Tallahassee is not the only state capitol reeling from sexual harassment claims. Legislatures in California, Indiana, Missouri, Washington and at least seven others are also dealing with the issue.
Senator Audrey Gibson will be the chamber’s minority leader in 2018. But it’s not a spot the Jacksonville Democrat initially sought. Jeff Clemens was supposed to lead the caucus, until he abruptly resigned recently after Politico Florida reported he had an affair. Shortly thereafter, the Senate’s powerful budget chairman Jack Latvala, lost his position, amid anonymous sexual harassment claims by six women—also first reported in Politico.
“Obviously, being supportive of those who have been wronged is important," Gibson said. "And she says, more revelations could come. "It’s also important that we continue to do the people’s business even in an environment where accusations don’t seem to be stopping.”
The culture of trading sex for favors, an off the books quid-pro-quo system that is not unique to Florida. In Kentucky, a sexual harassment lawsuit took down that state’s House Speaker after he and other lawmakers settled a complaint with a woman. California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Missouri, Tennessee, Washington and Mississippi—all are dealing with their own probes. And the recent attention and spotlight on the issue comes amid a national conversation on assault and harassment of women in the workplace, fueled by ever increasing allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and a growing number of famous actors. The University of Florida political scientist Beth Rosenson studies ethics and politics. And she says the harassment problem isn’t limited to actors and politicians.
“It crosses all fields. All industries," she said. "Whether its theatre, politics, academia. It’s very common in academia. You see more and more stories now about dissertation advisors sexually harassing students and the student says like the people in Hollywood: they feel like they have to do what the person wants if they want to get ahead.”
“This is a pervasive problem in this country and It’s not about sex, it’s about power," says Women's March of Florida's Emma Collum. She's running for a state house seat in Broward.
Nationally, the majority of politicians are still men. And according Rutgers University’s Center for Women in politics, less than 25 percent of state house representation nationally is female. Collum believes if there’s going to be real change, women need to occupy bigger roles.
“That’s only going to happen when women are encouraged and voted into office and into high leadership positions in the boardroom, the legislature the judicial system. We need women in power who are not silenced in order for this problem to cease.”
In Florida, Democratic Senator Lauren Book and Representative Kristin Jacobs are teaming up to propose a new law treating the trade of sex for influence as a crime. Much like giving lawmakers physical gifts in exchange for votes or support on policy. But whether that’s something that could pass muster is questionable at best.
“It’s typically something of financial value. I don’t think you could do that, and that would be tough to implement—even from people who don’t have an affair," said UF's Rosenson.
And she doubts the latest dustups will carry forward to long-term change. What’s needed, she says is a cultural change.