Update, February 22, 5:06 p.m. This article has been updated to include Lydia Hernandez's full statement responding to the allegations about her behavior at the Texas conference.
Lydia Hernandez is a former state representative, an elected Cartwright School District board member, and a candidate for the Phoenix City Council. Last year, she traveled to Texas for an education association conference.
The organization behind the event says she's not welcome back.
After the conference, the Austin-based Mexican American School Boards Association (MASBA) condemned Hernandez's behavior in a letter and banned her from the group's events in Texas until at least 2020.
In the midst of the controversy over her conduct, Hernandez made accusations of her own, claiming she witnessed a conference attendee grope another individual in front of her.
At the time, Hernandez was the chair-elect of the National Hispanic Council of the National School Boards Association, but after the Texas conference, she was ousted from her position. She claims her removal was retaliation for raising the alleged groping incident.
According to the statement from MASBA and people who attended the conference, Hernandez was at the center of two controversial incidents: She insisted she could vote during the MASBA assembly even though the association's bylaws made her ineligible; later, Hernandez accused another attendee of throwing a glass filled with an alcoholic drink at her.
The individual reportedly denied deliberately throwing the glass. Hernandez said she filed a police report for assault as a result of the confrontation, and claims she saw the same man grope another conference attendee.
The 2018 MASBA conference took place at the San Antonio Airport Hilton from February 22 to 24.
One month after the event, the executive director of MASBA alerted the National School Boards Association in a March 26 letter that Hernandez is not welcome back to Texas in any capacity. He called Hernandez's visit to the state a "tragic experience."
"Hernandez has apparently allowed mental health issues to cloud her judgment, and her lack of character, empathy, decency and prudence makes it extremely difficult to fathom the possibility of respect for her as Chair of our National Hispanic Council," MASBA executive director Jayme Mathias wrote.
In the letter, Mathias explained that Hernandez "caused a public scene" during the annual conference by "belligerently suggesting that, contrary to our bylaws, she possessed the right to vote during that Assembly." Members of MASBA must serve on school boards in the state of Texas, making Hernandez ineligible to vote.
Her state of intoxication on the evening of February 24, Mathias wrote, "created situations for which we are still apologizing to our longtime members."
Hernandez has spread lies and attempted to disparage MASBA members in the weeks following the conference, Mathias wrote. He cc-ed the boards of directors of the National School Boards Association and the Cartwright School District.
David Espinosa, another conference attendee and a school board member in Grand Prairie, Texas, said he did not see anyone throw a glass at Hernandez, but he did witness her immediate heated reaction.
Hernandez accused Michael Vargas, the board president of the San Benito Consolidated Independent School District, of throwing the glass at her. Espinosa recalled Vargas saying that it was an accident.
Trying to deescalate the situation, Espinosa told Vargas to apologize right away. "As I'm saying that, Lydia's yelling, and she's yelling and cursing at [Vargas]."
Vargas said he was sorry, Espinosa said, but Hernandez didn't accept the apology as she continued swearing and left the room.
Later, in the early hours of the morning, when attendees were in a hotel suite socializing and drinking, Espinosa said he heard someone pounding on the door. It was Hernandez, asking where Vargas was. At the time, Vargas was asleep in his room, Espinosa said.
When he answered the door, Espinosa said he saw Hernandez accompanied by a younger man. "He's here to kick his [Vargas'] ass," Hernandez explained to Espinosa, he recalled.
Espinosa was able to calm her down again. Hernandez and the young man came into the suite and socialized with the rest of the group until the party ended, he said.
In response to the allegations, Hernandez did not return a call seeking comment and instead replied via email with statements she previously provided to a Texas newspaper.
"He hit me with an object, in a malicious act to physically cause me harm," Hernandez wrote. "Of course, I am going to defend myself. I have got no political motivation."
Additionally, Hernandez claimed in her statements to Phoenix New Times and in an open letter posted on a blog that she witnessed Vargas grope another conference attendee.
"What happened was completely inappropriate, unprofessional behavior from an elected official aspiring to seek political leadership," Hernandez wrote.
Hernandez said she contacted the San Antonio Police Department to file a report against Vargas.
In a statement to the San Benito News last April, Vargas denied Hernandez's allegations. “Completely false and unfounded accusations regarding an alleged incident at a recent conference of the Mexican American School Board Association (MASBA) are being circulated in an attempt to smear my reputation and my character. These lies are entirely politically motivated,” Vargas said.
A request for comment to Vargas was not returned by the San Benito school district.
Hernandez was re-elected to another four-year term on the Cartwright School District governing board in 2018. She has served on the board since 2004. A spokesperson for the Cartwright School District said the district is reviewing the letter from MASBA.
In the aftermath of the Texas conference, Hernandez was removed as chair-elect of the National Hispanic Council of School Board Members of the NSBA. A website for the NSBA lists the position of chair-elect as vacant.
Hernandez said she believes the move was retaliation for standing up to Vargas in defense of the attendee whom he allegedly assaulted. At the same time, she acknowledged missing the Council's board meetings to care for her elderly father, who had suffered a fall.
"This resulted in absences, but my absences are legally justified on why I could not attend a board retreat meeting," Hernandez wrote in an email.
Tamara Boorstein, communications director for the NSBA, would only confirm that until recently, Hernandez was on the board of the Council. Boorstein declined to answer follow-up questions, citing an organizational policy of not commenting on internal business.
Because he did not witness the alleged throwing of the glass, Mathias said in an interview that he couldn't comment in detail on what happened. But he expressed disbelief at the magnitude of the controversy involving Hernandez.
"That it could become as large an issue as she made it to be during the subsequent months – the organizational time and resources that it consumed – was certainly extraordinary," Mathias said.
The resources MASBA spent responding to Hernandez’s actions at the conference could have served the organization’s mission of helping kids, he said.
Hernandez, a Democrat, represented Phoenix's District 29 in the Arizona House of Representatives from 2013 to 2015. She ran unsuccessfully for the Senate seat in the same district in 2014 and 2016 (an especially acrimonious race) losing to incumbent Martín Quezada in the Democratic primary both times.
In the March 12 special election for the District 5 Council seat, Hernandez faces Councilwoman Vania Guevara, who was appointed to replace Daniel Valenzuela, along with fellow challengers Betty Guardado and Audrey Bell-Jenkins.
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When he learned that Hernandez is a candidate for the Phoenix City Council, Espinosa seemed shocked. "Woooow," he said.
"Surprised that she's running," he said. "But, you know, I wish her the best in her race, in her run for City Council."
Lydia Hernandez's full statement on the events of the 2018 MASBA conference is below.
I believe in protecting the rights of women and members of the LGBT community who have been assaulted and advocating for them.
Co-founder of SOMOS, DeeDee Garcia Blase, spoke with victim, [name], during a conference in San Antonio on April 8, 2018. [Victim's name] stated he was sexually assaulted by Michael Vargas. We believe the victim and will continue to advocate for victims of sexual assault. [Victim's name] came forward to the MASBA board of directors and other MASBA leaders to complain about Vargas' sexual assault against him. Shortly after the victim complained about the sexual assault, Mr. Vargas resigned from MASBA.
Vargas states the police report statements made by Lydia Hernandez are false, however, he ought to explain why he resigned from MASBA shortly after [victim's name] came forward with the sexual assault complaint. Furthermore, it should be noted that it was Mr. Vargas who told the police officers that he did not remember the events due to being "highly intoxicated" when Hernandez called the police to file a police report. Hernandez was not highly intoxicated and does not suffer from memory problems.
Jaime Mathias, Executive Director of MASBA and Pastor of the American Catholic Church in the United States (ACCUSA) that is not affiliated with or recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, sent a vile letter regarding Lydia Hernandez, and stated in his letter: "Please do not hesitate to email me or to call with any questions concerning the very serious matter of this communication…." Our organization has left Mathias numerous voicemails and emails to no avail. As director of MASBA, and/or as a pastor of ACCUSA, we believe Mathias should have responded to our emails since a member of the LGBT community and a woman who is a member of our organization was assaulted. We take assaults and sexual assaults very seriously and believe in a zero-tolerance policy to that regard.
Former Arizona State Rep. Lydia Hernandez states:
Vargas responds to allegations: “These lies are entirely politically motivated.”
I am in complete shock and in disbelief! I don’t know how an elected official can respond with a simple statement, that I am lying. How can you say that when there were at least 50 to 60 people in the room? In fact, most of, if not all, MASBA board of directors was in the same room. When he threw the glass at me, I raised my voice at him stating, “Did you just throw a glass at me!” At that moment, the entire room froze in silence and movement. To which, Michael Vargas responded very clearly, “Yes, I did, now get over it!” As he motioned to walk towards me, Board officer, David Anthony Espinoza, broke the room silence by yelling at him demanding an apology to which Vargas denied. MASBA Board of Director and former, El Paso retired police officer, and elected El Paso school board member, responded by accompanying me out of the event, stating, “Ok this has gotten out of hand, let’s get out of here.” Several of MASBA board of Directors, were present and walked out of the room with me, when I was approached by a young college aged girl, who was with Vargas group, and stopped me on the way out, wanting to start a physical fight with me as well.
What happened was completely inappropriate, unprofessional behavior from an elected official aspiring to seek political leadership. His sexual assault and groping of the young man, in my presence, was not was sickening. His behavior was desperate and looked as if he couldn’t control himself. Regardless, of sexual orientation, No one deserves to be touched or sexually against their will!
Vargas claims my actions are politically driven? He hit me with an object, in a malicious act to physically cause me harm. Of course, I am going to defend myself. I have got no political motivation. My motivation is to hold him ACCOUNTABLE.” He brought this on himself.
Vargas also claims that he is not “our first victim.” No, he is not! In 2008-2010, I was a victim of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. The person was very politically connected and a high profile public official. I addressed it and suffered retaliation. This last year, considering the inspirational and courageous women around the nation along the “#Me Too” movement, I also found the courage and fight within me to come forward. Subsequently, my perpetrator lost his job, as well as resigned from all leadership key positions.
So, yes, the topic is not new to me. For Vargas to use that against me reeks of complete ignorance, machismo and blatant disregard for respect for women who have come forward against violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment who have said, “Enough is enough.” Why he feels he has the right to touch, grope, assault and use violence is not only intolerable, but is a crime and against the law. Elected officials need to be held accountable for their crimes and actions.