State Politics

Candidates for governor call on party chief to resign over accusations from women

Stephen Bittel, center, chats with members of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party Executive Committee in December.
Stephen Bittel, center, chats with members of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party Executive Committee in December.

UPDATE: Florida Democratic Party chief resigns after accusations of workplace impropriety

All four major Democratic candidates for Florida governor called on the chairman of the state party, Stephen Bittel, to resign Friday after Bittel apologized over accusations he created an uncomfortable work environment for women, the latest case of sexual impropriety rocking the state capital.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando businessman Chris King urged Bittel to step down after Politico Florida cited six anonymous women late Thursday who complained they found Bittel “creepy” over repeated inappropriate remarks, leering looks and invitations to join him on his private jet.

“These courageous women came forward with disturbing stories of harassment, and it’s our duty to stand in the gap for them and others in these situations,” Gillum said in a statement Friday. “Although these allegations are not criminal, they clearly paint a picture of a hostile working environment for women.”

In a statement of her own, Graham said she telephoned Bittel and asked him to leave his post. “No one should have to work in an uncomfortable environment,” she said. “Bittel’s behavior and the atmosphere he has created is unacceptable.”

Levine said he espouses a “zero tolerance for harassment in politics or the workplace.”

“It’s time to change the culture and it must start at the top,” Levine said. “I hope Chairman Bittel does the right thing and steps down as Chairman.”

King made reference to the wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations that have been made public recently against influential men in media, the movie industry and politics, including in Tallahassee’s insular state Capitol.

State Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, a Republican candidate for governor, was forced to leave his chairmanship of the powerful budget committee and is now under investigation over harassment allegations he has denied. Former Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Clemens of Atlantis resigned after admitting an affair with a lobbyist. (At a Pembroke Pines event earlier this week, Graham declined to call for Latvala’s resignation, saying he should “deal with his own issues.”)

“It’s not right that it’s taken so long, but unveiling a culture of harassment is a vital step to building the just and fair society we hope to be,” King said Friday. “It’s on all of us now to hold perpetrators accountable. The breadth and depth of these allegations speak to a larger problem with the environment in Tallahassee and more generally in our politics.”

Other state Democratic leaders, including future Senate Leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, remained silent Friday, despite repeated calls from Herald/Times reporters. House Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa told the Florida Politics website she had not yet made a decision on how the party should deal with the accusations against Bittel.

“We leaders of the party are looking at how to address this and all options are on the table,” current Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens said. “It’s disturbing that women feel uncomfortable working at the Florida Democratic Party. I believe that needs to be addressed and we as the leadership of our party need to address that. We are a party of inclusion and this is unacceptable.”

Bittel said in a statement that he “will 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 said. “I have much to learn, but my goal is and has always been to make sure every member of our party has a safe environment in which to succeed. It seems I’ve not been successful in that goal, and I will do better.”

He was not accused of inappropriately touching women. But the women who spoke to Politico Florida said his suggestive comments and penchant for keeping breast-shaped stress-squeeze balls in his office — which Bittel said were gags — were unprofessional.

“There was a lot of boob stuff in his office,” a former fundraiser who interacted with Bittel told Politico Florida. Several women said they tried not to leave each other alone with Bittel in his office, home or plane.

Bittel won the top Florida party post after a disputed election. He was forced to offer his apology in June after a party gala in Hollywood in which Bittel referred to some black lawmakers “childish.” They accepted his apology. In September, the party won a key special Senate election in Miami, and in November, it notched another victory in reelecting St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.