Women in Florida politics fear #MeToo moment will backfire

The Capitol Rotunda, a gathering spot for lobbyists.

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

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.

“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…

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