Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Florida Democratic Party leader resigns after report of 'creepy' behavior
The following article appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on November 19th
TALLAHASSEE — Florida Democratic Party chairman Stephen Bittel is stepping down after a report detailing a hostile and “creepy” work environment he created for women.
“When my personal situation becomes distracting to our core mission of electing Democrats and making Florida better, it is time for me to step aside,” he wrote in a statement posted on the FDP’s Twitter feed Friday. “I am proud of what we have built as a Party and the wins we have had for Florida families, but I apologize for all who have felt uncomfortable during my tenure at the Democratic Party.”
Bittel’s last day will be Monday, and party vice chair Judy Mount will take over on an interim basis. The state executive committee will meet Dec. 9 to elect a permanent successor.
A Politico report published Friday detailed claims from six anonymous former staffers and consultants that he made inappropriate comments, ogled them and invited them to his house and onto his private jet. He also kept breast-shaped stress balls at his desk, which he said was a gag gift from a female former general counsel.
No one accused Bittel of physically groping or assaulting them, but the environment he created made women feel uncomfortable.
One woman called him “creepy,” and another said “there was always a lot of boob stuff in his office,” according to the Politico story. Yet another woman said Bittel was “very demeaning” and cited his inappropriate comments, especially about women’s breasts, as the reason she left.
“The biggest thing I will say is that it became a policy that women, especially junior staff, were never to be left alone with him in his office, plane or house,” one of the women told Politico.
Bittel, a multimillionaire real estate developer elected to the party chairmanship in January, responded to the report with an apology and pledged to “do better.”
“Every person, regardless of their gender, race, age or sexuality should be treated with respect and valued for their hard work and contributions to our community and if any of my comments or actions did not reflect that belief, I am deeply sorry,” he told Politico.
But all four declared Democratic candidates for governor — Winter Park businessman Chris King, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine — called for Bittel to step down Friday.
“No one should have to work in an uncomfortable environment,” Graham said. “Bittel’s behavior and the atmosphere he has created is unacceptable.”
Added Levine, “I have zero tolerance for harassment in politics or the workplace. It’s time to change the culture, and it must start at the top.’’
The report about Bittel comes after a series of allegations of sexual harassment, with stories including rape, assault and groping, of public figures from Hollywood, politics and the media, all emerged within the past two months.
Tallahassee, too, has seen its share of scandal.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, resigned last month after his affair with a lobbyist was revealed. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is under a Senate investigation for groping and unwanted advances towards a staffer, and was accused by six anonymous women of inappropriate behavior. He lost his position as Senate budget committee chairman but hasn’t resigned as senator.
“Although these allegations [against Bittel] are not criminal, they clearly paint a picture of a hostile working environment for women,” Gillum said. “We must actively work to shift the power dynamics in which men have deluded themselves into thinking they have control of women.’’
King added, “The people of Florida need and deserve a fresh approach to our politics and leadership.”
Bittel couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.