Ann Ravel said she only ever defended Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky against a recall on principle. But the former Obama-appointed Federal Election Commission chair told San Jose Inside she now regrets being associated with a campaign that devolved into what she called “victim blaming and negativity.”
Ravel lent her name to ads denouncing an effort to recall the jurist over a controversially brief sentence he gave Stanford student Brock Turner for sexually assaulting a passed-out woman. As the local legal community closed ranks around Persky, she joined them for fear that his ouster would have a chilling effect on other judges.
But after an impassioned two-hour conversation with recall proponents Thursday night that at times brought her to tears, Ravel said she felt full of remorse for letting her idealism about the cause cloud her judgment of the reality.
“I had no idea that it became so negative or that it devolved into something so unconscionable,” she said in a phone call right after the talk. “Honestly, I’m still shaken.”
The 69-year-old attorney and lifelong accountability advocate requested the meeting as part of her bid to succeed state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) in 2020. At Panera Bread on Coleman Avenue, Ravel sat with recall allies Jennie Richardson, Sita Stukes (her months-old infant Archer in tow) and Stanford law professor Michele Dauber to talk about women’s issues, explain why she opposed their campaign that last year successfully removed Persky from the bench and came to terms with the outcome.
The pro-recall trio heard her out before presenting her with a list of statements from Persky’s defenders that disparaged Turner’s victim, known in court records and the public consciousness as Emily Doe. Several of the comments came from James McManis, of law firm McManis Faulkner where Ravel works.
Reading from a printout, Dauber told Ravel about the time Persky’s defenders, including retired judge LaDoris Cordell, questioned whether Doe wrote the gut-punch of a victim impact statement that made the case go viral. She told Ravel about the multiple instances in which McManis disputed settled facts of the case by saying the encounter by a trash bin where two witnesses found Turner heaving on an unconscious young woman was consensual, or that is was somehow less egregious because the pair had been drinking.
“This woman was not attacked,” McManis told a Vogue magazine reporter in one of the statements included on that list.
“This is not something where [Turner] was some kind of predator who was lurking around a dumpster and jumped her when she was going home,” he told the Palo Alto Daily Post in another excerpt shared with Ravel.
The list included a Facebook post by retired Judge Arthur Weissbrodt saying, “Do you realize, by the way, that the college freshman was found guilty of penetrating the drunk girl with his fingers(s), not his penis?” And the comment attorney Todd Rothbard made to KGO characterizing the assault as a “campus make-out session that went too far.”
Dauber, Richardson and Stukes played news clips of interviews in which similar sentiments were repeated. Ravel said she had no idea that the campaign she supported espoused such views, and that she felt horrified for being linked to the effort. She said she had no idea her name and face appeared on Persky’s website.
“It never crossed my mind that the campaign would indicate anything other than concern about when it’s appropriate to have a judicial recall,” she explained. “It was true that I told Persky that he could use my name as someone who supported his position, but I never agreed with all those things said later by other people associated with him.”
Ravel said she supported the underlying issue as a lifelong attorney who served as an elected representative on the Board of Governors of the State Bar of California, as a member of the state’s Judicial Council and chair of the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation. “I feel very strongly that there are only really rare circumstances for a recall of a judge,” she said, “and that’s how I viewed this. For me, I was looking at it in a narrow way when I agreed to this.”
After county voters removed Persky from the bench last June, Dauber, Richardson and Stukes worked their way into elected leadership of the Silicon Valley Democratic Club and spun off a political action group called Enough is Enough to continue their efforts to hold public officials accountable on issues of sexual violence and harassment.
The Recall Persky proponents said they appreciate Ravel’s apology.
“Aaron Persky's campaign engaged in a tremendous amount of victim blaming and we are glad that Ann, as a woman who wants to serve this county, now understands how much hurt this inflicted on women voters,” Dauber said the next morning. “Persky's campaign repeatedly attacked Emily Doe for being intoxicated and argued that Turner was somehow less deserving of punishment because of her intoxication. Those statements were shocking coming from the campaign of a judge, and that is in large part why he lost the confidence of women voters and lost the election.”
McManis in particular should be held accountable for repeatedly downplaying the gravity of Turner’s crime, she added.
“That was appalling,” Dauber said. “Hopefully Ann will reconsider her relationship with McManis and sever ties with his law firm, which also filed repeated frivolous litigation intended to cause delay, expense, and harass the recall campaign.”
With clarity of hindsight, Ravel said she realizes she could probably have been more vigilant about how her reputation was used. But she lost track of the recall battle as it neared the election because she was so focused on promoting campaign finance reform, a job that involved frequent international trips to conferences and speaking engagements.
“It was not at the top of my mind,” she said.
All that aside, Ravel said she feels grateful for the chance to talk about the issue.
“I’ve always lived by the principle of transparency,” she said the day after the meeting. “And I want to stay true to that.”