Court

Democratic congressional candidate Pervez Agwan faces sexual harassment lawsuit by former staffer

Agwan is a progressive activist challenging Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher for the Democratic nomination in Texas’ 7th Congressional District.

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Agwan for Congress campaign
U.S. Congressional candidate Pervez Agwan has been accused of sexual harassment by a former staffer

A former staffer for Democratic congressional candidate Pervez Agwan is suing him for alleged sexual harassment. Campaign officials for Agwan, who is challenging Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher from the left in next March's Democratic primary, deny the charges.

Maha Chishtey joined the Agwan campaign as an intern in July, then worked for the campaign as a paid staffer from August through October. In her court filing, Chishtey alleged that Agwan summoned her to his office, and after showering her with compliments, put his hands on her and tried to kiss her. When she refused his advances, Chishtey said, Agwan kept her from leaving his office for "what seemed like an eternity" before she could finally escape. Chishtey resigned from her post soon after.

Chishtey also alleged unwanted touching and inappropriate comments by a former organizing director of the campaign, Angelo Perlera. Her suit against Agwan charges assault and battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She is seeking $2 million in damages.

Agwan released a statement denying the allegations. "Our campaign retained an independent party to do a thorough investigation of the allegations, and we look forward to those findings," he said. "We are confident that there is no evidence to support allegations made in the lawsuit."

Agwan is challenging Fletcher for the Democratic Party nomination in Texas' 7th Congressional District, which covers portions of Houston, Western Harris County, and Fort Bend County. Previously a swing district, the 7th was redrawn in 2021 as solidly Democratic.

"Although her district is more blue, more left-leaning than it was before, it's still the case that unseating an incumbent is really a challenge," said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus, "and although in the future, it is likely to be a much more pitched battle between her as a moderate and liberals, it's unlikely to materialize successfully this particular cycle."

The 7th Congressional District has the largest Asian and the largest Muslim population of any district in Texas. Agwan, the son of Indian immigrants, is seeking to capitalize on this, in part by staking out a staunchly pro-Palestinian position even before the start of the current Israel-Hamas War. Agwan has pointed to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) endorsement of Fletcher as an argument that she is out of step with the district. The 7th Congressional District also includes Meyerland, the heart of Houston's Jewish community.

"Agwan really ratcheted up the Jewish-Muslim issue when he responded to complaints by staffers that he engaged in unwanted sexual advances and sexual harassment by claiming that it was being organized by AIPAC," Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. "which some might see as a dog-whistle, antisemitic-type statement."

Jones said that, under ordinary circumstances, Agwan might be able to use Israel's war in Gaza as a wedge issue to attract enough progressive voters to pose a serious threat to Fletcher's reelection. But he said the charges now hanging over Agwan's head pose a serious problem for the challenger's campaign.

"While sexual harassment is viewed negatively across all of the political spectrum, it's especially viewed negatively among progressive Democrats," Jones said. "For a campaign that needs to win over progressive women in order to defeat Fletcher, Agwan faces a much higher hurdle now."

Congresswoman Fletcher declined to comment for this story.