Florida activists express frustration with failed sexual harassment crackdown

By Troy Kinsey, Capitol Bureau Reporter
Last Updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2018, 8:12 PM EDT

Progressive-minded women’s rights activists are frustrated with the Florida Legislature's failure to pass a sweeping sexual harassment crackdown measure during the just-ended legislative session.

  • Activists express frustration w/ failed sexual harrasment crackdown
  • Lawmakers found flaws with so-called 'Me Too' legislation
  • Fla. activists said failure to pass will influence voters in November

Now, they’re plotting an election season organizing drive that will make a prime exhibit of Tallahassee's inaction.

The measure, which would have outlawed unwanted sexual advances by lawmakers, lobbyists and agency staffers, was prompted by the headline-grabbing resignations of two state senators late last year.

One, former Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

In drafting the so-called 'Me Too' legislation, lawmakers faulted the legislature's misconduct policies — particularly those pertaining to the state Senate — as weak, offering accusers too few protections against retaliation.

Criminalizing harassment in the legislative process appeared to enjoy broad support, at least in principle, as the session began in January.

But disputes over the technicalities of the crackdown caused Republican leaders to shelve the legislation in the session's closing days.

"The legislation that was proposed did not make it out of the committees that it was assigned to," said Senate President Joe Negron to reporters last week.

"I know there's a lot of discussion among not only senators but future Senate leadership that that's an issue that will probably be addressed in the future,” he added.

The explanations of the measure's demise have fallen flat among women's rights activists like Barbara DeVane, a Florida Capitol fixture for 45 years who lobbies on behalf of the National Organization for Women.

"I'm disgusted, and so are a lot of other women," said DeVane in an interview.

The price for the Republican-controlled legislature's refusal to act on sexual misconduct, she suggested, could be a string of defeats in November.

DeVane pointed to the growing organizational prowess of progressive-leaning Florida groups like Ruth's List, which has signed up more than 1,600 women to help get out the vote for female candidates in 2018. 

"The only way you're going to change that is to have different people sitting in those seats at the Capitol," DeVane said. "So, they're beginning to wake up and understand we've got to have more women running, because the more that run will win, and then we'll see a change in what happens during session."

Reforming the legislature's sexual misconduct policies, however, is a goal shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. That it wasn't accomplished during this year's session might be more of an indictment of the glacial speed at which even some of the most popular proposals move through the legislative process.

But as far as activists like DeVane are concerned, Tallahassee's failure to clean up its own house is what will resonate most with voters.

"Finally, women are waking up and understanding that every decision that affects our lives, whether it be a personal part of our life or our professional life, is a political decision, and you'd better be in there either sitting in those seats making those decisions or out working on campaigns," she said.