Sex, rumors of sex, and more sex dominated discussions in and around the Capitol this week.
The salaciousness started last Friday, when a Senate Democratic leader resigned from office after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
The window peeping intensified early this week, after it was reported that an even higher-ranking Senate Democrat found a video camera hidden in a hallway near his downtown Tallahassee condo.
And the stakes got higher early Friday evening, when POLITICO Florida published a mammoth story alleging sexual misconduct by Senate budget chief Jack Latvala.
The focus on legislators’ libidos caused Senate President Joe Negron to spend more than 30 minutes Thursday answering reporters’ questions about his policy regarding sexual harassment. By Friday night, Negron had ordered an investigation into the Latvala allegations.
The fallout that started with former Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens‘s affair may have eclipsed other events, but it was a busy week in Florida’s political arena.
Another Democrat resigned from the Legislature, in a plea deal that had nothing to do with bedfellows but did touch on where she went to sleep at night.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine officially entered the race for governor, a move that was widely expected and had nothing to do with his or anyone else’s sexual hijinks.
And the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could tip the balance of the liberal-leaning court.
At least one lawmaker thinks it’s time to shine the spotlight now directed at lawmakers’ extracurricular activities elsewhere.
Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, pointed out that Clemens’ departure “brought to light a culture problem” regarding power, influence and relationships.
“We’re going to set up policies and procedures to address the problem. But let’s get back to what we’re here for. As much as I want to change every culture that exists, this culture has been here long before I’ve gotten here and it’s going to exist after I leave here because it is a male-dominated world. That’s the reality,” she said.
CLEMENS DEPARTURE LEAVES DEMS LOOKING FOR LEADER
Clemens abruptly resigned from his Senate post last Friday, after POLITICO Florida reported that he admitted having an affair with lobbyist Devon West.
Clemens, a political consultant and former Lake Worth mayor who was slated to take over as leader of the Senate Democrats after the 2018 elections, said in a statement he has spent the past six months “focused on becoming a better person.”
“But it is clear to me that task is impossible to finish while in elected office. The process won’t allow it, and the people of Florida deserve better. All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better,” said Clemens, who spent two years in the Florida House before being elected to the Senate in 2012.
Clemens, 47, also apologized to his wife, his family, and “everyone that I have treated poorly in the past for putting you through this in such a public way.”
Clemens said he will continue in therapy and “will seek to personally apologize to anyone I have wronged while seeking forgiveness, and will spend my time being a better husband and father.”
Senate Democrats regrouped this week in anticipation of a vote as early as Tuesday on a replacement for Clemens, but remained divided about who should take over the leadership post.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat and one of three remaining senior members of the caucus, is amassing support but faced opposition from Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orlando and possibly others before the vote.
“I think this whole week we’ll have people deciding whether they will or they won’t. What I do know for sure is we will have an election next week to replace him. The other thing I know is that I am not in that field,” current Minority Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview early in the week.
The race for the next leader, who will be instrumental in raising money for the 2018 elections, will also affect a heated contest about who will be at the helm of the caucus for the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions.
“Just technically, it opens up another slot that everyone who was running in `20-`22 was eligible for. And it gives people a chance to get their sea legs,” Braynon said.
The search for Clemens’ replacement comes after Senate Democrats were buoyed last month by Sen. Annette Taddeo’s high-profile victory over Republican Jose Felix Diaz in a Miami-Dade County special election. Former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican, resigned from the Senate District 40 seat in April after a profanity-fueled and racially charged outburst at a private club near the Capitol.
Some believe that Artiles or his supporters were involved in the revelations about Clemens’ affair with West, a Broward County lobbyist. Artiles did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday.
Democrats are sure to keep Clemens’ Palm Beach County seat, but they may not be so lucky when it comes to a Miami-Dade County House seat now up for grabs after former state Rep. Daisy Baez stepped down.
Baez, a first-term lawmaker who had been considered a rising star in her party, left the state House on Wednesday as she pleaded guilty to perjury in an investigation about her legal residency.
In the plea deal, which required her to resign, Baez agreed to a single count of perjury, a first-degree misdemeanor. She will be sentenced to one year of probation, pay a $1,000 fine, and take an ethics course with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. She is also prohibited from running for public office while on probation, which will keep her off the 2018 ballot.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT SCRUTINIZED
Negron insisted Thursday he has a “zero-tolerance” policy toward sexual harassment and wants to make it easier for workers to complain if they have been mistreated.
Negron’s remarks came during a lengthy exchange with reporters at an annual Associated Press pre-session gathering in the Capitol and were the first time he’d spoken publicly since Clemens’ hasty exit.
“We want people to feel comfortable to report any kind of misconduct in the workplace. It can be done confidentially. It will be investigated. And anyone who is found to be responsible for any type of misconduct, there are consequences set out in our rules and those will be enforced,” Negron, R-Stuart, said.
Negron drew fire last weekend for changing how the Senate handles sexual harassment allegations. The revised procedure appeared to block victims from lodging complaints with the human-resources department, but Negron on Thursday reiterated that the new process was intended to give individuals more – not fewer – outlets for help.
“The bottom line is we have zero tolerance. We have a pro-report policy. The new policy that came out in the administrative rules actually elevated the seriousness of any allegations. Instead of sending it somewhere in the bureaucracy, to say that the buck stops in the Senate president’s office, and that gave people multiple options to report, did not reduce options,” he said.
Under the new rule, workers are supposed to report allegations of sexual harassment to their immediate supervisors, the Senate chief of staff or the Senate president. Previously, employees were also able to complain directly to the human-resources department.
Late Sunday, Negron said in a memo that workers “can and should report sexual and workplace harassment to anyone they feel comfortable speaking with.”
Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, and the Senate’s general counsel, Dawn Roberts, are “currently reviewing the policy to make it even stronger than it already is, based on input and feedback that we’ve gotten from senators and staff,” Negron said Thursday.
“I’m confident that we’re in a position where we will have a best practices policy. But from day one, we’ve had zero tolerance for any misconduct involving any members of staff,” he said.
The first test of the policy could come in the investigation that Negron ordered Friday night after the reports about alleged misconduct by Latvala.
“The Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual assault, or misconduct of any kind and takes this issue with the utmost seriousness. Any allegation will be immediately and fully investigated,” Negron said in a prepared statement announcing the investigation.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Senate continued to focus on sexual harassment policies in the wake of the abrupt resignation of state Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who stepped down after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I am convinced that a lot of what is going on is an organized effort to tear down the Senate prior to Session and make us weak so that we have a hard time standing up on the issues we care about.” – Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala of Clearwater, on Thursday, a day before a report by POLITICO Florida that Latvala had acted inappropriately to women staff and lobbyists.
Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.