republican Cheri Helt ended up winning the seat.

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NOTE: This story is updated with comments from Rep. Hernandez, and one comment has been modified. It was originally posted without his comments. Adds comment from Reyna Lopez, who says she stands by her endorsement of Simpson and criticized Hernandez for disclosure of her text message.

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