Elk Grove mayor did nothing to stop campaign aide’s sexist, racist remarks, local official says

Eufemia Didonato

The last time Mayor Steve Ly ran for re-election two years ago, he formed a coalition with five other candidates who shared his progressive views, and together they called themselves “Team Elk Grove.”

While four out of the six candidates won their political races, the bitterness created during the months-long grind still casts a long shadow over their victories.

This week, Jaclyn Moreno, who successfully ran for a position on the Cosumnes Community Services District board, said in an interview that she was subjected to a steady stream of harassment that was often sexist from one of Ly’s campaign employees.

Even after appealing to the mayor more than once asking him to intervene, Moreno said her concerns were acknowledged but the employee continued working on Ly’s 2018 campaign. So, Moreno said, she attended fewer campaign events with “Team Elk Grove,” avoiding those in which the aide was present. She even skipped the victory party on election night.

Moreno, who had been an ally of the mayor as part of “Team Elk Grove,” is re-examining the events with fresh scrutiny after Ly’s former campaign manager accused the mayor, in a separate incident, of trying to pressure her to remove disparaging comments on Facebook.

Moreno published an account of her experience on the website Medium this week, calling for more accountability when reports of harassment and discrimination are made in city government. She said she never filed a formal complaint with the city because the criteria seemed to be limited to city employees.

The campaign aide accused of perpetrating the harassment, Tyson Sorci, worked for Ly as a council assistant from as early as 2016, records show. He used the title external affairs liaison and was a fixture at community events. Moreno did not name Sorci in her Medium essay, but she confirmed in an interview that he was the campaign aide.

Attempts to reach Sorci by phone, at a listed address in Elk Grove, through a message on Linkedin, and through associates on Facebook were unsuccessful.

A Republican, Sorci was an unlikely presence on the campaign but, sources said, Ly employed him part-time as a liaison to Elk Grove’s more conservative residents as he tried to fend off a challenge from Councilman Darren Suen.

Moreno said in an interview that Sorci would often refer to her as “Ms. MeToo,” a dig at the movement against sexual harassment and abuse. In her Medium post, Moreno said he also called her a b—- and a c—- behind her back and in front of other candidates and volunteers.

People who overheard the remarks told her about them, Moreno said. And several people on the campaign interviewed by The Bee also said they witnessed or overheard the alleged abuse, in addition to racist, homophobic and other sexist comments from Sorci.

According to Moreno’s online essay, Sorci also made disparaging comments about the LGBTQ community; he called Muslims “terrorists”; referred to women as “bitches”; and described Elk Grove students who kneeled during the Pledge of Allegiance as “jigaboos” — an old racial slur used to describe Black people.

“I told Steve about every single one of those incidents. I just felt like he was so negligent in his response,” Moreno said in an interview with The Bee.

Sorci left his position with the city in February 2019 after he was accused of intimidating a group of protesters opposed to the construction of a hospital planned by California Northstate University.

Ly declined a request for an interview. In an email, he said the matter was a human resources issue that was addressed.

“I am concerned that women have experienced harassment,” Ly said in a prepared statement. “Anyone engaging in such reprehensible behavior is no supporter of mine. I certainly do not condone or support such behavior.”

Others who were on the campaign said Ly should have dismissed Ty during the campaign. Instead, Sorci left his position with the city months after the election.

“I was there and I saw what happened to Jaclyn,” said Andres Ramos, who ran for the District 2 seat on the City Council. “Though it wasn’t Steve doing it; (he) needed to be stronger and needed to be more intentional with holding Ty accountable. We should not have waited until after the campaign to get rid of Ty.”

In copies of text messages provided to The Bee, Sorci once referred to Moreno as “blue eyes” on a group chat, one of a handful instances in which she recalled Sorci commenting on her appearance.

Moreno replied: “Thanks Ty, so sweet of you to notice my eyes.”

“(No) one is sweeter than me,” he said in response. “I kiss girls and they get cavities.”

“Stop,” she replied. He responded with a “Ha Ha” emoji.

Denial during meeting

The tipping point for Moreno came in October 2018 when the “Team Elk Grove” candidates attended a fundraiser hosted by the Chinese American Council of Sacramento. It was one of many appearances made in the run-up to the election — and another opportunity for the candidates to get their name out.

Moreno told The Bee the slights were often subtle at first: Sorci would introduce everyone in a circle and then ignore her, or he would stand in her way and not allow her to pass some parts of the room. He kept calling her “MeToo” in public, she said

As they were all seated at a round table inside the New Happy Garden Restaurant on Stockton Boulevard, Sorci was charged with introducing all the candidates on the team. He called each of their names when it was time to be introduced; everyone except Moreno, she said

“I’m sitting there by myself at the round table thinking obviously that it was on purpose because he had been engaging in tactics like that all night,” Moreno said. “All these things are so small but when you put it together they are big.”

Moreno, who was running for elected office for the first time, knew how important it was to make her presence known.

“Oftentimes when candidates or elected officials are in the room, your one moment to shine so that everyone knows you’re there is when you’re introduced by the emcee,” she said. “That’s why you go to these events — to network and get your name out.”

At one point, Moreno said she began to cry and had to leave the room to go outside for some air. Other members of the team followed behind her, but Moreno never went back inside. Orlando Fuentes, who was running for City Council, wrote a memo to Moreno at the time documenting the experience.

The Bee obtained a copy of the memo from 2018 in which he describes Sorci saying the words “Me Too” over her right shoulder while she sat at the event.

“This immediately made Jaclyn feel uncomfortable and I tried to console her,” Fuentes wrote in the memo.

In text messages afterward, some of the candidates expressed support for Moreno and sympathized with her situation. Ly apologized.

Moreno said Ly suggested they all meet to “repair the damage that’s been done,” so a few days later — after hours of campaigning — Moreno and Sorci met to discuss the issues.

Andres Ramos, Rod Brewer, another candidate for the community services district board, and Cua Ly, Steve Ly’s wife, were also present at the campaign office on East Stockton Boulevard. It was about three weeks before the election. Steve Ly served as the moderator.

Moreno said she laid out her harassment claims; how he kept calling her “MeToo” against her wishes and excluded her at the campaign event, among other things. Sorci said it was a misunderstanding, and that he felt threatened by her when she approached him and asked that he stop calling her “MeToo,” according to Moreno.

Moreno said Sorci denied it ever happened. Some of the candidates chimed in, corroborating her account. She said Steve seemed to be on the fence; it was like he didn’t know who to believe.

“At the time I thought it was a good idea to meet,” Moreno said. “Now that I look back, I think that was a really poor response by the mayor when someone says they’re being harassed and intimidated and your response is let’s meet with them and talk about it.”

Moreno hoped Ly would fire him or at least throw him off the campaign. But instead, they vowed to avoid each other until the election was over, she said. As a result, Moreno pulled back from some team campaign events.

Five days before the election, Moreno still did not want to be in the same room with Sorci. She made it clear in a group text: “I would like to share election night with you guys but I will not be there if Ty is present.”

Three of the other candidates tried to rally support for her, saying that Moreno, as a candidate on the team, should be there over Sorci.

Finally, Ly weighed in with his opinion:

“As an elected, I have to oftentimes go into places that (are) uncomfortable and even hostile, i.e. city council,” Ly wrote to the group. “I will take your recommendations into consideration but as you know there are only three employees in my campaign and they are Andrew, John and Ty. Each one has distinct personalities and also specific duties in which they performed.”

Moreno pulled in 35% of the votes cast for the Cosumnes Community Services District race, the most of all the candidates. But when she celebrated her victory it wasn’t in Elk Grove, but instead at events in Sacramento.

Other accusers come forward

Moreno’s experience adds to a portrait of Ly that is still taking shape as the November mayoral campaign heats up. Four women have accused Ly of treating them with hostility in the past or not being mindful of sexism in local politics and government.

Most notably, Ly has been criticized for trying to persuade his former campaign manager Linda Vue to remove damaging comments from Facebook by appealing to the Hmong clan system, a centuries-old body used for dispute resolution.

Vue complained that the clan system was male-dominated and has been used to silence or placate women in the past. What’s more, she said it was inappropriate for the mayor to use it to address a citizen’s critique.

“I received a text threatening me because of some of the words I stated about you on my Facebook,” Vue said during a recent City Council meeting. “That is not acceptable for a mayor to send people to threaten voters when they have a concern.”

The City Council will consider censuring Ly, a formal show of disapproval, for his actions at its next meeting.

The alleged missteps opened a window for more complaints from political rivals and other critics who say Ly’s surrogates have harassed them online. But the claims vary from person to person:

Bobbie Singh-Allen accused Ly of trying to remove her from her position as a board trustee when they briefly worked together on the Elk Grove Unified School District Board of Education. She recently launched a campaign for mayor to replace Ly.

Nancy Chaires Espinoza, another school board trustee, said in an interview and in an op-ed that Ly’s supporters have harassed her online and tried to spread falsehoods about her marriage when she opposed him in a City Council race in 2014.

Both Singh-Allen and Chaires Espinoza accused Ly of using supporters to launch social media campaigns against his rivals, but The Bee has not uncovered evidence to show Ly orchestrated the attacks.

Chaires Espinoza said Ly has also recruited candidates to run against her, including in 2014. In the end, Ly bested her by more than 2,000 votes to win the District 4 seat.

“This was a Latino Republican, and a lot of people just go by the name. You know without question this affected the race,” Chaires Espinoza said. “Just by him being on the ballot was a hit to me.”

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