Nora Campos’ Ex-Spokesman Tells All after Firing

The seams of Nora Campos’ carefully curated public image are unraveling at a garish pace. A year after San Jose Inside first reported that the San Jose assemblywoman had lost control of her office—firing employees at an unprecedented clip, wasting a half-million dollars for constituent services—a new source has come forward with details about the embarrassing state of affairs.

Steve Harmon, a former Bay Area News Group reporter who spent 26 years in journalism and the last 19 months working as Campos’ spokesman, granted interviews last week on the tumult that has taken place behind closed doors.

Fired in January, Harmon said that Campos’ chief of staff, Sailaja Rajappan, in particular, has created a “toxic” and “hostile” work environment in which a turnstile of employees were unfairly blamed for mistakes, routinely berated in public and eventually fired. A Bay Area News Group report noted that 46 employees have worked in Campos’ office in just four years. San Jose Inside spoke with Harmon about his time in the office in greater detail.

“[Rajappan] runs that show,” he said. “Campos is absentee. This isn’t to absolve Campos. Campos enables it all. But Sailaja runs that shop, and she is responsible for the terrible, low morale.”

Harmon recalled several instances in which both Campos and Rajappan, who previously worked in the office of state Sen. Elaine Alquist, flew into fits of rage. In one instance, Campos’ actions led to an official complaint by a fellow assembly member. Unable to get Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina) to meet about one of her bills, Campos reportedly stormed into his office and berated one of his staffers.

“It was so hostile and so intimidating that the girl complained to Roger and he filed a complaint,” Harmon said.

San Jose Inside contacted Hernandez’ capitol and district offices; neither responded to requests to confirm or deny the report. Campos’ office also did not return a call requesting comment. It appears the Assembly’s Committee on Rules meted no discipline in response to the complaint, Harmon said, perhaps because the policies on such behavior are intentionally vague.

“The rules folks made it clear—unless you’re slapped or hit physically or (sexually) harassed … they can treat you any way they want,” Harmon said.

In other instances, Harmon said, Rajappan shifted blame to other staffers to avoid Campos’ wrath. One example he gave included a list of talking points he put together on the inner workings of the capitol—at Rajappan's direction. Campos had a fit, calling it one of the worst speeches she had ever read—it was intended to just be a list of talking points—and Rajappan reportedly stayed silent to let her newer colleague take the fall.

Harmon also recalled Campos’ reaction to opening remarks in a speech he wrote for her on education: “She said, ‘I don’t say ‘thank you.’ I am a powerful woman. They thank me!’”

From that point on, Harmon said, Rajappan’s treatment of him and other employees varied between “seething anger” and “understated hostility.”

"That was my first real exposure to the arbitrary and capricious ways of that office," he said, "and to Sailajja’s inability to stand up for her staff and willingness to throw her staffers under the bus."

Harmon's remarks represent a dramatic shift from comments he made a year ago to radio station KLIV 1590. Just days after San Jose Inside’s initial report on the dysfunction and aggressive treatment of staff within Campos’ office, Harmon, working in his role as office spokesman, marginalized the story and challenged the authenticity of the reporting.

“A story that’s based on unattributed sources really stretches credibility,” Harmon told KLIV. “As a former journalist, I tried to limit that. It just feels like it was built on rumors and innuendo and nothing was verified, at least through attributable sources.”

No longer required to defend his employer, Harmon last week modified his critique. “I do apologize and acknowledge what you did was a good public service,” Harmon said. “I think the impact you made was tremendous; it reverberated around the capitol.”

Campos’ harassment and intimidation tactics haven't been limited to just her office. Last month, she claimed a delegate election in her district had been "a fraud," accusing fellow Democrats of rigging the results. A review by the state Democratic Party found no evidence to support her claims.

In 2013, Lisa Jensen, a former campaign staffer for Magdalena Carrasco, one of the Campos family's political rivals, testified at a grand jury hearing that Campos had threatened her in 2010 with being politically blacklisted. This occurred during Carrasco’s first, unsuccessful run for a San Jose City Council seat against Campos’ younger brother, Xavier Campos. That race also featured an illegal mailer that accused Carrasco of being a communist and was later linked to Xavier Campos’ campaign. He won the council seat in 2010 but lost the rematch to Carrasco last year.

“It is surprising how they built their machine [in San Jose] and how they rose to where they’re at, given how they treat people,” Harmon said. “I am breaking a code of silence that I think has perpetuated this awful situation. I’m doing it at a risk, but I feel like it needed to be said. And I’m hoping something comes of it."

Campos won a final term in November, allowing her to hold office until the end of 2016. Chances are she’s hiring. Apply at your peril.

Josh Koehn is the managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

18 Comments

  1. Mr. Harmon is serving the public better than some who are still working for the government. At his age in Silicon Valley, presumably he is now permanently unemployed.

  2. Harmon recalled Campos’ reaction: “She said, ‘I don’t say ‘thank you.’ I am a powerful woman. They thank me!’”

    Josh thank you again for taking down this wall of people full of themselves.

  3. Where, in the real world, would people like Nora Campos or Sailaja Rajappan be employable?

    Answer: only in government.

    What is it about “democracy” that results in boobs running things?

  4. The funniest part of the whole story was listing Harmon as a journalist and citing his previous employer as Bay Area News Group! BANG

  5. Just an FYI on grammar. Possessive plurals have an apostrophe after the last S. Names do not. They have an additional S after the apostrophe. It’s proper to say “Campos’s Ex-Spokesman” not “Campos’ Ex-Spokesman.” http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/possessives.htm I’d normally not pick on someone for something like this, but you are putting yourself out as a news source and shouldn’t make simple errors like that.

    • Gabe,

      You might want to read your link again: “Some writers will say that the -s after Charles’ is not necessary and that adding only the apostrophe (Charles’ car) will suffice to show possession. Consistency is the key here: if you choose not to add the -s after a noun that already ends in s, do so consistently throughout your text.”

      We’re consistent.

      JK

      • You also might want to do a search for Gabriel Caswell on Assembly Staff Salaries. He posted this 3 p.m. on a workday? Using government resources to rant on this particular article wasn’t very smart

        • Oh Joe this petty. Just worry about yourself as you have no clue if someone is off or using their personal mobile to post things. Public employees does not mean owned by the public..FYI

  6. She isn’t the only nasty member in the Assembly. You should dig into Roger Hernandez as well, who has the same toxic environment in his office. Look into how many people have left his office. There was even an investigation last year against him. Nothing happened because Assembly Rules covered him.

  7. I worked for Nora when she was a City of SJ councilmember way back when. She was just as notorious then as a terrible boss- she’s incompetent & uses her staffers to do all the work / heavy lifting while she takes all the credit. Her Chief of a Staff back then (Christine Silva Burnett) once told me that Nora believed that other prominent Latina women were obviously jealous of her because she was powerful & beautiful – thus making working with other Latina women unpleasant for her. But I soon found out that she was a farce & a ditz as she couldn’t articulate a coherent thought at public meetings without a major script being prepared verbatim for her. She also had me driving her around as her personal Taxi cab driver to all her events at all hours – using my car & gas- while she collected a ~$500 car allowance from the city! Meanwhile I was told I couldn’t be reimbursed for my car expenses & that I’d have to claim it on my taxes! I quit as soon as I could in less than 6 months & it was the best career decision I ever made!

    • Nora believed that other prominent Latina women were obviously jealous of her because she was powerful & beautiful

      Where did she get that idea? Did she win a Pageant? I was going to list all the Latina’s in politics cuter than Nora, but it turned out to be a rather lengthy list. Josh has warned me numerous times to not do posts that are, “too wordy”. If he gives me his permission, I’ll post said list.

    • > Nora believed that other prominent Latina women were obviously jealous of her because she was powerful & beautiful

      I understand completely.

      And this is mainly the reason that I have steered clear of electoral politics.

  8. As a retired Capitol staffer who served the Assembly and Senate for 31+ years, it sickens me to read about this nonsense. The institution has become a den of emotionally challenged egos who have lost sight of the meaning of “public service”.

    How I long for The return of decent statesmen and women from the earlier days to return in force. The new term limits law will most likely give recently elected legislators an opportunity to become better schooled in parliamentary procedures and policy and develop some decent management skills. We will always encounter troubled souls in “powerful positions” throughout the public and private sectors. Hopefully the great State of California will continue to thrive under our wonderful Governor and the many hard working, well meaning public servants we send to Sacramento.

    I was so fortunate to be mentored by the likes of Senators Alfred Alquist, Ken Maddy, Bob Beverly and many more bipartisan friends. The political establishment has grown too “partisan”!!! I am very proud of my Republican friends and extended family members. And I am a proud registered Decline to State. Folks, we can disagree without being disagreeable, and it’s okay to treat others with respect! But do remember what goes around comes around. Nice guys do finish first, and I’m proud to say my family members who worked in the Legislature, and I, all made it to the finish line with integrity. God help the institution, and I pray these Assembly staff members get through this challenge without too many emotional or physical scars.

    • Well said, Ms. Skintauy. However, in a time where the approval ratings of the State Legislature and the U.S. Congress are at historic lows, yet incumbents are still re-elected over 90% of the time, I would not hold my breath if I were you.