Tallahassee, that gilded Gomorrah of the Panhandle, is in an uproar.
Allegations of sexual misconduct by some top state lawmakers — with rumors of more headlines to come — have caused a seismic puckering of orifices throughout the capital city.
The latest scandal (speaking of puckering) has led to the abrupt demotion of Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Jack Latvala. He’s the married Republican gubernatorial candidate who was secretly photographed kissing a female lobbyist in the parking lot of an Italian restaurant.
The existence of the pictures, taken last spring, was revealed about two weeks ago. Politico Florida then reported that several unnamed women had accused Latvala of verbal harassment and inappropriate touching.
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He fiercely denies any wrongdoing, and the lobbyist in the smooch photos has asserted there was no intimate relationship. Perhaps she and the senator were innocently sharing a breath mint.
The Latvala bombshell exploded only days after one of his married pals, Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Clemens, resigned from office after admitting to an affair with yet another lobbyist.
Tallahassee’s establishment isn’t shocked by the type of misbehavior so much as how it’s getting exposed. A private eye supposedly hired by an embittered ex-senator is prowling the town, hiding spy-cams at strategic locations such as a condo building populated with lawmakers and their staffs.
Now philanderers and serial gropers in both political parties are lying awake at night wondering if they’re next.
The unseemly intersection of legislators and lobbyists is as old as the corporate expense account, but sex isn’t usually part of the deal. Lobbyists need politicians to push the legislative agendas of their client, whether that happens to be the NRA or the Sierra Club.
Lawmakers, in turn, need lobbyists to instruct them how to vote, to occasionally write bills for them to sponsor, and then to slowly explain what those bills actually say.
In exchange for their pliability, officeholders expect lobbyists to hit up their clients for hefty campaign donations. Often both sides get what they want, and nobody has to change the sheets afterward.
Recreational infidelity happens at every state house in the country — not to mention in Washington, D.C. — so it’s hardly surprising that politicians sometimes do hook up with lobbyists.
However, it’s an interlude that none of them wants publicized. There is a professional risk, if not a stigma, for all participants.
Latvala has blamed the Clemens leak on former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican who quit the Legislature in April after details of a racially tainted exchange with other senators became public.
Artiles was angered when later news stories revealed his political action committee — the operative word being action — had hired as “consultants” a Playboy model and a former Hooters waitress who marketed her own line of bikinis.
Such foolishness was astounding, even by Tallahassee’s slack standards.
Some fear a vengeful Artiles has deployed a private investigator to snoop on other lawmakers. No comment has been offered by the ex-senator.
Regardless of whether or not Latvala’s enemies paid to have him tailed, his quest for the governor’s mansion is likely derailed.
When you’re running for higher office, you must remember this: A kiss is not just a kiss — particularly if it happens at night in a parking lot with someone other than your spouse.
All sorts of shady extracurricular activities occur during Florida’s legislative sessions. Some of it is simple seduction, and some is abominable harassment, but all of it has been customarily shielded by a wall of silence.
The ever-quotable J.M. (Mac) Stipanovich, a longtime GOP operative in Tallahassee, explained it deftly: “You have attractive and ambitious young women and powerful and, perhaps, predatory men. And they are at great distance from the usual filters that modulate that dynamic.”
And its geographic isolation is one of the main reasons Tallahassee remains the capital, a conveniently inconvenient location for most Floridians to visit.
Nonstop flights to the city are few, and the planes are small. Lawmakers really don’t want us showing up. We’ll just spoil everything.
As Don Gaetz, the former Senate president and a conservative Republican from Niceville, remarked to the Herald/Times: “People do things in Tallahassee that they would never do at the Rotary Club back home.”
That’s because the usual filters “modulate” that dynamic.
Even in the parking lot at the Rotary Club.