The chairman of the Florida Democrat Party has resigned after being accused of sexually harassing former staff members and consultants.
Stephen Bittell announced his resignation Friday morning following a report published by Politico in which six women accused Bittell of creating an “unprofessional workplace environment.”
“When my personal situation becomes distracting to our core mission of electing Democrats and making Florida better, it is time for me to step aside,” Bittel said in a statement released in a Twitter feed. “I am proud of what we have built as a Party and the wins we have had for Florida families, but I apologize for all who have felt uncomfortable during my tenure at the Democratic Party.”
The claims to Politico regarding Bittel’s behavior did not involve any physical assault.
The women, who were reached independently by POLITICO and insisted on anonymity out of fear for their jobs, said Bittel never inappropriately touched or threatened them. But he made them feel so uneasy that they didn’t want to be alone with him due to his body language, suggestive remarks and even the breast-shaped stress squeeze-ball he has been known to keep on his desk.
Bittel’s announcement that he was stepping down as party chair came after all four Democratic candidates for governor–former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham,Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando businessman Chris King–called for his resignation.
“No one should have to work in an uncomfortable environment,” Graham said. “Bittel’s behavior and the atmosphere he has created is unacceptable.”
“I have zero tolerance for harassment in politics or the workplace. It’s time to change the culture, and it must start at the top,’’ Levine said in a statement.
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson also released the following statement: “As Stephen Bittel said, he’s stepping aside for the good of the party. Sexual harassment is never acceptable.”
Bittel did not say when his resignation would take effect. He said he would work with the party to decided a date for the selection of his successor.
One of the women who made the allegations of sexual harassment to Politico had this description of Bittel.
“He’s just so f—-ng creepy. He just leers at you, and stares. I don’t know if you know what that feels like, but he just leers at you. I don’t know how to describe the feeling.”
“Although these allegations are not criminal, they clearly paint a picture of a hostile working environment for women,” Gillum said. “We must actively work to shift the power dynamics in which men have deluded themselves into thinking they have control of women.’’
Before the calls for his resignation started flowing in from Democratic leaders, Bittel issued the following apology.
“Every person, regardless of their gender, race, age or sexuality should be treated with respect and valued for their hard work and contributions to our community and if any of my comments or actions did not reflect that belief I am deeply sorry,” Bittel said. “I have much to learn, but my goal is and has always been to make sure every member of our party has a safe environment in which to succeed. It seems I’ve not been successful in that goal, and I will do better.”
One woman suggested that Bittel’s reputation is why Florida Democrats weren’t more critical of state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, after six woman came forward two weeks ago to claim that Latvala made inappropriate comments to them or touched them inappropriately.
An independent law firm began this week investigating the charges against Latvala. In a letter to Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, Gail Golman Holtzman, a Tampa-based attorney with the law firm Jackson Lewis, who is conducting the investigation, said she began looking into the charges on Monday and estimated her work could take up to a month to complete.
The allegations of sexual harassment against Bittel are just the latest in a series of cases that have surfaced in recent weeks, both here in Florida and across the nation.
The News Service of Florida reports incidents or claims of sexual harassment have been reported in statehouses in a dozen states, including Florida.
California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington — along with Florida — are among the states where women say a toxic environment permeates workaday life in state capitols.
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, became the latest influential politician to be accused of sexuall harassment. A radio show host accused Franken of kissing and groping her without her consent during a USO tour in 2006.
Franken released a statement apologizing for his actions, and called for an ethics investigation of himself.