Throughout the nation, lawmakers are being forced to confront revelations about dirty little secrets once kept hidden behind the statehouse doors.
The toppling of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexually assaulting or harassing dozens of women, and the ensuing #MeToo social media campaign have emboldened women to tell stories of abuse or inappropriate treatment that remained under wraps in state capitols — among other work environs populated by powerful men — in some cases for decades.
In Florida, the state Senate is embroiled in the investigation of Sen. Jack Latvala, who until recently served as the influential chairman of the Appropriations Committee but who was removed from the post amid allegations by several unidentified women that he groped them and made unwelcome comments about their bodies. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, has vehemently denied he inappropriately touched lobbyists and staff, as described in a POLITICO Florida report this month.
The Sunshine State’s Capitol has plenty of bedfellows when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Florida is one of three states where legislative leaders have ordered outside investigations into such allegations.
It’s one of a dozen states where allegations have sparked internal probes, removal of leaders or the ouster from office of lawmakers whose responses have ranged from mea culpas to flat-out denials of wrongdoing.
A common thread in the allegations is that the behavior had been going on for years, but, in most cases, was dealt with quietly, hushed up, or never spoken about at all.
“I would be shocked if there were a legislature in the country where there wasn’t something like this going on, where there weren’t men who use their power over people who don’t have as much power, or people who are beholden to them, whether it’s interns or staff or lobbyists,” Debbie Walsh, director of the National Center for Women and American Politics at Rutgers University, said in a telephone interview.
California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington — along with Florida — are among the states where women say a toxic environment permeates workaday life in state capitols.
In California, more than 200 women involved in the political process — including lobbyists and lawmakers — signed a letter exposing what they called a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment. The head of the California Senate has called for two independent investigations into the issue.
In Kentucky, the House speaker resigned from his leadership post after it was revealed he had recently settled a sexual harassment case. The resignation came two years after another Kentucky lawmaker resigned from his seat amid sexual harassment allegations.
In Illinois, a Democratic Senate caucus leader stepped down from his position last month after he was accused of sending late-night messages to, and asking personal questions of, a woman who was working with him on legislation.
In Minnesota, the governor last week called on a state senator to step down amid allegations of making unwelcome sexual advances toward women.
In Missouri, revelations about sexual misconduct related to interns in the statehouse led to the resignations of the House speaker and a state senator.
In Tennessee, a state representative was expelled from his seat last year following a series of sexual harassment allegations. Another Tennessee lawmaker resigned this year after being accused of inappropriately touching a woman.
Here in Florida, Senate President Joe Negron has put a Tampa lawyer in charge of the probe into the allegations about Latvala, a veteran lawmaker who is running for governor. Sworn complaints have been filed with both Negron’s office and the Senate Rules Committee, responsible for making recommendations to the full chamber regarding the misconduct of members. At least one of the complaints was made by a Senate staffer.
The potential penalties for Latvala include being expelled from a chamber he professes to hold in high regard.
Like Latvala, many of the men who were forced to resign or relinquish leadership positions have maintained their innocence.
Public scrutiny of sexual harassment accusations against sitting lawmakers has been a rarity in the past. For example, the Florida House and Senate both contend they have no records of any such complaints against legislators for the past 20 years.
But many experts predict that, now that the floodgates have opened, more statehouses will be rocked by reports of sexual misconduct and more legislators will be “outed” by the women who claim they’ve been mistreated.
“I’m guessing there are men all over America who are terrified right now,” Walsh said. “Because somewhere in their heart they know they’ve done something and, because women just sort of say, `I’m not going to be in the room with so-and-so,’ they’ve gotten away with it somehow.”
Days before the Latvala allegations became public, Florida Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers and Sen. Lauren Book, of Plantation issued a strongly worded statement urging victims of sexual harassment and misconduct to come forward. That statement came after Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens resigned from the Senate amid disclosures about an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
“Victims are made to feel ashamed, afraid, and uncertain of how this may impact their careers. They are made to bear a piece of this burden and the weight of the misconduct somehow becomes the responsibility of the victim,” Benacquisto and Book said in the statement. “That ends here. That ends today. We are here to say that you are not to blame. If you have been hurt or exploited, let your voice be heard. Come forward.”
It’s too early to say whether the shift toward telling will continue, and what the fallout might be.
Walsh pointed out that it’s been more than 25 years since Anita Hill testified on Capitol Hill that she was sexually harassed by then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas was approved for the position, which he still holds.
But things have changed rapidly this year, when men like Weinstein and comedian Louis C.K. have become pariahs almost overnight in the wake of accusations.
Part of the shift can be attributed to numbers: There are more women in state legislatures — and boardrooms — than there were in the past.
“There is a shift, post-Harvey Weinstein to believe the women, which clearly was not the case during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings,” Walsh said. “I think you just have more women in these institutions who are responding to this and that’s changing the culture, and now it’s coming out. … I think this idea that women are just frankly, they’re starting to be believed, and that changes the equation for them.”
But changing the culture of sexual harassment is a complicated chore.
“Will it result in more men losing their positions of authority? Will it result in some kind of tighter regulations, or even a place to report it? Most legislatures don’t have a human resources department, where you can go to make a complaint,” Walsh said. “The perpetrators have to really be afraid. They have to be afraid that there is a price to pay.”
Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.