Listen up, Florida legislators: We Floridians are not sending you to Tallahassee to cheat on your wife, step out on your husband, make your children cry, spew racial slurs, grope an aide or put your hand up a lobbyist’s skirt — especially when it’s on our dime. Especially when each resignation leaves some of us without representation. Especially when we have to pay for contentious special elections to replace the shamed.
We are neither prudes nor nannies, and we are realistic enough to know that not everyone is a saint or an angel. We know that you, like the rest of us, are human and can err. But we have high expectations, and this year, they have been dashed left and right.
The long career of yet another powerful man, this time a Florida legislator, imploded, accused of sexually harassing several women — and conducting his own twisted version of “pay to play.”
The latest to fall in this tired scenario is Jack Latvala, 66, a long-time Tampa Bay leader who was angling to become the next governor. It all ended with his letter of resignation to Senate President Joe Negron on Wednesday.
Latvala had vowed to fight the allegations, but gave up after the number of women alleging sexual misconduct grew. The final twist of the knife came with a retired judge’s determination that Latvala appeared to have agreed to support a lobbyist’s agenda if she had sex with him or let him touch her in a sexual way — a reprehensible and possibly criminal act.
Latvala had to go, even he realized it.
Latvala, a protégé of drug store giant Jack Eckerd, was a political fixture in Tallahassee. He was known for a volatile temperament and intimidating manner that at one time or another offended practically everybody since his arrival in the 1970s.
Latvala’s resignation removes the dark cloud under which the Legislature was going to operate when the session starts in early January. But jarring as it is, will it be enough to force a true shift in the culture of sexual misconduct, infidelity and many women’s impression — likely not mistaken — that their sexual favors, their acquiescence to inappropriate touching, can move legislative mountains?
Aggrieved women must insist that’s not the case. The lobbying firms for which they work must insist on their behalf. Legislative aides, no matter how naive, must find their voices and say No. And if fired for rejecting advances, they should speak up about that, too. And decent people in the Legislature must stand resolutely in support.
Latvala’s resignation is the third in the 40-member Senate this year. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican, resigned in April after other senators rightly complained about his use of racial slurs; and Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens resigned in late October after he acknowledged an affair with a lobbyist. These dramas were fueled by late-night drinking at local bars, a “Woo-hoo we’re away from home” mentality and an overblown sense of power. To be sure, there are women who are comfortable enough to play the game, too.
Allegations of sexual misconduct should not, alone, be a career-ender, and they must be fairly vetted. In Latvala’s case, retired Judge Ronald Swanson delivered a special master’s report to the Senate Rules Committee, which concluded that there was probable cause to launch a criminal investigation.
And Latvala brought up the very real specter of political backstabbing: “My political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
Could be. However, the judge concluded that Latvala likely played the title role in his own political suicide.
Negron has indicated he wants to clean up, saying: “State government should lead by example in instituting policies that ensure employees feel safe when they come to work and comfortable to confidentially report inappropriate behavior by any person.”
That includes you, lawmakers. It’s imperative to remember whom you really serve (hint: not yourselves). You should act accordingly.