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Pima Dems disavow CD 2 candidate Yuksel after dismissive reaction to rape claim

In an unprecedented move, local Democrats voted Wednesday to cut all ties with congressional candidate Yahya Yuksel in the wake of what many have called his "outrageous" reaction to the surfacing of a rape allegation from a decade ago.

The executive board of the Pima County Democratic Party signed off on a resolution pulling all support from the CD 2 candidate, and urged voters to back any of the other six Democratic candidates in the primary race.

Yuksel was accused by a high-school classmate of sexually assaulting her in 2007, when she was drunk at a party. The candidate unsuccessfully attempted to have a judge completely seal the police record of the incident, in which he was never charged or even questioned by law enforcement. Details of the case were first published last week, and Yuksel held a chaotic press conference on Sunday, in which he first ran from questions before returning — to again dodge answering queries from reporters and activists, including rape victims. His staff announced that he was staying in the race, while his family and supporters berated the press and female members of the public who were at the event.

Jo Holt, the chair of the county party, and other Democratic leaders, took pains Wednesday night to make clear that the condemnation was prompted by what they said was Yuksel's refusal to accept any accountability for the 2007 incident.

Calling the meeting to review the situation a "somber moment," Holt reminded the Democrats that "we are not a court of law," and said that the question of whether to distance the party from one of its candidates was based on a "purely political and a moral point of view."

"Is this a viable campaign?," she asked the group to consider. "What damage is being done to our other candidates?"

Yuksel and his supporters said Sunday that the police record included "false allegations," but he he would not deny having sex with a drunk underage girl in 2007 — when she 16 and he was 17.

Joel Feinman, a legislative district leader and public defender, said, "This is less about what happened (during the alleged incident) and more about what happened in 2018" when the police report came to light.

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"This is about behavior that was at best ignorant and at worst abusive," Feinman said.

Calling Yuksel a "fringe candidate," legislative district leader Tom Prezelski said that the candidate's late entry to the race was "pushed by his arrogance and presumptiveness."

Another member of the Dem's exec committee, Janet Connell, said she was "appalled by the utter contempt for women who were there, who were victims."

Liz Porter, who also attended Yuksel's trainwreck of a press conference, was in tears Wednesday as she described him as "combative ... abusive" and having a "complete lack of regret."

"It was awful. I am crying now, but we were all crying there because of how he was treating the women in the room," she said.

"You're staying in the race for yourself," she said rhetorically to Yuksel.

Yuksel and his dwindling campaign had asked to attend the Wednesday meeting, but were told to stay away.

Heath Butrum, the executive director of the Pima County Democratic Party, told the committee that Yuksel's campaign has been "threatening survivors of rape with defamation suits. If we can't oppose that, I would be deeply ashamed to work for all of you."

Following nearly an hour of discussion, the group in attendance approved unanimously — 29 votes in favor— of the resolution breaking ties with Yuksel. Under PCDP's bylaws, at least 28 votes — two-thirds of the entire executive committee — were needed to pass a measure against a candidate.

Holt told the committee that she had spoken to Yuksel twice since Sunday's press conference, and his father once.

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"There is no consideration on their part at all to resign" from the race, she said, noting that the plural "their" indicated the prominent role she found Edip Yuksel, the candidate's father, to be playing in the campaign's decisions.

Many of the Democrats who spoke indicated their strong backing for the resolution's statements in support of preventing sexual assault, "confronting rape culture," and promoting punishment of offenders.

Carmen Prezelski, a longtime Democratic leader, said she was afraid "we have not learned anything as a culture," and called on the committee to send a strong signal that sexual assault should no longer be tolerated.

In the days since he walked out of the press conference, Yuksel has not made any attempt to contact TucsonSentinel.com to make an explanation of his behavior nor respond to any of the other questions about his campaign, including about its finances.

Consequences

While the committee vote could not affect Yuksel's appearance on the ballot — his name will still be listed among the Democratic candidates for the August primary, and would be even if he were to drop out of the race — his campaign will no longer be offered any support by the county party.

The move blocks him from taking part in any events organized by the county party, and his campaign statements and literature will be pulled from the party's website and headquarters.

Other Democratic-aligned groups had already pushed Yuksel away. He was uninvited from a CD 2 candidate forum set for Thursday night and organized by Represent Me AZ. Yuksel had appeared at an earlier forum, moderated by TucsonSentinel.com's Dylan Smith and organized by that group.

"Attempting to explain away the damage by citing your youth was, at best, tone-deaf, and at worst, perpetuates a dangerous rape culture in which women who cannot give consent are frightened into silence are victimized further," Represent Me AZ leaders said in a statement directed at Yuksel.

Yuksel had been set to be the weekly guest speaker at the Democrats of Greater Tucson lunch next Monday, but was told his appearance was canceled. Instead, that group will hold an open discussion about ending sexual assault and supporting victims.

Veronica Feemster Moody, who was badgered by Yuksel's campaign supporters when she directly confronted him about whether he had sex with a drunk teenager, while Yuksel stood by mostly in silence, said Wednesday that she was pleased by the outcome of the Democrats' meeting.

"There are so many things he could have said to acknowledge what happened, but... he didn't," she said.

 Feemster Moody and other activists who were at Sunday's fiasco of a press conference also attended the Wednesday-night meeting, with many crying as they listened to the discussion among the committee members.

After the vote, Butrum said the vote to break ties with a candidate was "unprecedented" in recent history.

In 2011, the county party took the unusual step of endorsing Regina Romeo over challenger Joe Flores in a City Council primary, meeting the two-thirds threshold to make such a move.

In 1994, county Democrats backed the successful recall effort against Alan Lang, a Democratic county assessor.

The incident

A Pima County Sheriff's Department deputy responded to a 911 call on March 3, 2008, after a school counselor reported that a female student, while discussing her parents' divorce, had said she had been raped.

According to the narrative in the report by the PCSD investigator, the victim in the case — whose name was redacted from the documents — was with a mutual school friend, at his grandparent's home, one night in November 2007. Yuksel "came over" and the girl "then drank approximately three to four cups of Sky Vodka and cola," she told the deputy.

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The friend — who attended Salpointe Catholic High School with Yuksel, although the name of the school is also blacked out in the narrative — was interviewed by the deputy on March 2, 2008, the same day as the victim, saying that the girl drank even more: "six to seven cups of Sky vodka and cola and began getting very, very intoxicated and light-headed."

Details of the incident were first reported last Friday by Joe Ferguson of the Arizona Daily Star.

The friend — named in the report, although TucsonSentinel.com is leaving that out of this story — told the deputy that he knew why he asked to speak with him, stating "that it had to do with a previous incident in regards to his friend."

Yuksel was also drinking, having about one and half "cups" of vodka and cola, the friends said.

The girl was "'all over' his friend Yahya," the friend told the deputy.

She then asked to use the bathroom, and Yuksel showed her were it was, both the girl and friend told police.

She came out of the bathroom and said she was not feeling well. Yuksel suggested she sit down on the bed, "telling her that she did not look very well," and she reclined on it, she said.

The girl was "kind of slumped over a bit when Yahya kind of pulled her down by her ankles, so that she was then lying flat on her back," the report said.

"He began kissing her. (The girl) stated that she kissed him for approximately ten seconds before trying to push him off and telling him that she did not want to," the report said the girl told the investigator.

"(She) stated that Yahya began 'feeling me up.' ... He then pulled off her shorts and swimsuit bottoms, put on a condom and had intercourse with her. She stated 'no' the whole time and tried to push him off. During intercourse, she cried a little bit and then blacked out," the report said.

The girl said she woke up around 3 a.m., with the friend asking if she was OK. "She was crying," the report said. The friend gave her back her clothing, and a bag to throw up in. He then took her home.

The friend told the deputy that he was in the other room during the incident, watching television, "keeping it very low to make sure that everything was fine."

"He could hear them in the next room over having sex," the friend said, according to the report. "Never once did she tell him no. At one point, she stated that the lights were on and asked if he could turn them off for them."

Yuksel and the friend then watched TV until about 1 a.m., with the girl in the next room, the friend said.

"When she started to come to, she got very sick and began saying that Yahya had raped her when she did not want that," the friend said.

"He told her that was not what he had heard. He heard her having sex or intercourse as as far as he was concerned, it was voluntary. He did not hear any signs of distress. If he would have, he would have come in and stopped Yahya," the deputy wrote.

After interviewing the witness, the deputy spoke with the girl again. He "asked if her parents were aware of what she was saying, that she had been raped."

The girl told the deputy that she had told them about two weeks before, and that her mother said that "this is what could happen" when "drinking at strange residences with people she did not know."

The girl told the deputy that "she did not want anything done" about the case.

"She was just talking to a counselor about it. She did not want to press any charges or be a victim. She did not want anything to happen," he wrote.

The deputy was told by PCSD's supervisor of Crimes Against Children Unit to document the case "and not go any further" because the victim had told her parents, and both she and Yuksel were 17 years old at the time, he wrote.

Attempt to avoid public disclosure Yuksel's Achilles heel

Despite his quick run for the exit Sunday, Yuksel's campaign had already shown his Achilles heel, as it was a court filing by the candidate himself that brought to light the allegation that, when both were in high school, he had sex with a young woman too drunk to consent.

In his worry about what might be uncovered, his effort to permanently sweep it under the rug is what likely led to the public unveiling of the case.

In March, Yuksel petitioned a Pima County Superior Court judge to "clear from (his) record" a 2008 police report, saying that although the narrative of the report was sealed, the cover sheet of it listed his name and that the report was about "sexual misconduct."

Yuksel told the judge on March 7, 2018, that he was "considering running for elected political office," and that the mere classification of the report, much less its contents, would be "utterly disastrous to my reputation."

Yuksel had already registered his campaign with the Federal Election Commission on March 1.

Yuksel wrote the court that "I did not know of the existence of this allegation until recently." But the copy of the police report he included with the filing indicates that he requested a copy of it nearly a year before, on April 12, 2017.

Yuksel, an attorney, was admitted to the California State Bar this March, and would have had to disclose his complete legal record during his character and fitness examination. Arizona Bar records available online indicate that he's not a member in this state.

"I have not been afforded my constitutional right to defend myself against this accusation and face my accuser in court," he wrote. "It is standard practice for opposing candidates or special interest groups to use any means necessary to tarnish my reputation, and thus this report or its classification will likely come to light."

In the court filing, replete with run-on sentences, Yuksel said that "it is very likely I will lose the confidence of many rational persons in the community, and my own family, if the police report and its public classification of 'Sexual Misconduct' remains on my record."

Pima Superior Court Judge Danelle Liwski denied the request to withhold the record from the public on March 27, 2018, writing that Arizona law only allows a criminal record to be cleared if a person was "wrongfully arrested, indicted or otherwise charged" with a crime.

Yuksel was never charged, or even interviewed by law enforcement in the case, and thus not eligible to have the record of it cleared.

Yuksel's reaction

The Democratic congressional aspirant called a press conference Sunday to call "false" the allegation that he sexually assaulted an intoxicated girl when he was a teenager. His staff announced he was staying in the CD 2 primary, and Yuksel first ran from questions before returning — to again dodge answering queries from reporters and activists, including rape victims.

The candidate's family and supporters added to the chaotic scene, asking why he should have to respond at all, with his father yelling that it was "McCarthyism" and "a lynching," and telling a woman that "rape is a construct."

"I didn't do anything wrong," Yuksel said.

Yuksel, now 28 years old, was named by a 17-year-old girl in early 2008 about an alleged non-consensual sexual encounter that took place in November 2007, but the girl told authorities that she "did not want to press any charges or be a victim." The girl, whose name has not been released, told a school counselor that she had been "raped" and told an investigator with the Pima County Sheriff's Department that she had gotten "woozy" while drinking with Yuksel and another male friend from high school, and had sat down on a bed with Yuksel, who began to kiss her. According to the police report, she tried to push him off and told him "she did not want to," but Yuksel pulled off her clothing, put on a condom and had intercourse with her.

Sunday morning, Yuksel strode from his campaign office after making a brief statement — standing with his mother, Apameh Bashar, and campaign manager, Ivanna Ferra, and saying that the #MeToo movement "should have started a long time ago."

"Regarding the allegation, it's deeply disturbing to me. It hurts. I could never, ever, force myself upon someone — as a teenager, or ever will I," he said. Yuksel looked at the reporters and members of the public in the conference room, gathering his papers and walking to the door, but did not acknowledge any of the questions put to him.

Instead, to a shout of "coward!" and as a group of activists chanted "Shame on you, shame on you," he walked out to the adjacent driveway, jumped into a waiting car and was driven off, only to be halted on a nearby corner by an angry crowd running down the sidewalk. Yuksel, a late entry into the packed Democratic primary, agreed to return to his office to respond to questions. He was then confronted by a group of about 35 Democratic activists, organized on social media, who crowded into the narrow breezeway of the small North First Avenue office complex.

Asked if he's staying in the race, Yuksel — flanked by his mother and father, with whom he's reportedly been living, and his campaign manager — said, "Of course. I didn't do anything wrong."

"I'm sorry," he told a female member of the public who questioned him about the rape claim.

"I need more than 'I'm sorry,'" said Veronica Feemster Moody.

"These are false allegations," interjected campaign manager Ferra.

"I'm sorry, but this didn't happen to me," Yuksel said.

While Yuksel responded to most queries with nodding silence, allowing his campaign manager and a handful of supporters to run interference, he would not deny having sex with a drunk underage girl in 2007 — when she 16 and he was 17 — despite he and his campaign repeatedly referring to "false allegations."

"You've had it in for me from the beginning, Dylan," he told me — despite my only previous reporting on him having been about a six-person candidate forum I moderated, and having held off reporting on the rape allegation until I could question him directly about it.

Asked by Feemster Moody to "please look me in the eye, right now, and tell me you deny having sex with an underage teenage girl in 2007 when she was intoxicated," Yuksel didn't respond, only shaking his head.

Campaign donor David Jones — a charter school CEO — had positioned himself next to the candidate, whispering in his ear and repeatedly interrupting people attempting to ask questions of Yuksel, who stood mostly mute.

"She was underage and he was intoxicated," Jones told the questioner, Feemster Moody.

"It doesn't matter; that's not the question," she said.

"Can I ask you, did you have sex last night?," Jones asked Moody.

That brought an outburst from the crowd, including a shout that "oh, yeah, that's going to help." Yuksel moved away, stepping behind his campaign manager, who said he would only take questions from the press. "If you have your questions, we can address them later," she said.

Yuksel was then asked directly by a reporter, "Did you have sex with a woman who was drunk."

"My gosh. Listen, we were both teenagers," he said.

"So you did have sex with her?," an activist asked.

"Of c...," he responded, before being cut off with a direction to "Focus!" from his campaign manager.

"Of course you did," one of the activists said.

"We had ... Listen my friend, I was a virgin, and I would not do anything like that. I would not impose myself on a person," Yuksel said.

Campaign manager Ferra — reportedly also Yuksel's girlfriend — then seized his arm and briskly guided him out of the office complex, saying, "OK, we're done," with a wave of her hand at questioners.

"You are done," the group of activists responded, chanting as Yuksel again stepped toward a waiting car, to be driven away.

After the candidate left, the chaotic scene devolved into Yuksel's father — who seemed more upset that his son had sex before being married than that he was accused of rape by a girl — and other supporters attacking the press and those questioning the candidate, continuing their tactic of attempting to derail the questions and gaslight the questioners.

His father, Edip Yuksel, an adjunct instructor at Pima Community College who teaches Philosophy 101, at one point yelled at reporters and activists that the questions of his son were just like "McCarthyism," and said it was "a lynching," before a pair of the candidate's supporters seized him by the arms and guided him quickly out the door.

Jones the campaign backer — who bizarrely refused to identify himself, despite being asked several times — challenged this reporter on why a candidate should expect to answer questions after having called a press conference.

"Why do the rules not apply to you? Do you know what a press conference is?," he asked.

"Where someone comes and answers questions from the press," I told him.

"Were you going to have an opportunity to ask questions?" said Jones, who operates a charter school — Accelerated Learning Laboratory — that employed Edip Yuksel as a teacher, and where the father is still listed as "Faculty Emeritus."

"Here? He left."

"The answer was yes, he did."

"He made a statement, and left," I said.

"He did (answer questions)," Jones said.

"After he went and got in a car and drove down the street," I pointed out.

"His campaign manager was here to answer your questions," Jones said.

Questions unanswered

In fact, Ferra, Yuksel's campaign manager, left with her candidate the second time, so neither made themselves available to clarify numerous questions regarding the 2007 incident, or others — including Yuksel's 2014 conviction for DUI, statements by others that he may have other DUI cases on his record, a current case involving a ticket for using a cell phone while driving (a case that's now listed as "failure to appear" in Tucson City Court records), or a recent incident in which he was told the leave the Shanty bar on 4th Avenue after insisting on bringing a group of underage volunteers into a political event.

Other questions that went unasked because of Yuksel's hurried departure concerned his campaign finances, including his claim that $1,200 in cash contributions was stolen along with a briefcase locked in a car in San Francisco in May, and clarification on reported expenses, including more than $14,800 at a Tucson cell phone store and $2,040 in a single trip to a grocery store. The only finance report required to be filed thus far shows no payments to any campaign staffers, but does show the purchase of several airline tickets.

The filing also shows that 16 percent of the campaign's total fundraising came from Yuksel's mother on June 30, the final day of the filing period. Apameh Bashar donated $2,600 to the campaign that day, adding to an earlier $100 donation. She also gave the campaign two loans that same day, for $2,000 and $1,000.

The legal limit on campaign contributions for a federal congressional primary is $2,700. Donors can also contribute to a general election fund before the primary is over, but if a candidate loses, those funds must be refunded or redesignated.

Yuksel did respond to a query about how he still expects to have any chance of winning this point, saying "Every day, I'm meeting new people who believe in the policies I'm pushing forward that are going to help the people here."

The FEC filing showed that, not counting any loans, Yuksel has received $30,500 in campaign contributions from outside Arizona, and $7,382 from donors within the state — including the $2,700 from his mother.

The members of the public at the press conference weren't mollified by Yuksel's brief return to answer a handful of questions.

"He doesn't deserve to represent the people of this community," said Summer Aguilera. "When you're confronted, you don't run and hide; you stand and make yourself accountable."

Right after the Yuksel left for the second time, his father engaged in a long and vigorous debate with several members of the public, including repeatedly exclaiming his condemnation of premarital sex and telling one woman that "rape is a construct" as he attempted to convey a convoluted argument that seemed to hold that rape can't be a crime if committed against by one drunk underage person against another.

Feemster Moody said she wouldn't stop her push to get Yuksel to leave the race, and that she was "disgusted" by the comments the candidate made on Sunday morning. "His name should become synonymous with being an alleged rapist," she said.

'Women's rights are human rights'

Yuksel compounded his problems by releasing a campaign video on the same day as the case was reported, but instead of addressing it, he instead spoke in vague terms about women's issues.

In the online video, which many social media commenters derided as tone-deaf, he spoke — with a bit of a smirk — about his mother fleeing Iran and said "I've been blessed in my life to have so many powerful, strong female mentors ... and that's why my predominately female campaign staff are a part of my voice now and will continue to be so in Congress."

Asked about the video Sunday, Yuksel denied it was a "response" to the allegations, claiming it was one of three videos that were edited and posted "at the same time."

"I stand behind those words," he said.

Yuksel's campaign has undergone recent staff and leadership changes. While he was a very late entry to the race, he still managed to gather enough nominating signatures to get on the ballot. But experienced political operative Kenny Jacobs, who led that effort, left his post as a campaign coordinator three weeks ago.

Jacobs said he was proud of that petition-drive effort, but would only say of his departure that, "candidates deserve the type of campaigns they want. I was not comfortable with implementing all those choices."

Despite having only been organized in March, Yuksel's campaign has gone through three different treasurers. The latest change, made just on Saturday, saw that post taken on by his father, Edip Yuksel, who replaced his mother, Apameh Bashar, as the person responsible for tracking campaign funds, FEC records show.

Edip Yuksel, who was born in Turkey, is an outspoken advocate for an authoritarian sect of Islam, United Submitters International. That religious branch, which analyzes the Quran in part through numerology, was founded in Tucson by Rashad Khalifa, the imam who was assassinated here in 1990. Khalifa is regarded by many movement members as the Messenger of the Covenant prophesied in the Bible and Quran. The well-known message "Happiness is Submission to God" painted on a University of Arizona-area wall is a remnant of a former mosque used by the group.

Reactions

Sources said that many of Yuksel's volunteer interns were quitting the campaign on Sunday, after reading the documents. None had been evident at his office during the press conference — a marked change from his usual practice of being followed by a contingent of orange-t-shirted campaign boosters.

Instead, they were urging him to drop out of the race — a point of view shared with the other six Democratic candidates in the race, who have called on Yuksel to end his campaign.

"In the wake of the deeply disturbing allegations made against Yahya, I think it's incredibly inappropriate for him to continue his campaign." — Matt Heinz

"Running for public office should mean meeting a high standard for ethical behavior. The revelation of the allegations made against Mr. Yuksel are serious and disturbing. In Congress, I was a fierce advocate for the Violence Against Women Act, and will continue to fight to make sure survivors are heard, believed, and have the resources to protect themselves. I do not believe that Yuksel should continue his campaign. Regardless of whether his name appears on the ballot, I believe the voters will make the right choice." — Ann Kirkpatrick

"My statement doesn't come from a primary opponent jockeying for position as we come to the end of a long political cycle, but as a friend, brother, son, and human. At an early age, we are taught by our parents to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and decency and I found those foundational human characteristics lacking in the documents and report of the incident involving Yahya Yuksel. My judgment is not on some Democratic or progressive purity test, but on the common decency and respect of another person, man or women in their most vulnerable state, when consent cannot be given due to the consumption of alcohol or other substances. What I ultimately found as the most damning in this report was the reason in which this information was asked to be destroyed. It was not for the defendants work to mend the emotional damage caused or acknowledgment of wrongdoing and forgiveness, but it was ultimately for his "Intent to run for political office, and being susceptible to reputable harm." Reputation is not built during political cycles. It is not forged in a factory of male entitlement given to those who think the world should be handed to them because of a privileged position and additional Y chromosome. Reputation is built through mutual respect given to and from others, and the acknowledgment that one's individual liberties and rights are to be protected both by our own government and by each other as we interact in society. I will not wait to pass judgment due to the fact that this individual has known about these allegations (for a decade), the release of information by the press, and the contents of the information that lies within. I make this statement not to throw stones in a glass house because I myself am not perfect and have myself made mistakes that have called my character into question in my brief time on this planet. I do however find it easy to hold a member of my party, a member of this country, and male species to the bare minimum of human decency. We must do better." — Billy Kovacs

"Today's press conference by Mr. Yuksel, left many constituents and sexual assault victims rightfully overwhelmed with grief and anger. Today, I choose to stand with the 1 in 6 American women and the 1 in 33 men who will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. I stand with the victims who speak out and also those who are unable. Many reports state that only 15-35 percent of sexual assaults are reported. This is why it is crucial that we give a voice and support to those who are living with these horrific experiences.

"While Mr. Yuksel continues to deny the allegations against him, this story has left our community reeling. His response has caused even greater loss of trust between him and the people of our district, and he has demonstrated a clear lack of understanding of the severity of this issue. His continued presence as a candidate is not only causing grief among survivors of sexual assault in our district, but also distracts from the conversation taking place about who would best represent our community in Washington. I am therefore reiterating my call for Mr. Yuksel to withdraw from this race." — Mary Matiella

"When you run for public office, you cannot hide any part of your past from your constituents. Everyone running for office is a human being with a past, but voters deserve to know the moral fiber of their candidates. Allegations brought forth about Yahya are inconsistent with the values of our country, and show a lack of judgement & respect for the law & for others. That Yahya would try to hide his past from voters is nothing short of a betrayal. I urge him to resign at once.

"I am disappointed by @yahyayuksel decision to stay in the race in light of recent allegations, but even more so by his refusal to take questions from and to face the dozens of people who showed up today to hear what he had to say" — Barbara Sherry

"I am calling on Yahya Yuksel to drop out of the CD2 race. A 16-year-old young woman clearly did not consent to any sex with him. That much is known as fact. Our community must stand with her and all victims of sexual assault." — Bruce Wheeler

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Yuksel and campaign manager Ferra walking to Sunday's press conference.