Scandal, storms and sniping were the hallmarks of 2017 in Florida, where political squalls and natural disasters created havoc in the Capitol and sent tremors through the Sunshine State.
The resignations of not one, not two, but three state senators, the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria and infighting among Republican lawmakers were just some of the highlights of a year to which many are eager to bid adieu and perhaps even more wish never happened at all.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT, PARTS I AND II
The political drama that gripped the Senate and rocked the Capitol this fall is atypical of an election off-year.
But the scandal that eventually forced out one of the Legislature’s most powerful members mirrored the ignominies that brought down powerful men in the media, in the movies and in boardrooms across the country.
The toppling of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexually assaulting or harassing dozens of women, and the ensuing #MeToo social-media campaign emboldened women to tell stories of abuse or inappropriate treatment that remained under wraps in state capitols like Florida’s — among other work environs populated by powerful men — in some cases for decades.
In Florida, the focus on sexual conduct began in late October with the resignation of former state Sen. Jeff Clemens, who left the Legislature after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who resigned after a report in Politico Florida about the dalliance, was slated to take over as leader of the Senate Democrats following the 2018 elections.
Instead, constituents in his District 31 will remain without a senator until after the legislative session ends in March.
Before Capitol insiders even caught their breath following Clemens’s resignation, an even-more prominent senator — Jack Latvala — was in the spotlight.
For years, Latvala flexed his muscle as a power broker, often putting the brakes on right-wing priorities of his fellow Republicans and championing legislation that benefited teachers, firefighters, cops and prison guards.
But the Clearwater Republican likely will go down in history as a villain accused of engaging in a pattern of sexual harassment and possibly breaking ethics rules and laws.
To the end, Latvala steadfastly maintained his innocence, pointing the finger for his downfall at political foes and even a special master brought in to investigate the senator’s alleged wrongdoing.
Latvala, 66, announced his resignation Dec. 20, less than a day after Special Master Ronald Swanson, a former judge, recommended a criminal probe into allegations that the longtime lawmaker had promised legislative favors for sex.
Latvala quit amid increasing pressure — including from Gov. Rick Scott — to step down after Swanson found probable cause to support allegations that the senator had repeatedly groped Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers and engaged in a pattern of making unwelcome remarks about women’s bodies.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is handling a preliminary inquiry into allegations of possible public corruption.
The inquiry is based on Swanson’s findings related to an unidentified former lobbyist. Swanson found that the testimony of the former lobbyist and text-message exchanges between the senator and the woman indicated that Latvala may have violated ethics rules as well as “laws prohibiting public corruption” by agreeing to support the lobbyist’s legislative priorities if she would have sex with him or “allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner.”
Latvala — a churlish and sometimes crass curmudgeon — has been a political player for four decades. He returned to the Senate in 2010 after an earlier stint that ended because of term limits.
But his political fortunes quickly plummeted in the aftermath of the revelations. Less than two months ago, he held the powerful title of Senate appropriations chairman, a post he lost after the allegations were made public.
In his resignation letter to Senate President Joe Negron, Latvala condemned the process that resulted in Swanson’s damning report. The resignation is effective Jan. 5, four days before the start of the 2018 legislative session.
An unyielding Latvala — painted as a vindictive bully by witnesses — took some parting shots at Negron in what might have been his final words to the Senate, saying he hated to leave his constituents in the lurch.
Latvala’s woes may not be over, due to the criminal investigation and a possible civil lawsuit by Perrin Rogers, who took to social media following the senator’s resignation announcement.
Perrin Rogers, whose Twitter avatar is Wonder Woman, said she came forward “as the mother of a son.”
“I could no longer look myself in the mirror; I could no longer in good faith encourage him to have courage and be kind,” she tweeted on Dec. 21. “Because having courage means standing up against wrongdoing. Especially when others are in harm’s way. To the women who have been harmed, I offer support, love and strength.”
SEXUAL HARASSMENT, PART III
In the midst of the Latvala inquiry, allegations of sexual harassment ended the career of a utility regulator before it even began.
Ritch Workman, a former state representative picked by Scott for a spot on the Public Service Commission, withdrew from the job after Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, said he manhandled her at a charity event last year.
Workman’s appointment to the Public Service Commission was slated to take effect in January and would have been subject to later Senate confirmation. Benacquisto said she wouldn’t put his appointment on her committee’s agenda because of his “abhorrent” behavior more than a year ago.
Workman, a Melbourne Republican, “approached me from behind, pushed his body up against me and made vulgar and inappropriate gestures,” Benacquisto said in a statement, describing the incident.
Benacquisto, who has said publicly that she was raped as a teenager, said she immediately asked Workman to stop, but he continued to make the comments and gestures until others intervened.
An emotional Workman told The News Service of Florida he did not recall the incident, but that “the right thing to do is to get out of the way.”
“I have absolutely no recollection of being inappropriate with Sen. Benacquisto. I have nothing but respect and admiration for her. It breaks my heart that this has come out like this because it’s not the kind of person that I am,” he said.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF HARASSMENT
Long before the #MeToo cultural revolution began, another state senator was forced to resign after a profanity-tinged and racially charged outburst at a private club near the Capitol.
Miami Republican Frank Artiles left the Senate after the 2017 legislative session began and less than six months after he defeated incumbent Democrat Dwight Bullard in a brutal contest for the newly redrawn District 40 seat.
The former House member — a tough-talking, U.S. Marine veteran who earned the moniker “Frank the Tank” from fellow lawmakers — stepped down amid a Senate investigation into reports that he had insulted two black colleagues and others at the members-only club.
Artiles faced widespread condemnation for a rant that reportedly included calling Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, “girl,” a “bitch,” and a “f—ing ass—-.” Artiles also reportedly used the word “niggers” or “niggas,” though he contended that he did not direct the word at anyone in particular.
“It is clear to me my recent actions and words that I spoke fell far short of what I expect for myself, and for this I am very sorry. I apologize to my friends and I apologize to all of my fellow senators and lawmakers. To the people of my district and all of Miami-Dade, I am sorry I have let you down and ask for your forgiveness,” Artiles wrote in a resignation letter to Negron, R-Stuart.
‘CARDIAC KIDS’ MAKE PEACE
Lawmakers were forced to return to the Capitol for a June special session after Scott — who could be gearing up for a U.S. Senate run next year — vetoed the state’s public-education funding formula that had been included in a budget passed a month earlier.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran spent much of this year’s 60-day regular session on a legislative jihad against the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida and tourism-marketer Visit Florida. Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, clashed frequently with Scott about the agencies.
Among the speaker’s more prominent complaints about Visit Florida was a $1 million deal with Miami rapper Pitbull, along with sponsorships of Fulham Football Club in England and the Visit Florida racing team.
After months of bickering between Scott and Corcoran, the June special session focused on funding for public schools and economic development.
But the special session quickly devolved into another opportunity for an intra-party boxing match, with Democrats gleefully painting a narrative of dysfunctional Republican leadership and rumors of a special session collapse.
Hours after the session seemed on the verge of falling apart, legislative leaders and Scott struck an agreement salvaging their priorities but setting off renewed criticism over backroom dealing. Among other things, lawmakers pumped more dollars into public schools, agreed on money for Visit Florida and set up a new economic-development fund.
Lawmakers also approved legislation setting the framework for the state’s growing medical-marijuana industry after a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalized the product.
The deal emerged after a 30-minute harangue on the penultimate day of the week-long session by Negron, who told reporters that the Senate would need more concessions from Scott and the House for the session to end successfully.
That led many observers to predict that lawmakers might miss a deadline to end the special session, much as they needed overtime to finish the state budget in May following a similarly chaotic process during the regular session.
But on the final day of the special session, out of the backrooms came a compromise that Scott, Corcoran and Negron supported.
“We call ourselves the cardiac kids,” Corcoran told reporters. “We get you guys all worked up, and then we come to a nice smooth landing and we accomplish a tremendous amount of policy.”
CELEBRATION, THEN SCANDALS
State Senate Democrats had some celebrating to do, at least for a while, after a closely watched victory in the race to replace Artiles.
In a campaign viewed as a litmus test of President Donald Trump and Florida Democrats’ ability to make gains in local and statewide elections next year, Miami businesswoman Annette Taddeo coasted to victory, defeating former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Republican who stepped down from his House seat to run for the Senate.
Taddeo’s victory in Senate District 40 bolstered the hopes of Democrats, who have been outnumbered in the Senate for more than two decades, as they prepare to combat Republicans in local and statewide races in 2018.
But fallout from sexual harassment scandals quickly put the damper on Florida Democrats’ revelry.
Clemens, who was in charge of fundraising for Senate Democrats and took some of the credit for Taddeo’s win, walked away from the Legislature in late October.
Less than a month later, then-Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel abruptly resigned. The hurried exit of Bittel, a veteran fundraiser chosen to head the state party in January after a fractious leadership contest, came hours after a news report accused him of creating an uncomfortable work environment by leering at women and making suggestive remarks.
BLOWING IN THE WIND
State officials have yet to put an overall price tag on Florida’s costs from Irma, which left destruction from the Keys to Jacksonville.
But the historic storm caused an estimated $2.5 billion hit on crops and agriculture facilities, $6.55 billion in insured losses and a more-than $1 billion price tag for utility customers to cover the costs of power restoration.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s department estimated in October that the state’s already-reeling citrus industry took a $761 million hit from Hurricane Irma. Since then, a number of lawmakers and Putnam said the damage estimate has grown to possibly more than $1 billion, as fruit continued to fall early from trees that were flooded by the September storm.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Maria — which battered Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — also had a major impact on Florida, as evacuees from the territories continue to flood into the state.
According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, more than 269,000 people have traveled from Puerto Rico to Florida in the past three months, but it is unknown how many are considered to have relocated from the island. More than 10,000 Puerto Rican children have enrolled in Florida schools since the storm.
Nearly one-third of the island remains without power, and water supplies are getting worse, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hospitals also remain in disrepair, according to a report by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who visited the island Thursday.
“The people of Puerto Rico are our fellow American citizens. They should not be treated like they’re being treated. It’s just not right,” Nelson tweeted.
STORY OF THE YEAR: Allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct roiled the Capitol, resulting in Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala and Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens resigning from the Senate and former Rep. Ritch Workman withdrawing from an appointment to the Public Service Commission.
QUOTE OF THE YEAR: “But I have had enough. If this is the process our party and Senate leadership desires, then I have no interest in continuing to serve with you. I, therefore, will resign my seat in the Florida Senate at midnight, January 5, 2018.” Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, in a Dec. 20 letter to Senate President Joe Negron.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida