Santa Fe Democrat Richard Ellenberg quit his post as chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico on Tuesday after questioning the veracity of sexual harassment and assault claims against a business partner.
The news broke as another woman came forward with charges that the partner, former New Mexico Federation of Labor President Jon Hendry, said he'd improve her employment prospects and get her into the local film union if she had sex with him. The allegations say Hendry implied he could destroy her career if she denied his advances.
The new allegations came in an amended complaint filed Monday by Trent Howell, an attorney for Madeleine Lauve.
Ellenberg made the comments to The Santa Fe New Mexican on Monday after a reporter contacted him regarding a lawsuit that had been filed against Hendry, who was ousted from his post as president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor because of the claims.
Christa Valdez, a former public relations employee for Hendry at the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 480, filed the suit last week. In it, she claims Hendry sexually harassed her via text message, asking for nude photos. She also says he groped her buttocks. Valdez says that when she got another job, Hendry badmouthed her and convinced her new employer to cut ties with her.
Ellenberg acknowledged to the daily newspaper that he and Hendry co-own a rental property together. He told the reporter, "It's not something I would expect anyone to accuse him of, let's put it that way. … I think it needs to unfold more, and I have some information about the allegations in this case that I'm told would cast some of this in a very different light, but I'll have to leave it to Mr. Hendry and his attorneys to decide how they want to deal with that."
Sources at the Democratic Party of New Mexico tell SFR that backlash Tuesday was broad and swift. By mid-day, Ellenberg was out. He sent a letter to State Central Committee members via email.
"I am submitting this as my letter of resignation as Chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico," Ellenberg writes. "It has been a great honor to serve Democrats across the state and jump start new programs within our party, but I feel it would be best if I step down at this time.
"I regret the way in which I have managed complaints of survivors who have come forward about sexual harassment, and take full responsibility to continue to learn and grow so that I can be an advocate and ally in the future."
Valdez' lawsuit claims Hendry threatened a local casting agency with blacklisting if the business continued to employ Valdez through a PR contract. That allegedly took place last month.
Lauve's allegations date back to 2013 and 2014, when she says Hendry promised to improve her standing at IATSE Local 480 if she engaged in sex with him. When she eventually protested, the suit says, he cut her off in the midst of a job assignment.
The suit says Hendry often bragged of being able to destroy careers and it was common knowledge that he would undermine the hiring of women by questioning their character and calling them "sluts" in phone calls with industry employers.
Reached for comment by phone Tuesday afternoon, Hendry tells SFR that he "couldn't talk about it while it was tied up in litigation," and that "my lawyers would admonish me for even having a conversation this long."
A spokeswoman for the Democratic Party tells SFR that Vice Chair Neomi Martinez-Parra will serve as acting head of the party until the central committee elects a new chair at an April 21 meeting.
"Our country and our state are in an incredible moment in which survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault feel empowered to come forward, and the Democratic Party of New Mexico has taken upon itself to be a leader on this issue. Chair Ellenberg has taken responsibility for the fact that he has more to learn and has stepped down," reads a press release from the party.
"We encourage everyone to strive to end a culture of sexual harassment in our state. We will be moving forward to ensure our party is an ally for the countless women who have come forward and working to change our culture so everyone is treated with respect and professionalism in the workplace."
Reaction from elected New Mexico Democrats also condemned Ellenberg's statements. A joint release by US Sen. Martin Heinrich, US Reps. Ben Lujan and Michelle Lujan Grisham and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said, "As Democrats, we stand with the silence-breakers who have come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Questioning the credibility of sexual misconduct allegations is contrary to our values, and it is time for new leadership that better reflects them."
SFR Culture Editor Alex de Vore contributed reporting.