Florida Insiders assess the #MeToo, post-Jack Latvala era in Tallahassee

Banners along South Adams Street welcome Florida Lawmakers back to Tallahassee in 2017 for the annual 60-day session. The Capitol can be seen in the background. (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
Banners along South Adams Street welcome Florida Lawmakers back to Tallahassee in 2017 for the annual 60-day session. The Capitol can be seen in the background. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published January 5 2018

Infidelity. Snooping private investigators. Big money. Conflicting political ambitions. Sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement. Donald Trump. Paranoia. And the interests of 20 million Floridians.

With these issues looming over Florida’s 2018 legislative session — which could be the most volatile and noxious we’ve seen in ages — we turned to more than 170 of Florida’s most plugged-in political experts for their take on the agendas, personalities and atmosphere that will shape the session.

"It is going to be a very interesting session full of more accusations, mistrust and finger-pointing," said a Republican participating in the latest Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll of political operatives, lobbyists, money-raisers and political scientists.

Insider Polls are unscientific surveys that reflect the conventional wisdom of Florida’s political establishment. We allow participants to weigh in anonymously to encourage honesty from people closely involved in the political process.

This year’s session follows the scandal-prompted resignations of three senators — Republican Frank Artiles of Miami-Dade after making racial slurs, Democrat Jeff Clemens of Palm Beach County after an affair with a lobbyist, and Jack Latvala of Pinellas after alleged sexual harassment — as well as revelations that a private investigator has been conducting surveillance on legislators.

How common is sexual harassment in Tallahassee?

Nearly 57 percent of our Insiders said "somewhat," nearly 40 percent said "very" and only 4 percent said "not at all."

"Please don’t let Sen. Latvala’s resignation be the end of the sexual harassment discussion," said a Republican. "There are more predators who work in the process. Will there be justice for the women (and men) they targeted?"

"Tallahassee is the ‘Hollywood’ of Florida with casting couches galore," said a Democrat. "When you put that much power in the hands of a very few people who are used to ‘having their way’ with subordinates, you’re bound to have problems. As a woman I have experienced ‘difficulties’ in the workplace, including courtrooms, but nothing like the challenging moments I faced as a legislative staff member, and a lobbyist. It’s a small circle which continues to keep ‘dirty little secrets.’?"

Another Democrat suggested that sexual harassment is no more common than in other work environments, but would occur less frequently if the capital were not so isolated from the rest of Florida.

"The biggest problem now is that sexual harassment allegations will become a political tool, and there is no possible defense," he said. "If the mantra is that the woman must always be believed, and that all allegations merit the death penalty, whether the allegations are of child molestation or of creating an uncomfortable work environment, then we face a grim future."

And from an Insider registered to neither major party: "Pay for play, conflicts of interest and corruption are more widespread than sexual harassment in Florida’s capital. Power and greed are the root causes for good people to act badly."

Sixty-one percent said Tallahassee is an especially tough place for women to work, more so than other professions. Several respondents said it could become even tougher with the spotlight on sexual harassment allegations and suspicions.

"Florida politics, from the Legislature to elections, is a boys club," one Republican said.

"Women are not welcome to participate in the late-night cigar parties, or allowed to be part of the inner circle in leadership. Women do not get to be part of the conversation," she continued. "In a profession where information and relationships determine your status and access, women are outsiders and thus deprived of those personal relationships and the information that comes with them. Unfortunately, the sexual harassment scandal has only made it worse. Where the door has always been shut, it is now bolted, barred and guarded."

Another Republican suggested she has reason to fret: "It’s not fair, but being a male, I wouldn’t have a closed-door meeting alone with a female in this environment. Sorry, not sorry!"

Latvala was a domineering player in the Legislature, a shrewd negotiator who built coalitions with Senate Democrats and fellow moderate Republicans to thwart particularly conservative initiatives of the Florida House and other Republican senators.

We asked about the power dynamic in Tallahassee without Latvala in the center of things. Most Insiders predicted a significant shift to the right — with consolidated power for more conservative Senate leaders and a big obstacle to Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran gone.

"There is no one strong in the Senate to balance out the House. It’s clear the House will run over the Senate — again," said a Republican.

"A truly bipartisan bloc will not exist in the Senate. Partisan politics will drive session," another Republican said.

Good riddance, said several Insiders.

"It’s huge, and makes the process more fair, less oppressive and more likely to be based on good policy and not the personal preference or passions of a tyrant," a Republican said of Latvala’s departure. "Legislatively speaking, ‘Ding-dong, ding-dong, the wicked ole witch is dead.’?"

Florida’s governor is almost always viewed as the most powerful person in state government, but Speaker Corcoran — a likely candidate for governor — is giving Gov. Rick Scott a serious challenge for that status.

Forty-six percent of the Insiders said Corcoran is the most powerful figure in Tallahassee, while 37 percent said Gov. Scott (although more Republicans said Scott than Corcoran). A smattering of votes also went to lobbyists Brian Ballard and Ron Book, federal law enforcement officials, "a private investigator with high quality video," FSU football coach Willie Taggart, and assorted others.

Scott’s grade for dealing with the Legislature over seven years?

Forty-four percent gave him a C (including 36 percent of Republicans), 31 percent said B, 16 percent gave him a D, 5 percent an A and 4 percent flunked him.

We asked for the toughest issue legislators will tackle and the most common answer was the budget, the only thing lawmakers are obligated to complete. Other challenges cited by at least a few people included sexual misconduct, the rocky relationship between the Republican governor, Senate president and House speaker, and the political ambitions of so many players, including Corcoran and Scott.

"Don’t expect much from this year’s Tallahassee Theater," said a Republican. "Any genuine desire for a better Florida was significantly destroyed as the Senate rushed to judgment in destroying Latvala’s career. Meanwhile, everyone else, except possibly President Negron, is singularly focused on their own political next step — not on what our state really needs or wants."

Said another: "Republicans are always better at governing when they are the party of discipline. Harder is managing the process as a conservative when there is a surplus of money."

Another Democrat noted how Republicans tend to swing toward the center when elections approach: "With so many GOP members and the governor looking toward their next job, it will be a rush to wipe out years of anti-education and environmental votes."

Asked what issue the Legislature should tackle but won’t, our Insiders were all over the map. Among the repeat answers: infrastucture/transportation/growth management, climate change, texting while driving, health care matters (including mental health and substance abuse treatment) and Medicaid expansion and reform.

The Florida Insiders participating in this survey included 95 Republicans, 65 Democrats and 15 people registered to neither major party. You can find many interesting comments from them on The Buzz blog at tampabay.com/florida-politics/buzz.

Computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @AdamSmithTimes.