Election 2020

Florida Sexual Harassment Scandals Roil 2018 Election Outlook

Florida senator and candidate for governor Jack Latvala barks at a reporter after speaking at the Florida AP Legislative Day at the Florida Capitol on Nov 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

A private security guard walks alongside a legislative staffer who accused Florida state Sen. Jack Latvala (R) of sexual harassment for her protection these days inside the State Capitol, and her attorney is asking for a special prosecutor.

Rachel Perrin Rogers is one of six women who has accused Latvala of varying degrees of sexual misconduct. But Rogers is also now the subject of a lawsuit accusing her of lying about a colleague’s sex life.

Latvala, who is running for the Florida GOP’s gubernatorial nomination, has been bounced from his position as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee because of the allegations, and might be ousted from the Senate.

And then there’s his run governor, which may be doomed.

Latvala received only one campaign donation in November, $5,000 from the Florida Association of Health Plans political action committee. Of course, all is not lost: Latvala had $4.1 million cash in his campaign account at the end of October.

However, another Republican gubernatorial primary candidate, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, raised over $750,000 in November, while Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, who was the first to enter the GOP governor’s race, collected more than $1 million in November.

Latvala’s saga is only one story that has roiled the Florida political power structure heading into the 2018 legislative year and midterm election. Democrats have their problems, too, heading into the New Year.

“This is insane. Florida is just insane these days. It’s nuts,” Allison Tant, who took over as the state’s Democratic Party chairwoman following the November resignation of Stephen Bittel, told Politico.

Bittel was forced out of office after Politico reported numerous women and men complained about the way he treated young women. Their grievances ran from Bittel ogling the women at work, to trying to get them to take a flight with him on a private plane to squeezing a stress-relieving ball shaped like a naked breast.

None of the allegations against Bittel involved anything criminal, just “creepy,” according to the Politico report.

“There was a lot of boob stuff in his office,” one woman told Politico. “I was told by other women not to go into his bathroom. I was warned.”

Again, creepy but not criminal. Because of that, John Morgan, who might be running for governor as a Democrat, said this needs to be kept in perspective given Tallahassee’s political culture.

“If being creepy is a disqualifier, almost no one would be holding office in Washington or Tallahassee,” Morgan said. “Washington is showbiz for ugly people and Tallahassee is the minor leagues compared to D.C.”

Bittel said he was “proud” of what he had accomplished with the FDP. But he announced Nov. 17 it was time to go.

“When my personal situation becomes distracting to our core mission, it is time for me to step aside,” Bittel wrote in a statement posted on the Florida Democratic Party’s Twitter feed. “I apologize for all who have felt uncomfortable during my tenure at the Democratic Party.”

Adding to the Florida Democratic Party’s problems is the loss of Sen. Jeff Clemens. The incoming Senate Democratic leader resigned Oct. 27 after confessing he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported the ripples from the impact of Clemens’ resignation would be felt beyond the halls of power in Tallahassee to his district, which will be without a senator when the legislative session opens Jan. 9.

State Rep. Lori Berman is one of two Democrats who will face off in a Jan. 30 primary. The winner goes against the only Republican running for the Senate seat in the general election April 10.

“We’re at a watershed moment, and I think it’s something that people are going to be aware of,” Berman told the Sun-Sentinel. “People are going to want to know they have a representative who has a record that is unimpeachable.”

Bittel and Clemens may have moved aside relatively quickly, but Latvala has refused to leave Tallahassee peacefully, even though three state senators have called for his resignation.

Democratic Sen. Annette Taddeo, who said she too has been “subjected to inappropriate behavior by a religious leader,” said it is time for Latvala to go.

She said the Latvala allegations, along with his combative response, paralyzed the Florida Legislature.

“The recent controversy surrounding Sen. Jack Latvala has all but derailed our focus on policy discussions and continues to consume the Legislature,” Taddeo said in a statement.

“I firmly believe Sen. Jack Latvala must resign as the mounting news accounts and ongoing details surrounding his circumstances without a doubt have created a distraction from representing his constituents,” she added.

One of Taddeo’s fellow Democrats, Sen. Lauren Book, has done more than call for Latvala’s resignation. She said the Republican was trying to scare witnesses away from testifying, and trying to undermine the credibility of Rachel Perrin Rogers.

“It appears the Senator (Latvala) may have engaged in behavior that violates the trust we sought to establish, and which every alleged victim of misconduct deserves, by potentially victimizing, or re-victimizing, the complainant,” wrote Book in a complaint filed with the Senate Rules Committee.

“It appears by many accounts that Sen. Latvala and his legal team are engaging in the very same type of courtroom tactics practiced by criminal defense lawyers in sexual assault cases, both childhood and adult,” Book, who has said she was the victim of sexual abuse as a child, added in her official complaint.

The story got even messier Dec. 8 when Lily Tysinger, a 22-year-old Senate staffer, filed a defamation lawsuit against Rogers. The suit claimed Rogers spread lies about Tysinger’s sex life with legislative colleagues, and that Tysinger was mentally ill.

Welcome to Florida, said Morgan. He said the state’s political climate was “already insane” before the sexual harassment scandals broke. But now, it is even worse.

“Florida is on fire,” Morgan told Politico. “And it’s not a controlled burn.”