The Florida Legislature has been under Republican control since 1996, and the Democrats frequently complain about how their minority status leaves them on the sidelines. Apparently this applies to even sex scandals, as Florida Democrats made sure they got their share of the headlines this week as they watched their Chairman resign in disgrace.
When State Sen. Jeff Clemens (D), the incoming Senate Minority Leader, resigned suddenly last month after his extramarital affair with a lobbyist was revealed, it set tongues-a-wagging in Tallahassee that the bubble of protection around the good ol’ boys club might finally be showing signs of cracking.
November looked like it might be brighter for Florida Democrats. They defeated a Republican incumbent in a heavily contested mayoral race in St. Petersburg, and then news broke that multiple women were making allegations of sexual harassment and groping against State Sen. Jack Latvala, the Republican budget chair who wielded enormous power until he was forced to step aside while the allegations were investigated.
In the grand tradition of pride going before a fall, Florida Democratic Party (FDP) Chairman Stephen Bittel was named the “Winner of the Week in Florida Politics” (a regular feature by the Tampa Bay Times’ Adam Smith) for the party’s role in the St. Pete Mayor’s race. The FDP Twitter account happily touted Bittel’s trumph.
FDP Chair Stephen Bittel- Winner of the Week! https://t.co/DQ7BQklDqO
— Florida Democrats (@FlaDems) November 13, 2017
This week it’s pretty clear Bittel is a top contender for Loser of the Week.
Politico Florida broke the story: six women, former FDP staffers and consultants, accused Bittel of creating a hostile and demeaning work environment. None of them accuse Bittel of criminal activity or inappropriately touching them, “but he made them feel so uneasy that they didn’t want to be alone with him due to his body language, suggestive remarks and even the breast-shaped stress squeeze-ball he has been known to keep on his desk.”
The Politico article is worth reading in full, but among the money quotes are one woman who complained that “there was a lot of boob stuff in his office,” and another who described Bittel as “so f—ing creepy.”
“He’s just so f—-ng creepy,” said a former female party staffer, anger palpable in her tone. “He just leers at you, and stares. I don’t know if you know what that feels like, but he just leers at you. I don’t know how to describe the feeling.”
Another former FDP staffer said that it was policy to not leave any women, especially younger ones, alone with Bittel at the office, his home, or the party’s private plane.
The hostile environment Bittel created at the FDP is yet another one of those “open secrets” that had been waiting to explode, and also seems to be a logical explanation for why Florida Democrats weren’t hitting Republican harder for the Latvala scandal. They had their own very similar disaster in their own offices.
After the Politico report, Bittel apologized but it wasn’t enough to save him. Elected only this past January, the FDP Chairman’s race had been especially contentious as the party sought to chart its path forward in the Trump era. The hostility between the different factions of the party never fully healed from that Chairman’s race, and Bittel again drew the ire of his fellow Democrats back in June after a dispute over his decision to cut part of the program during a fundraiser featuring then-Vice President Joe Biden. The cut portion would have featured several black Democratic legislators and when they voiced their displeasure, Bittel called them “childish.”
Each of the Democrats who have entered the 2018 race for governor — former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, and Orlando businessman Chris King — served as the Four Horsemen of Bittel’s political apocalypse when all four of them called for Bittel’s resignation.
Bittel posted a statement on the FDP Twitter account announcing that he was stepping down and apologizing for “all who have felt uncomfortable during my tenure at the Democratic Party.”
— Florida Democrats (@FlaDems) November 17, 2017
With Democrats scrambling to find a new Chairman and Republicans nervously biting their fingernails waiting to see what additional aftershocks arise from the Latvala investigation, the Florida Legislature is experiencing more turmoil than it’s seen in years, and like the waves of sexual harassment scandals pouring out of Hollywood, the mud is splattering enough on both sides to keep anyone from gloating.
“Neither side should rest easy given that the bad behavior seems to be a fully transpartisan problem,” Rick Wilson, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist told RedState.
Wilson’s wife, Molly Wilson, is a former Latvala staffer and one of the few who has spoken on the record about his demeaning comments.
“What part of ‘You shouldn’t be creeping on or sleeping with your staff, lobbyists, or fellow members of the Legislature’ are you people not understanding?” Wilson asked rhetorically.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.