Two months away from home in a highly competitive environment that is fueled by money, power and booze and in which careers are made or broken based on relationships built mainly after hours.
That’s the backdrop for the unfolding drama in Tallahassee in which insiders and onlookers have developed an obsession with who is sleeping with whom, and who will be the next to be outed.
The prurient explosion began last week, when high-ranking Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens resigned from his seat after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
On the heels of Clemens’s exit came news that state law enforcement officials are investigating a camera found by Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon in the hallway of a condominium building where he – and other lawmakers – live when they are in Tallahassee.
Senate budget chief Jack Latvala, a Republican running for governor, was caught on camera kissing a female lobbyist on the lips. The duo denied that they are anything but friends.
The microscope on the off-campus interactions and bedroom activities of lawmakers and lobbyists has prompted an examination of sexual harassment in the workplace and the conduct of legislators and staff.
Everyone agrees that inappropriate behavior, such as unwelcome touching, is off-limits and should be punished.
But what about the choices consenting adults make about what happens when the lights go out? To what degree does the Legislature’s influence-based culture play a role in those choices? And what’s the impact, if any, of pillow talk on public policy?
The News Service of Florida explored those issues and others over the past week in more than a dozen interviews with veterans of the political process, most of them women who would only speak if they were not identified by name.
Lobbyists feared retaliation from male legislators or other lobbyists. Legislators were afraid of ridicule or payback from male legislative leaders, or of jeopardizing relationships with lobbyists.
What’s going on now in Tallahassee isn’t new, they said. Nor is it much different than the behavior that occurs in places like Hollywood, where accusations of sexual misconduct against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have drawn national attention to the issue – and intensified the scrutiny of what’s going on in and around the Florida Capitol.
“I feel strongly that there is a big gulf between consensual relationships between consenting adults and something that amounts to sexual harassment. But that said, there has long been a culture in places like state capitals or even Hollywood, Calif., where power plays an almost intoxicating role in how relationships get formed. The big, important element is whether someone is using their position of power to demand a relationship or sexual favors,” said Susan Glickman, a lobbyist who was the first chairwoman of the Florida Commission on the Status of Women after it was restructured in 1992. “There’s a big continuum on which that balance of power can operate.”
When asked about how business gets done in Tallahassee, Lori Killinger, a veteran lobbyist who’s also a lawyer, compared sexual favors to the money used to influence or gain access to lawmakers.
“In the same way that campaign contributions can play a significant role in how important public policies are adopted, sex can also drive decisions legislators make about public policy,” Killinger said.
But, unlike financial-disclosure requirements for lobbyists, legislators and candidates, details about intimate – or even casual – sexual relationships are secret.
That’s why it’s important for public officials, or others in positions of power, to exercise self-control, many women said.
The legislative environment is a “fictitious world,” said Nikki Fried, a lawyer and lobbyist.
“You’re away from your family. You’ve got high-energy high stress, a lot on the line, and alcohol” thrown into the mix, Fried said.
“No matter where you are, you’re going to get the same interaction. It’s just that some of these people are elected. That’s why it’s newsworthy,” she said.
Other women blame that atmosphere for a code of silence around inappropriate behavior that’s been tolerated and largely ignored.
For example, no one ever complained about a legislator whose bear hugs and smooches kept women from closing the door when they went into his office.
And people are aware of a checklist involving points for “bagging” women involved in the legislative process, with female senators targeted as the top prize. But when asked about it, the common response was to shrug it off because it’s been around for ages.
“It was just surprising to me that it happened, the kinds of things that happened to me. Physically being touched, things being said that were inappropriate, had not happened to me and I truly did not know how to deal with it,” said state Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Coconut Creek Democrat who joined the Legislature three years ago after spending more than a decade on the Broward County Commission. “At first I was so blown away by it. I was like, what? Who do I talk to about this? What happens to my bills if I do? What’s the best way to handle it? I just simply didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. Ultimately I figured it out and handled it on my own.”
Braynon, who found the video camera in a hallway outside of his downtown condo and reported it to state police, said he thinks the scrutiny of lawmakers’ extracurricular activities could lead to a change in behavior.
“I do think this is going to change some of the things that happen in Tallahassee, and in many ways for the better, especially when it comes to how males interact with females in this process,” Braynon of Miami Gardens said. “There are a bunch of stories that a bunch of us here think, man, that’s pretty bad. If we can start with a new focus on respecting boundaries, that’s a good thing.”
But some women are worried that a “knee-jerk reaction” could have a negative impact on female lobbyists, who already are at a disadvantage. The disclosures about Clemens came as lawmakers and lobbyists prepare for the January start of the 60-day annual session.
Male lawmakers could become leery of meeting privately, or outside of the Capitol, with female lobbyists, but they won’t have a problem smoking cigars or drinking cognac into the wee hours with their male counterparts, one woman said.
“This environment that they are now creating has made everybody so overly sensitive that it will actually hinder us from being able to do our jobs,” one female lobbyist said.
Creating a safe process for men and women to report sexual harassment or other misconduct is critical, said Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who was molested by her nanny when she was a child.
But a frustrated Book believes that the focus on the sexual conduct of her colleagues is a distraction from the work legislators were elected to perform.
Addressing the state’s opioid crisis, which is responsible for the deaths of 14 Floridians each day, is one of the Legislature’s top priorities for the 2018 session.
“So 84 people have died since Jeff Clemens resigned and we’re still talking about who’s having sex with who. What are we doing?” Book said Wednesday. “This brought to light a culture problem. 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.”
Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.