TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — There will be two empty chairs in the Florida Senate when lawmakers begin their annual 60-day session Jan. 9.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens resigned in November after acknowledging he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Republican Sen. Jack Latvala resigned in December after an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations.
Sexual misconduct has now become a hot topic at the Capitol. Finding ways to protect victims is Attorney General Pam Bondi’s top legislative priority; Gov. Rick Scott issued an order to state agencies aimed at strengthening sexual harassment policies; and it’s a topic that’s become part of the governor’s race.
It’s also created awkwardness around the halls of the Capitol.
“It’s odd. It’s awkward. Male legislators aren’t sure whether to give you a hug or shake your hand,” said lobbyist Jennifer Green. “As for female lobbyists, I doubt I’ll ever have a closed-door meeting this session.”
Whether the atmosphere affects the process is another question, but it won’t make things easier.
“Certainly there’s a lot of unease in the Capitol. It does make it somewhat harder to get things done,” said Republican Sen. Dana Young. “My hope is that people are able to regain focus. Let’s get bills passed, let’s get a budget done. But I suspect there will be a shadow and an undercurrent that will be pervasive this session.”
Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran dismissed the idea that concerns over sexual misconduct will make lawmakers’ work more difficult, saying every year Florida deals with some sort of crisis.
“You have to deal with adversity, whether it’s charges of sexual harassment that they’re facing this legislative session, whether it’s a Hurricane Irma, whether it’s a 9/11, whether it’s a Zika virus, whether it’s leadership fights — these things have been going on since the beginning of the Senate, the beginning of the House and the beginning of time,” Corcoran said in an interview on The Florida Channel. “What leaders do is deal with those issues.”
Senate President Joe Negron said he has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, but added that it won’t be a problem if people simply behave.
“Women and men in the process should be treated equally. If every member of the Legislature, every lobbyist, visitors to our Capitol, staff — if people conduct themselves in a professional manner, then there won’t be a problem,” he said. “The vast majority of legislators act appropriately and understand the proper way to treat all individuals.”
But House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz said the problem of sexual harassment has festered in the Capitol for years.
“Most of us have heard the whispers or have seen inappropriate behavior. Women talk amongst each other over who to avoid because of their roving hands or their disrespectful comments,” she said in written remarks distributed to reporters. “This must end. No longer should coming to Tallahassee be treated like going to a frat house on spring break.”
Bondi said she is working with lawmakers to craft legislation that addresses sexual misconduct and protects women who come forward with allegations. She said she was particularly disturbed by Latvala’s actions after a Senate aide filed a complaint against him. Bondi said Latvala didn’t keep the alleged victim’s identity confidential and tried to discredit her. She said state law needs to prevent that from happening.
“This is the fastest moving social change in our country. Women are doing great things by coming forward,” she said. “I will not let our state have a chilling effect on this movement.”
A former judge investigated the allegations against Latvala at the request of the Senate and reported that he likely inappropriately touched the aide. Latvala resigned before a Senate committee could consider sanctions against him, but a criminal investigation is ongoing.