The Silicon Valley Organization (SVO) issued a public apology on Thursday after defending a political candidate who had been the target of a settled 2014 sexual harassment lawsuit.
In an email to 1,400-plus members of the business advocacy association, SVO President Matt Mahood, board chair Lennies Gutierrez and political action committee board chair Tracey Enfantino struck a conciliatory tone: “We are sorry.”
“Our words diminished the severity of a sexual harassment claim and did not reflect the spirit and values of the SVO,” they said. “This was not right and we apologize.”
The mea culpa stems from an email the same SVO leaders sent last week in response to a labor-backed campaign mailer lambasting the organization for endorsing former San Jose Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio, whose former policy aide accused him of gender discrimination in a 2014 lawsuit that the city ultimately settled for $10,000.
Had the SVO ignored the flyer, it’s unlikely it would have garnered much attention outside the Santa Clara County supervisor’s district where Oliverio is running against six other candidates. But the SVO felt the need to defend its good name by having two female board chairs do it for them.
“The SVO may be the most welcoming organization in Silicon Valley for women leaders,” Enfantino and Gutierrez 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.”
They called the payout in Oliverio’s settlement “minor” and the degrading language he allegedly lobbed at his former employee and campaign manager “colorful.”
And they signed off with, “Yours during National Women’s Month.”
The reaction came swift and fierce.
Within minutes of the email blast, San Jose Inside saw Facebook light up with local community leaders rebuking the SVO’s response as tone deaf and sexist.
“YOU GUYS,” a commenter wrote. “I am embarrassed to admit that I was unaware that the mere act of employing women meant that an organization could not possibly be sexist in how they acted on their values.”
“Do they NOT have a PR person? Cuz at this point they’re gonna have to hire a ‘fixer,’” one prescient observer chimed in.
Several people who spoke to San Jose Inside likened it to the trope of the accused racist’s I-have-a-black-friend defense or to Mitt Romney responding to a question about the gender wage gap by touting his “binders full of women.”
Randi Kinman, a West Valley-Mission Community College District trustee and board member of Democratic Activists for Women Now (DAWN), came up with a new hashtag mocking the SVO’s defensive email: #WeHazWimmins.
Days later, SVO program director Susan Ellenberg resigned, saying she refuses to work for an organization that tokenizes women. Ellenberg, who’s running against Oliverio in the county’s District 4 race, also took issue with her employer endorsing her opponent instead of remaining neutral in that one contest.
Meanwhile, the six-member board of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) of Silicon Valley—a nonpartisan feminist group led by Ellenberg’s campaign manager, Angelica Ramos-Allen—announced that it would rescind its SVO membership. Ramos-Allen was paid $15,000 during the second half of 2017, according to the Ellenberg campaign’s Jan. 31 filing.
Oliverio passed up an offer to comment on the fracas while his defenders chalked up the controversy to political grandstanding.
Ellenberg denied posturing for her campaign, saying she spoke up as a woman who felt tokenized by her employer. She said she appreciates that the SVO apologized, which suggests that other members who share her values spoke up, too.
The SVO is still endorsing Oliverio.
Below is the full text of the SVO’s apology.
To our esteemed members, partners and community:Last week, we sent out an email to our membership regarding our stance on women. In an attempt to explain where we stood, we inadvertently caused harm. We are sorry.Our words diminished the severity of a sexual harassment claim and did not reflect the spirit and values of The SVO. This was not right and we apologize. Our commitment to women and the issues that affect them in the workplace does not end with this apology. In fact, it has become clear that we have more work to do. We invite you to be a part of the conversation.Our members, partnerships and coalitions span a diverse group of professionals in Silicon Valley. With their support, we will continue to work towards a Silicon Valley that is the best place for everyone to live, work, play, raise a family, and start, own and manage a business.Sincerely,Matthew R. MahoodPresident & CEOLennies Gutierrez2018 SVO Board ChairTracey Enfantino2018 SVO PAC Board Chair