Susan Ellenberg quit her job as program director for the Silicon Valley Organization on Tuesday over the way it responded to a campaign mailer that weaponized a messy settled lawsuit against her opponent in the Santa Clara County supervisor’s race, former San Jose Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio.
The regional chamber of commerce known as the SVO emailed its 1,400-plus members last week to denounce a flyer sent by the Santa Clara County Government Attorneys’ Association PAC, which included snippets of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Oliverio in 2014. It urges voters to call SVO CEO Matt Mahood and SVO PAC Chairwoman Tracey Enfantino to ask “why they endorsed Oliverio, who was sued for harassing and degrading a female subordinate.”
Instead of ignoring the mailer like most people would, Mahood and Enfantino drafted a defensive press release titled, “Where the SVO stands on women’s issues.”
“The SVO may be the most welcoming organization in Silicon Valley for women leaders,” the message boldly proclaimed. “All the chairs of our major lines of business are women. Our current SVO chair is our first Latina leader. And all our vice president positions are held by women.”
Mahood, Enfantino and SVO board Chair Lennies Gutierrez signed the letter, which went on to say that they’re “befuddled” by the suggestion that endorsing Oliverio somehow abdicated their commitment to women’s issues and stressed that the lawsuit accusing him of “using colorful language” was settled for a nuisance fee of $10,000.
Ellenberg, who could be strategically distancing herself from the business group to position herself for labor support in the general election, also criticized her employer when its attendant political action committee endorsed her opponent in the county race. But she insisted that this is about nothing more than standing up to an employer’s stunning display of sexism—a problem that transcends political factions.
She isn’t alone in interpreting the SVO’s tone as condescending. The board of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Silicon Valley, which endorsed Ellenberg in the county race, rescinded its SVO membership, while a host of community leaders sounded off about how the organization tokenized its female members.
“It is important for us to let you know that NWPC Silicon Valley was a member of the SVO but will no longer be the conduit for which this organization will hang their ‘we are good for women’ hat on,” the group stated in a terse email.
Randi Kinman, a Democratic Activists for Women Now (DAWN) board member, called the SVO’s response“tone deaf,” to say the least, and likened it to Mitt Romney responding to a question about pay parity by boasting about his “binders full of women.”
“‘We Haz Wimmins’ on our board does not mean you are not making sexists choices,” she posted on Facebook before updating her default photo with the “We Haz Wimmins” slogan she coined for the occasion.
The DAWN board, which also endorsed Ellenberg, condemned Oliverio’s candidacy back in January, Kinman noted.
“After reading the workplace harassment case against him and reviewing his public statements, we did not feel his candidacy aligned with our mission statement,” DAWN said in a statement on their website.
Oliverio declined comment.
Below is a copy of the email SVO sent its members.
The SVO may be the most welcoming organization in Silicon Valley for women leaders. All the chairs of our major lines of business are women. Our current SVO chair is our first Latina leader. And all our vice president positions are held by women.
We believe there is a perfect synergy between our pro-growth charter and greater opportunities for women in business.
We were somewhat befuddled, then, to receive in the mail today a flyer from an unknown organization suggesting that our endorsement of two-term city councilperson and Democrat, Pierluigi Oliverio, candidate for County Supervisor, somehow revealed that we had lost our focus on women's issues and our ethical integrity.
On the contrary. We hold our candidates to the highest standards of ethics, just as we do our own employees and prospective employees. And our enthusiastic endorsement of Oliverio continues that tradition. A few years ago, Oliverio was accused by a city employee of using colorful language in a way that the employee concluded constituted sexual harassment. Now that's a serious charge, and we take those kinds of accusations with the utmost gravity. The case was settled by the city for a minor cash payout ($10k). We have researched the issue closely and confidently have determined that the disagreement in no way diminished our view of Oliverio’s integrity and suitability for elected office.
In fact, we have found Oliverio to be a longstanding champion of fiscal responsibility, transparency in government, pragmatic solutions, independent thinking, and care and concern for his constituents. He doesn't deserve this smear.
And to be honest, neither do we.
We stand by our endorsement of Oliverio with confidence. And we will continue to work for a Silicon Valley in which there are zero barriers to women of talent and energy scaling the pinnacles of business and government.
Yours during National Women's Month,
2018 SVO Board Chair
2018 SVO PAC Board Chair
Here’s the email Ellenberg sent in response.
I am resigning today from the SVO. The press release sent out on Friday minimized, trivialized, and marginalized the seriousness of the accusations made against a person the SVO PAC has endorsed—at the expense of women. As an employee, I can not simultaneously work to enhance our community’s leadership and broaden its outreach while at the same time being used as cover for the organization’s use of old school tactics of dismissing and sweeping under the rug accusations of sexism and harassment.
As a candidate for Supervisor I am running in part, to change this culture—to bring more women into office and not make excuses or excuse bad behavior of men running for office. It’s shameful that SVO compartmentalized and excused accusations against its preferred candidate.
Last month, the SVO made the decision not to stay neutral on my campaign for District 4 Supervisor, despite my work on its behalf. Instead, the organization endorsed someone against whom a credible accusation of sexual harassment has been made. Even then, I was not deterred from continuing my work on behalf of the SVO to promote and facilitate greater civic engagement by our members.
This past Friday, I read in an email to SVO employees that a mailer had been distributed that called on The SVO to change its endorsement based on its preferred candidate's treatment of women. The SVO’s response to that mailer was deeply offensive. The message that was distributed widely on Friday and shared in a press release dismissed the endorsed candidate's berating and humiliating comments to a woman in his office as “colorful language,” implied that a $10,000 settlement by the city was a “minor cash payment,” and dismissed the harassment claim made by the woman in the lawsuit as something she “concluded.” On top of that, the organization used me and other women who work at the SVO as evidence of its support for women, despite continued “enthusiastic endorsement” for the candidate.
I have spent the last four years working with the SVO, first as a volunteer member of the education-workforce committee and then as an employee. I was a key leader in the visioning and development of Strive San Jose, a growing program that places high school students in paid summer internships. I grew the Leadership San Jose program, deepening its relevance and impact, and created programs for women and seniors. I am proud of what I, along with my colleagues, accomplished on behalf of women, students and seniors, and the work we did to facilitate civic, service, philanthropic and political engagement of our members.
The communication around the endorsed candidate regarding this credible allegation of harassment is embarrassing for the SVO and nothing I want to be a part of.
I could not be the kind of example I want to be for my family and other women—and men—in our community if I continued to work at this organization. Enough is enough.
And here's the response from the NWPC Silicon Valley chapter.
Last Friday, we received a disturbing email from the Silicon Valley Organization - formerly known to many of our members and supporters as the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. This email outlined in dismissive detail how proud they were to be endorsing Pierluigi Oliverio for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors even though they were “befuddled" to receive a flyer from the Santa Clara County Government Attorneys' Association PAC suggesting that endorsing Pierluigi Oliverio - who has been credibly accused of sexual harassment - as a candidate for County Supervisor, "somehow revealed that we had lost our focus on women's issues and our ethical integrity.”
In a period where #metoo and #wesaidenough is alive and pushing forward, NWPC is BEFUDDLED how this organization with whom we worked to ensure pay equity, nondiscrimination and getting more women into leadership would argue that $10k is a minor cash payout for a worker who was called a bitch in her workplace by a man who is now a candidate for County Supervisor.
What we want to assure our members and supporters is that we find this beyond the pale. This is not the membership organization that NWPC wishes to associate with - even with all the great work we did in partnership with the SVO. It is important for us to let you know that NWPC Silicon Valley was a member of the SVO but will no longer be the conduit for which this organization will hang their "we are good for women" hat on. We truly believed that we can assist our community in reaching full parity and equality by working with all interest groups here in the Silicon Valley like the South Bay Labor Council, Silicon Valley Rising, Democratic Activists for Women Now, the Silicon Valley Organization and other organizations committed to our vision of full parity. But now it is crystal clear that the SVO has no interest in our values or a continued partnership.
It is an ABOMINATION that we are in 2018 and we are being told that calling a woman a “bitch” is “colorful language”, that “she [the staffer] concluded that this was sexual harassment” really means that she’s a liar and then to express “enthusiastic support” for a candidate with this treatment of women in his background, who is running against a present female employee does not in fact constitute a welcoming organization but rather a hostile workplace. Everything about this is wrong.
Because we believe in full transparency to our members and supporters, we have forwarded the original email to you. We hope you’ll continue to stand with NWPC and women of Silicon Valley as we fight to educate this community, eradicate implicit gender bias, and elect women. With that, we demand an apology from the SVO and for fellow member organizations to stand up against this sexist and dangerous rhetoric. Enough is enough.