In the wake of a series of sexual harassment allegations against State Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican is fending off attacks from not only Democrats, but also members of his own party. Multiple prominent Republicans have publicly called on Latvala to resign and he has been removed from two committee chairmanships, including the powerful Appropriations Committee that controls the budget.
The story broke last week when six women, including those who had served as Senate staff and lobbyists from both political parties, accused Latvala of sexually harassing them, including detailed allegations from several of them that he groped or touched them inappropriately. Latvala has vehemently denied the allegations.
On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott told reporters in Fort Myers that the substance of the allegations against Latvala was “disgusting,” and voiced support for the investigation.
“It’s very important that there’s an investigation and we know what happened,” said Scott. “If anybody has done anything wrong, they need to be out of office.”
Last week, House Speaker Richard Corcoran went even further, calling on Latvala to resign immediately in a statement he provided to Politico Florida.
“This behavior should never be tolerated. He should resign immediately,” said Corcoran. “The most dangerous threat to self-government is morally corrupt leaders acting in their own selfish interests.”
Politico also reported on two other Republican legislators criticizing Latvala. Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano voiced his support for the investigation ordered by Senate President Joe Negron, calling the stories told by Latvala’s accusers “serious allegations.” And State Rep. Matt Caldwell said that he was “heartbroken by the details of the stories these women shared,” and noted that “Senator Latvala’s abuses of his position have been fodder for talk in Tallahassee for some time,” calling for Latvala to resign.
Congressman Matt Gaetz, a former Florida state representative, retweeted an article about the allegations against Latvala, voicing his support for legislators who were demanding that “#JackTheGripper” resign. Gaetz also gave some scathing quotes in the linked Politico article, calling Latvala an “absolute hound” and recounting an incident where he had personally seen Latvala use his body to block a “young, pretty lobbyist” from escaping a restaurant booth.
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) November 4, 2017
As mentioned above, Latvala has loudly denounced the allegations against him as “false” and “politically motivated.” In his position as budget chair, he has had clashes with many legislators over the years — including former Senate President and Congressman Gaetz’s father Don Gaetz — and even had recent spats with Scott when Latvala publicly criticized the Governor’s handling of evacuation plans before Hurricane Irma and when Scott used his line-item veto power to kill several spending projects Latvala had championed during this year’s legislative session.
The upcoming 2018 elections provide other possible political divisions. Caldwell is a rival in the Republican primary for agriculture commissioner against State Sen. Denise Grimsley, who Latvala supports. And of course Corcoran is widely known to be seriously weighing a bid for Governor himself, where he would face off in the GOP primary against Latvala, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, and maybe Congressman Ron DeSantis, who is also considering running.
However, broadly dismissing the criticisms of Latvala as politically motivated ignores some of the expected dynamics of the 2018 races, especially regarding Corcoran. Latvala is a moderate Republican with a base of support in Clearwater. His presence in the Governor’s race is likely to draw moderate and Tampa Bay voters away from Putnam. The 2016 GOP Presidential primary illustrates very well how a divided Republican primary can provide a path to victory when candidates cannibalize from each other’s bases of support, and Corcoran would likely benefit from Latvala staying in the race.
Meanwhile, today’s removal of Latvala from two powerful chairmanships may open the floodgates for other women to be willing to come forward.
State Sen. Rob Bradley will take over Latvala’s spot as Chair of the Committee on Appropriations, which handles all Senate budget issues, and State Sen. Wilton Simpson will replace him as Chair of the Appropriations Committee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development. Latvala is retaining his other committee positions for now, but the two chairmanships he relinquished had provided him with the axe to kill any budget items supported by rivals or critics, and he gleefully wielded that axe many times over the years.
So far, only Molly Wilson, a former Latvala staffer, has gone on the record with her accusations, saying that she had “tolerated degrading comments because I badly needed to keep my job” and that Latvala should “resign immediately.” In an interview with Politico, Wilson described an “often uncomfortable work environment” where Latvala frequently made “very demeaning” comments to her, and her husband, Republican strategist Rick Wilson, confirmed her account. [Disclosure: the Wilsons are longtime friends of this writer.]
Meanwhile, rumors have been swirling around Florida political circles that there are multiple other women considering coming forward, possibly even willing to do so publicly by name. Latvala’s powerful position within the Senate meant that he had enormous sway over staffers’ careers and legislators knew that fighting with him would likely mean budgetary consequences for projects they supported. For lobbyists whose paychecks and client relationships depended on getting Latvala on their side, crossing him could mean career death.
Numerous sources cited by media reports over the past week have expressly cited a fear of retribution from Latvala as the reason his accusers or others who claimed to have witnessed bad behavior were reluctant to go on the record. “If you don’t do stuff for him, you get blackballed,” one female lobbyist at a Republican firm told Politico. “A lot of what his deal is revolves around power and retribution.”
These women may be emboldened now that Latvala no longer wields the budget axe, except for the fact that Latvala’s removal from his chairmanships is technically still temporary. If the Senate investigation stalls or fails to produce sufficient evidence against Latvala quickly enough, he may be reinstated. Already Latvala and his allies have taken an aggressive stance against his accusers and critics. Besides vigorously denying the accusations, counteroffensives have been launched against those who seek to take down Latvala.
Soon after Congressman Gaetz publicly called on Latvala to resign, the blog HelloFLA published an opposition research file on Gaetz, detailing a dismissed DUI charge and land deals. Latvala denied involvement in the oppo dump, but Gaetz fired back, noting that HelloFLA is run by Aaron Nevins, who was an aide to former State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a close Latvala ally for years.
“Jack is sending the message to accusers that they better be ready to defend every speeding ticket and every social media post,” said Gaetz. “Predators think they can obtain the outcomes they desire through intimidation. Jack always has.”
This controversy is far from over, and it remains to be seen whether Latvala’s lingering tendrils of power will be sufficient to defend him…perhaps assisted by the mumbled rumors that other legislators have similar skeletons in their own closets. State Sen. Jeff Clemens, the incoming Senate Minority Leader, resigned just last month after admitting to an affair with a lobbyist, a story that sparked speculation that other shoes would soon drop on his colleagues.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.