‘A lot of boob stuff:’ Fla. Democratic Party chair apologizes after six women complain of ‘demeaning’ behavior
TALLAHASSEE — Six former Florida Democratic Party staffers and consultants say that current party chairman Stephen Bittel has created an unprofessional workplace environment for women that includes persistent inappropriate comments, leering at young women and even inviting them on his private jet.
The women, who were reached independently by POLITICO Florida 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.
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Depending on the circumstance and the person discussing Bittel, they said he would make references about women cooking dinner, showing their breasts, their age, whether they wanted to ride on his plane, come to his hotel room or if they thought he was attractive.
“There was a lot of boob stuff in his office,” said a woman who was a fundraiser years ago and had to interact with him. “I was told by other women not to go into his bathroom. I was warned.”
In a written statement, a spokesman for Bittel didn’t dispute the women’s accounts and acknowledged he had the breast-shaped stress balls. But, he said, they were a gift “from a former female general counsel of his company years ago as a joke for his birthday. He keeps them in a drawer with other gag gifts.”
Bittel also apologized.
“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.”
The gist of the women’s accounts, bolstered by the observations of two male Democrats who worked with the women and a former female candidate for a prominent office. They, too, did not want to be identified criticizing Bittel out of fear of angering the powerful party chairman, an independently wealthy developer who has long been a prominent political rainmaker tied to a secretive donor alliance.
“He’s just so f—-ng creepy,” said a former female party staffer, anger palpable in her tone. “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.”
The allegations come at what’s a turning point for addressing sexual harassment, an element that has long been an ingrained part of Florida politics, but only recently has bubbled to the surface in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual-harassment case that rocked Hollywood, media and national politics.
The environment in Florida changed, in large part, following the resignation of former state Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth), who POLITICO Florida reported had an extra-marital affair with a lobbyist. That was followed by six women telling POLITICO Florida that state Sen. Jack Latvala touched them against their will or made demeaning remarks about their bodies or appearance. The Pinellas County Republican and gubernatorial candidate, who denies wrongdoing, is facing two Florida Senate complaints for sexual harassment.
In recent days, as Democratic women began approaching POLITICO Florida with their stories, Bittel’s supporters worried it would jeopardize his new post as party chair, which he won in a disputed party election after the 2016 elections.
Among Democrats, Bittel had a reputation for a brusque style that made enemies or led to mockery behind his back.
Before a 2016 Miami fundraiser, for instance, Democratic National Committee staffers made fun of him and conspired to give him poor seating away from President Obama, according to hacked emails published by the group Wikileaks last year. And this June, after his election as chair, Bittel ran afoul of black lawmakers in a dispute at a party gala where he called some of them “childish.” Bittel apologized and offered his resignation.
‘He’s very demeaning’
The women who spoke with POLITICO Florida about Bittel said there’s often a palpable sense of discomfort when interacting with him, and several described an informal policy of staffers not leaving women alone with the multi-millionaire South Florida commercial real estate developer.
“The biggest thing I will say is that it became a policy that women, especially junior staff, were never to be left alone with him in his office, plane or house,” said a former party staffer.
She said that Bittel’s remarks and the environment he created for women staffers was one of the reasons she no longer wanted to work for the Florida Democratic Party.
“There is a reason I left,” she said. “He’s very demeaning. He’s inappropriate in his comments he makes to women.”
She mentioned that Bittel liked to talk about women’s breasts. But she didn’t want his specific remarks — though corroborated by a second source — printed because she was concerned it would reveal her identity.
The same woman says the fact that Bittel is known within party circles for having a belittling attitude towards women largely explains why the party wasn’t more strident in attacking Latvala after his scandal.
“It’s not an accident they’ve been so quiet,” she said.
Like the others interviewed, she said Bittel would offer rides on his private airplane.
“The most suggestive thing he does is invite women on his plane or over to his home when his wife is not in town,” she said. “It is not like these things are in the eye of the beholder, the suggestion is very clear … His reputation is very clear, and it has been there since before he was party chairman.” Bittel was elected to the job earlier this year.
‘Why ask about a woman’s boyfriend?’
A former party fundraiser who spent time working in Bittel’s office prior to his time as chairman said he was overtly “creepy towards women.”