WATSONVILLE — Watsonville City Councilman Oscar Rios announced his retirement effective immediately Monday after two women accused him of sexual assault.
The resignation effectively ended the career of a man who has been a political juggernaut since he was a leader in the cannery strikes in the 1980s.
He served off and on with the council from 1989 until 2012, and was reelected by three votes in 2016, when he became mayor.
Rios was responding to two letters penned by women alleging Rios sexually abused them in the late 1980s when he was a leader of the Watsonville cannery strikes.
The women, Shiree Teng and Liz Bean, say that Rios inappropriately touched and groped them.
In contacting the media, Teng said she was inspired by #MeToo movement.
“Today, I add my voice to the #MeToo movement and break the silence about sexual harassment and abuse within the progressive movement,” Teng wrote in a statement emailed to this newspaper.
In the #MeToo movement, women who were sexually abused by men in positions of power are increasingly naming their abusers in an effort to publicize the problem and put an end to the epidemic.
Teng said she was a 28-year-old social activist when she came to Watsonville in 1986 to help with the growing movement for cannery worker rights.
Teng said that Rios was seen as a respected leader who was deeply immersed in the movement.
“He worked on the strike full time and decisions about most things involved what Oscar thought,” she said. “He spoke the language and was from the people. He was widely held in good esteem. He was an influencer, a mover and shaker.”
It was at an organizational meeting in Teng’s house that Rios allegedly came into her bedroom and pushed her against a desk.
“He thrust himself between my legs and stuck his tongue down my mouth,” she wrote.
Teng said she was “taken completely by surprise.”
“I was in shock,” she said.
The abuse continued after that, Teng said.
“On long drives to Stockton or Los Angeles to build support for the cannery workers movement, Oscar would grope and fondle me despite my discomfort and even after I told him to stop,” she said.
Teng said she felt “mentally, psychologically and physically coerced.”
“It was just easier to let him do what he wanted, trapped between needing his approval and advice to move the support work forward and being repulsed by his sexual abuse,” she said.
When Teng told a friend about the abuse, the friend said that Rios had done the same thing to her.
The friend, however, said she did not want to report Rios because of his prominence in the activist community.
Bean said that she was an activist in her 20s when Rios abused her in 1988.
Bean said she went to the house of a friend who was dating Rios.
The three got into a hot tub, and when the friend left, Rios allegedly sidled next to Bean and stuck his finger into her vagina, Bean said.
“I froze,” she said. “It happened very quickly. I couldn’t believe and didn’t want to believe what had actually happened.”
Bean said she worried how others would view her after the incident.
“…I felt so ashamed by what happened that I never told anyone,” she said.
Bean said she was inspired to publicize her story after telling it to a friend for the first time in late December.
“As the tears began to roll down my face in that moment, I felt both a sense of sadness and relief,” she said. “After 30 years, I was finally able to release the burden that I had carried for so long.”
In a prepared statement to this newspaper, Rios said he does not remember some of the events described by Teng and Bean. He added that he remembers others from “a different perspective.”
“Nevertheless, I will not defend my conduct,” he said. “Many years ago I engaged in behavior that upon reflection was inappropriate.
“I am deeply sorry to hear that my conduct has caused pain and anger to demonstrably good people. It saddens me to know they bear scars from those encounters. I believe that the work that I am doing today and throughout my career is good work that has benefited our community. Also, I know that I have grown, reflected, learned, and changed my behavior over the last 30 years.
“However, I also believe that elected officials must stand for and represent the highest standards of conduct in our community.
“I have dedicated my life to the improvement of the City of Watsonville and my community and do not want to become a distraction or to hold back the progress of our city or my constituents in any way.
“I believe in the #MeToo movement. I stand in solidarity with the #MeToo movement and support the empowerment of all who suffer from harassment, assault, and oppression.
“If I want to honor those who have stepped forward, I need to and am willing to take responsibility for the impacts I have had on others.
“I will not stand in the way and will do what I can to support their healing. For this reason, I have made a decision to resign from the Watsonville City Council effective immediately.”
Teng said Rios’ announcement is a “positive sign.”
“I don’t take any of the things he has done away from him, but in this issue he has got to look in the mirror,” she said.
Teng then suggested that Rios seek “help.”
“He and so many other perpetrators are in denial,” she said.
In a prepared statement, Watsonville Assistant City Manager Matt Huffaker said the incidents took place “decades ago” when Rios was not yet a member of the city government.
“Nevertheless, the allegations are concerning and the city takes them seriously,” Huffaker said. “As with any allegations of this nature, this matter has been referred to the appropriate law enforcement agencies for further investigation.”
Huffaker declined to comment further.
Watsonville Mayor Lowell Hurst declined to comment.
Rios’ District 2 seat will now be up for election, thanks to 2014’s voter-approved Measure H, which requires a vacant seat to go to the voters, rather than be filled by council appointment.
The city charter states that the election must be held during a General Election, if it is within 90 days of the vacancy. If not, a special election must be held.
The General Election will take place Nov. 6.
The Watsonville City Council will meet Tuesday for its regularly scheduled meeting.