As Florida's politically powerful men fear becoming targets of sexual harassment allegations, the new-found awareness of a male-dominated Legislature has come with a cost: women are collateral damage.

Female staffers and lobbyists who returned to the Capitol last week for pre-session meetings, discovered many male legislators will no longer meet with them privately. Accustomed to Tallahassee's Southern culture, where men and women casually and routinely greet each other with hugs, legislators are doing an awkward dance to replace a hug with a handshake. And the fear of retaliation — against women who brought forward allegations or those who may in the future — is as raw as the fear that legislators' political enemies could turn sexual harassment claims into new political weapons.

"I had a senator say, 'I need my aide here in the room because I need a chaperone,' " said Jennifer Green, a veteran lobbyist, after meeting with a senator in his Capitol office to discuss a client's issue. "I said, 'Senator, why do you need a chaperone? I don't feel uncomfortable around you, do you feel uncomfortable around me? 'Well,' he said, 'anyone can say anything with the door shut.' "

Jennifer Green
Jennifer Green

Now, with allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala being investigated amid the national #MeToo movement, many women fear that as more speak out, the backlash against women working in the Capitol will grow stronger.

"The culture is one that has always favored men and always put women in a place where the cards were stacked against them," said Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat. "I've walked around the building and you can look in women's eyes and you just know they're in pain. They're terrified."

A handful of powerful men control the legislative process, fueled by campaign contributions from special interests. Male lobbyists and legislators outnumber women in power and stature.

When allegations against Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and 16-year Senate veteran, first emerged, Green, owner of lobbying firm Liberty Partners of Tallahassee, predicted that women would be the losers.

"I'm getting the feeling that we're going back 20 years as female professionals," she said. "I fully anticipate I'm going to be competing with another firm that is currently owned by some male, and the deciding factor is going to be: 'You don't want to hire a female lobbying firm in this environment.' "

Latvala is under investigation for allegedly groping a Senate legislative aide, Rachel Perrin Rogers, putting his hand down the shirt of a female lobbyist, and making inappropriate sexual remarks to Rogers over the course of four years. Latvala denies it all and points to his reputation as a "mentor" to female lobbyists, often requesting that companies hire female lobbyists close to him and that colleagues work with them.

Book delivered a second blow to Latvala last week when she filed a complaint against him for violating Senate rules by allegedly conducting a campaign to intimidate witnesses and damage Rogers' credibility.

The Senate has hired a retired judge to serve as special master to hear the allegations and determine if there is probable cause to confirm or reject Rogers' allegations. If proven, they could result in Latvala's reprimand or expulsion from the Senate. The special master's report could come by the end of this week.

But long before Latvala's behavior made him the target of the most serious sexual harassment claims against a sitting senator in Florida history, he already had a reputation as someone who was not only crass and insensitive but, like many of his stature, immune from reprimand.

In July, he and his wife, Connie Prince, sent invitations for a weekend of festivities, from "an old-fashioned pig roast" to a lobster dinner at their summer home in Maine.

The occasion was to benefit "the Florida Leadership Committee," Latvala's political committee which was ramping up his campaign and for the Florida Senate's Republican re-election fund. In the crowd of nearly 100 guests for the Saturday dinner were the Senate's Republican leaders and dozens of lobbyists.

As Latvala stood before the group with a microphone in hand, he announced his prominent guests: Senate President Joe Negron, incoming Senate president Bill Galvano, Sens. Denise Grimsley, Kathleen Passidomo and Rene Garcia.

"And looking just like I'd like her to look, Sen. Debbie Mayfield," Latvala bellowed as the Melbourne Republican entered. Mayfield, 61, is tall, blond and attractive. She was wearing an orange dress and entered "fashionably late" with her husband at her side, she recalled last week.

But Latvala's comment killed the buzz in the room, say three people who were there. For those who know Latvala, a burly political veteran who built a business on the art of campaign mailers and was at the peak of his power as Senate budget chairman, a remark about the appearance of a female colleague was not surprising. What startled them was that he did it on an open microphone.

Sen. Debbie Mayfield.
Sen. Debbie Mayfield.

"It was very awkward," Mayfield recalled last week. "Jack speaks before he thinks a lot of the time. I don't think he means anything by it."

But, she added: "Everyone in the room seemed to notice. I was taken aback by the whole thing. I felt that nobody told Jack that the rules have changed. You don't do that."

Speaking after this story was originally published, Latavala said he didn’t remember it that way and that he had spoken to other senators who were there. “It’s amazing how certain people remember it and certain people don’t,” he said.

Mayfield said she was outraged her freshman year as a House member when a group of freshmen male legislators lived together and ran their rented session home "like a frat house."

They created a scoring system to rank female legislators and lobbyists, she said. One of them was asked what he wanted to do in Tallahassee and his answer was "to sleep with as many women as possible," Mayfield recalled. "Who is investigating that?"

She said she believes Latvala's accuser, but Mayfield also suggests that Tallahassee's go-along, get-along culture may have allowed him to become "desensitized" while those he may have shamed and offended did not feel free to complain.

"It's hard to imagine her [Rogers] coming forward in her position if it didn't happen," Mayfield said. "I have to believe it happened. She would not have put herself through this if it wasn't true. I wonder if Jack didn't realize what he was doing? It's the culture up here. This has not happened overnight but over the years has become accepted, almost expected."

Former Republican Sen. Mike Fasano, who served 18 years in the House and Senate and is now Pasco County tax collector, said he is happy to see these issues surface now "because it's something that should have been dealt with years ago."

"I've seen first-hand how, especially young women, have been intimidated by legislators from both chambers," he said.

He recalled how, as House majority leader in 2002, he had to deal with a member "making inappropriate statements to one of our staffers. It was swiftly brought to my attention by the speaker's office and I had to call that member and tell him to cut out that garbage. He got the message loud and clear."

Many women legislators and lobbyists say that the legislative culture rewarded an attitude among women where "don't do that" was not the expected retort from women in the male-dominated world.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, one of the highest-ranking women in the Senate, said she has reached a point in her career where, "if there are situations that are borderline I feel empowered enough to say, 'Excuse me, so and so, that's inappropriate.' "

But that is not the case for everyone.

"We need to create an environment where a woman feels OK in pointing out bad behavior and then that bad behavior ceases," she said. "Because some of the things I've seen from female colleagues and others is that when a woman doesn't call the guy out, the guy says, 'I'm going to do it again.' "
Book, who has become an advocate for children after being sexually abused for six years by a nanny, sees a culture in Tallahassee that fosters predatory behavior.

"When you have crossed the line so many times, you don't know what's right and what's wrong anymore," she said.

Mayfield agreed. "The culture is difficult to change, because it's always been this way," she said.

The legislature's leaders say that change in Tallahassee is inevitable.

Under the current system, there is no process independent from the Legislature that allows staff and lobbyists to come forward with allegations against lawmakers without fear of retaliation. There is no standard for barring conflicts of interest when legislators develop intimate relationships with lobbyists or other lawmakers.

"We need to continue to re-examine the processes and procedures in cases that are very specific — from a sexual harassment standpoint — to make sure there are no obstacles," said Sen. Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is scheduled to become Senate president in November 2018. "Going into my presidency, as we revisit all of the rules, this will be a topic we revisit as well."

Mayfield, a former banking executive, wants mandatory sexual harassment training for senators and separate sessions for their staff. The second step is to establish an "independent" place for women — and men — to to make complaints anonymously. Those complaints should be reviewed and presented to the proper authorities "without names attached," as they do in the business world, she said.

Green agreed that the culture has to change in order for women to be treated equally.

"If you want to fix all this, ban legislators from raising money from lobbyists," she said. "Some women feel if they're not raising a bunch of money, they should be flirty. It's about the environment. Make an environment that does not allow drinking in the Capitol, don't have committees meet after a certain time, and don't allow fundraising in Tallahassee."

`But while there are stories of legislators who have preyed on female aides and lobbyists, Green believes "it's not as pervasive as everybody is led to believe" and it is a mistake to lump together consensual sexual relationships with sexual harassment.

"Guys that are total creepers saying, 'Have sex with me or I'm not going to hear your bill,' are few and far between," she said. "If people cheat on their spouses, they have to live with the consequences, but to classify everything that's going on as a sexual harassment scandal is bull …"

Book warns, however, that consensual sex between a lawmaker and a subordinate, such as a legislative aide, and lobbyist, whose livelihood depends on the Legislature, can begin because of "predatory behavior" by the lawmaker exploiting the situation.

"It's an imbalance of power," she said. "The power dynamic is what people don't understand."

Green said she also fears that if the new normal is to inaccurately amplify the prevalence of sexual harassment, it will not only unfairly punish all women, it will create a new political weapon — with women as the collateral damage.

"I could see a scenario where someone gets mad about hearing a bill and suddenly you'll hear some new accusation pop up," she said. "It's going to be a tactic to further someone's agenda."