John Locher / AP
Published Friday, Feb. 1, 2019 | 8:45 a.m.
Updated Friday, Feb. 1, 2019 | 11:46 a.m.
Former U.S. Rep. Ruben Kihuen, whose rise in the Democratic Party was derailed by sexual harassment allegations, has launched a campaign for elected office in Las Vegas despite opposition from some former supporters who say he doesn't deserve the job.
The one-term congressman on Wednesday filed to run for an open Las Vegas city council seat, a quick return to public life coming weeks after he quietly finished his only term in Congress.
"Unless you earn back people's trust, which takes time, you don't deserve to be representing people," said Maria-Teresa Libermann, the director of the No Means No, Ruben PAC, a political action committee working to defeat him.
Kihuen was among half a dozen members of Congress who resigned, retired or abandoned re-election plans in late 2017 as the #MeToo movement spurred people to voice allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior against them.
He did not respond to several phone and email requests about his nascent campaign.
He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a statement that he'd apologized and noted he'd only received criticism, not formal punishment, from the U.S. House Ethics Committee.
"I issued a sincere, unequivocal apology last year and received a 'reproval,' the lightest form of action by Congress," Kihuen said.
The Ethics Committee concluded Kihuen made persistent and unwanted advances toward three women who were required to interact with him as part of their jobs.
The report included emoji-laden text messages Kihuen sent to a lobbyist in 2014 and 2015 when he repeatedly sent sexual messages and asked to spend time with her. In one message, after she declined again, Kihuen responded with, "Hahaha! How many times have you told me no now... like, 4,456,221 times!"
Kihuen said he never intentionally engaged in harassing behavior but regretted his conduct.
For some Democrats and progressive activists, including women who helped Nevada last year elect the country's first overall female-majority state legislature, his apology wasn't enough.
NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada has called on Kihuen to drop out, saying his campaign showed "a complete lack of regard for the health and safety of the women of Nevada."
Gov. Steve Sisolak, who recently formed a sexual harassment task force, said he was "surprised and disappointed" by Kihuen's decision. "I am deeply concerned that Mr. Kihuen's insistence on staying in the spotlight will force the women he abused to relive their trauma over again," the Democrat said in a statement.
Other Democrats, including the state and county party officials, have stayed quiet.
Kihuen, a former state lawmaker, became Nevada's first Latino congressman when he was elected in 2016 with the support of longtime former Sen. Harry Reid and the politically powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226 that represents casino workers.
Both Reid and the union declined comment.
Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford, who heads the sexual harassment task force, did not comment on Kihuen's campaign issued a statement saying Ford "does not condone any behavior that inhibits employees' feelings of safety, comfort and performance in the workplace."
Libermann, who also serves as deputy director of the progressive group Battle Born Progress, said she once admired Kihuen as a fellow Latino in politics, but was angry at the allegations and what she called his "half-hearted apology."
She's afraid he can win the council seat despite the allegations because he's well-known and remains popular among Latinos, who make up about 65 percent of the district.
He's facing five others in an April primary for the nonpartisan seat, and several of his opponents have demurred about how much they'll focus on the allegations.
Melissa Clary, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs project manager, said she plans to focus her campaign on her credentials and the issues she wants to tackle.
Olivia Diaz, an elementary school teacher and former Democratic state lawmaker, said she's not necessarily planning to raise Kihuen's past either. "The constituents will have to decide who they want representing them," she said.