By Patricia Mazzei
Stephen Bittel's rocky tenure as Florida Democratic Party chairman ended in disgrace Friday after he said he would resign following accusations from women that he leered at them, made suggestive comments and created an unprofessional work 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. "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."
Bittel will formally resign next week. Party leaders will elect his successor Dec. 9 in Orlando.
Elected in January after a contentious internal campaign, Bittel lasted less than a year on the job. His departure marks the latest case of sexual impropriety shaking the state Capitol.
Bittel's position became untenable after all four major Democratic candidates for Florida governor urged his ouster following a Politico Florida report late Thursday in which six women anonymously complained about Bittel's behavior. They said he was "creepy" and "demeaning." Bittel apologized, but it was not enough.
Vice Chairwoman Judy Mount, the former head of the Jackson County Democratic Executive Committee, will serve as the party's interim chief and then seek the position permanently. Tampa activist Alan Clendenin, a past chairman candidate, said he will also run.
The calls for Bittel's resignation from Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando businessman Chris King made it impossible for Bittel to continue at the party helm.
"I am glad Stephen Bittel resigned -- there was no alternative," Gillum said in a statement. "The FDP must move forward quickly to rebuild their culture and create an inclusive, safe work environment. Beyond changing the culture there, we must all commit ourselves to changing the power structures that have allowed too many men to behave this way for too long. It will not happen overnight, but we cannot tolerate it any longer."
The gubernatorial candidates weighed in long before the only Florida Democrat elected statewide, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, did. Nelson commented on Bittel's fate after Bittel announced his exit.
"As Stephen Bittel said, he's stepping aside for the good of the party," Nelson, who is running for reelection next year, said in a statement. "Sexual harassment is never acceptable."
Nelson had backed the chairman bid by Bittel, a Coconut Grove developer and longtime Democratic fundraiser. So had U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, the former Democratic National Committee chairwoman, who also didn't comment Friday on the accusations against Bittel until after his resignation statement.
"Stephen Bittel did the right thing for the party, one that he's worked so hard for in the past," she said. "But as a party and as a society, we must learn from this."
Emails released in July 2016 by WikiLeaks showed DNC staffers so disliked Bittel -- then co-chairman of the DNC's national finance committee -- that they wanted to seat him away from President Barack Obama at a Grove fundraiser.
Bittel won the top Florida party post after a disputed election. He was forced to offer his apology in June after a party gala in Hollywood in which Bittel referred to some black lawmakers as "childish." They accepted his apology. In September, the party won a key special Senate election in Miami, and in November, it notched another victory in reelecting St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
No one has accused Bittel of inappropriately touching women. But the six women who spoke anonymously to Politico Florida said his inappropriate comments and penchant for keeping breast-shaped stress-squeeze balls in his office -- which Bittel said were gags -- made it uncomfortable to work with him.
"There was a lot of boob stuff in his office," a former fundraiser who interacted with Bittel told Politico Florida. Several women said they tried not to leave each other alone with Bittel in his office, home or private jet.
In his initial apology, Bittel said he would "do better."
"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," he said in a statement. "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."
Starting with Gillum, the gubernatorial candidates then said only Bittel's resignation would be acceptable.
King noted the national wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations against powerful men in media, the movie industry and politics, including in Tallahassee's insular and male-dominated Florida Legislature.
"It's not right that it's taken so long, but unveiling a culture of harassment is a vital step to building the just and fair society we hope to be," King said. "It's on all of us now to hold perpetrators accountable. The breadth and depth of these allegations speak to a larger problem with the environment in Tallahassee and more generally in our politics."
Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater stepped aside from his position as Senate budget chief and was placed under investigation over harassment allegations, which he has denied. Former Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Clemens of Atlantis resigned after admitting he had an affair with a lobbyist.
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