Forced by Florida Senate leaders to show contrition, Miami Republican Sen. Frank Artiles stood on the chamber floor Wednesday morning and told his colleagues he was sorry for using curse words and a racial slur.
“I extend a heartfelt apology to my colleagues and to all those I have offended,” Artiles began, reading from prepared remarks.
It was not enough.
Three hours later, as calls for Artiles’ resignation mounted, Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale filed a formal complaint on behalf of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus seeking Artiles’ expulsion over his “racist rant.”
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“The shadow he has cast over our chamber deserves the most severe punishment available,” Thurston wrote to Republican Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, who heads the Senate Rules Committee charged with dealing with Artiles’ misconduct.
Artiles, already an outcast among many Senate colleagues, immediately lost a Senate chairmanship. He didn’t show up for an afternoon hearing to seek passage of a bill requiring Miami-Dade County to elect a sheriff. Groups in Florida and across the country joined the chorus of demands that he resign, and Miami-Dade Democrats planned to picket his Miami Senate office Thursday.
He was the talk of Tallahassee, but no one rushed to Artiles’ defense.
Punishment could range from a formal reprimand to removal from the Senate. Either would require support from two-thirds of the GOP-controlled body. Wednesday afternoon, the Senate appointed its general counsel, Dawn Roberts, to lead the Artiles investigation and report to Benacquisto by Tuesday. Artiles told Politico Florida he intends to hire an attorney and fight, even if it means deposing black lawmakers.
A check of Senate records indicates that as far back as the 1880s, no senator has ever been expelled. A House member was expelled in 1961 for sending an indecent note to a 12-year-old messenger.
The Senate’s daily session began with Artiles offering a direct apology to Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat he had called a “bitch” and a “girl” in an alcohol-laced tirade two days earlier. He also used the words “fucking asshole,” either referring to Gibson or himself.
“My comments to you were the most regretful of all, because they injured you personally,” Artiles said. “No one deserves to be spoken to like that.”
During the apology, Gibson kept her back turned to Artiles. She did not look at him once.
Artiles also apologized to Thurston, who witnessed Artiles’ exchange with Gibson on Monday night at the members-only Governors Club and tried to get Artiles to reconsider his language before the conversation got out of hand.
Artiles’ refusal to apologize to Gibson in person Tuesday prompted Senate leaders to get involved. By then, most of Artiles’ remarks to Gibson and Thurston — including deriding Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart as a “pussy” and lamenting that “niggas” in the GOP caucus elected him — had been made public. Both Gibson and Thurston are black.
Artiles said sorry in person late Tuesday only after Negron asked Majority Leader Wilton Simpson of Trilby to ensure an apology took place. A reluctant Artiles was accompanied to ask for forgiveness by incoming Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton.
Negron said he later telephoned Artiles and told him he would bring up the incident as the first order of business Wednesday — unless Artiles wanted to say something himself, essentially forcing the Miami senator to request a “point of personal privilege” to address his colleagues.
Wednesday morning, Negron stripped Artiles of his chairmanship of the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee, a symbolic move of little practical consequence, given the late session date.
Negron said Artiles had “accosted” Gibson. But asked if the lawmaker should resign, Negron said that’s between “him and his constituents.”
“I owe you an apology,” Artiles told Negron on the floor, asking forgiveness for the first time for his “crass and juvenile comments.”
“I realize that my position does not allow me for the looseness of words or slang, regardless of how benign my intentions were,” Artiles added.
As for using the n-word, Artiles argued the slur (which referred to Republicans who, in fact, aren’t black) was aimed at “no one in particular.”
His excuse for using it is “inadequate,” the Cuban-American lawmaker conceded, but he gave it anyway:
“I grew up in a diverse community,” he said, referring to his hometown of Hialeah, which is actually not diverse but 95 percent Hispanic. “We share each other’s customs.”
Hialeah Republican Sen. René García later issued a statement asking Artiles to apologize to city residents. None of his fellow Republicans publicly demanded his resignation.
“He has to pray about it,” said Miami Rep. Carlos Trujillo. “Talk to his wife. Talk to his children. Talk to his colleagues and talk to his constituency and do whatever is in their best interest.”
To reporters, Artiles blamed his tirade on “frustration” with the slow-moving pace of legislation. Some of his priorities were either stalled or being killed before his outburst.
“If every time a senator made a mistake or someone made a mistake and were to resign, we’d have half the Senate gone,” he said.
He dismissed questions about a possible pattern of aggressive behavior as a sign that his district is competitive in elections.
“The Democrats are looking to target the seat,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon scoffed at the suggestion, saying it’d be better politics to leave the “flawed” Artiles in office and attack him during his reelection campaign. Braynon called Artiles an “equal-opportunity offender.”
Artiles, who will turn 44 on Saturday, is an ex-Marine and a licensed public adjuster, appraiser and contractor. He is married with two children.
He served for six years in the House and was elected to the Senate last November in a redrawn district that covers a large part of Southwest Miami-Dade. He defeated former Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard in the Democratic-leaning 40th District — which, Artiles knows, the GOP is eager to keep.
In 2014, Artiles was secretly recorded at a West Kendall polling place using the word “hajis,” a slur directed at Muslims and Arabs.
Artiles acknowledged Wednesday his style at times turns people off.
“He’s a bully,” said Democratic Rep. Kamia Brown of Ocoee, a freshman lawmaker who made the motion at a black caucus meeting to begin the process of removing Artiles from the Senate.
Two years ago, a college student said Artiles punched him in the face at a bar near the Capitol in Tallahassee. Artiles denied throwing a punch and said: “If I had hit somebody, they’d be in the hospital.”
“As many of you know, this incident is not the first — nor do we believe it will be the last,” Thurston said Wednesday.
Earlier, Gibson told Democratic senators she never intended to talk publicly about Artiles’ remarks, but his tirade was witnessed by enough people that the story hit the press.
“There is a firestorm, and it’s an unfortunate circumstance,” she said. “But words have consequences in no matter what setting you’re in.”
Even the Southern Poverty Law Center weighed in, calling Artiles’ “racist and sexist language unacceptable” and undignified. And though he was visiting the White House, Republican Gov. Rick Scott couldn’t avoid getting wrangled into the controversy Wednesday, though he said it was up to Artiles to determine his political future.
“It’s disgusting what he did. I’m disappointed that he did it,” Scott said of Artiles’ tirade, adding that he’d telephoned Gibson to console her earlier in the day. “Nobody should be called names like that. Nobody should be treated like that.”
In seeking Artiles’ removal, the black caucus followed calls for Artiles’ resignation from the Florida Democratic Party and three leading contenders for the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nomination.
So, will Artiles step down?
“Absolutely not,” a defiant Artiles told reporters.
He pledged instead to file soon for his 2018 reelection — and win.
Herald/Times staff writers Michael Auslen and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary also contributed.