Tallahassee, Florida, has long been a perfect recipe for political scandal — a sexually charged state capital that can take on a frat-house-like atmosphere removed from the watchful eyes of spouses and loved ones.
Now, as U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz fights to save his career, scrutiny is once again being placed on the long-standing culture of Florida’s capital city where the 38-year-old Panhandle congressman got his start in politics.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani has been urging women involved in Florida’s male-dominated political process to not hold back in exposing offensive behavior that may have been kept secret in the past.
“The #MeToo movement shook Tallahassee to its core, yet so many misogynistic values and double standards applied to women have not left the building,” the 30-year-old Orlando Democrat said.
Just three years ago, a Senate investigator called for an overhaul of the Capitol’s culture amid allegations that a powerful budget chairman traded his votes for sexual favors. Yet the issue faded and reforms failed to pass as the state’s attention shifted to the 2018 Parkland school shooting and then to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Gaetz scandal put Tallahassee in the national spotlight for a long-rumored sex game, where state lawmakers scored points for sleeping with aides, interns, lobbyists and other lawmakers. A political rival publicly accused Gaetz last year of creating the sex game, an allegation Gaetz denies.
It wasn’t anything new. In fact, it was Tallahassee’s “worst-kept secret” about seven or so years ago, said state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.
“There always seems to be a small core of men who don’t understand we aren’t doing a remake of ‘Mad Men’ in the building,” Jenne said.
Gaetz, a Republican, served as a state representative for six years in Tallahassee before being elected to the U.S. Congress in 2016. Now, he’s reportedly the target of a federal sex-trafficking investigation looking into whether he had sex with a 17-year-old girl and paid women for sex.
Gaetz has denied those allegations. But headlines have turned attention to the frat-house political environment in Tallahassee where Gaetz cut his political teeth.
The pandemic has changed dynamics for the 2021 legislative session with COVID-19 safeguards keeping lobbyists away from the Capitol and toning down after-hours events.
But a persistent cultural problem in Tallahassee still exists, said Susan Glickman, who lobbies for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and has been involved in the Tallahassee political process for three decades.
“Sexism is alive and well in Tallahassee,” said Glickman, who chaired the Florida Commission on the Status of Women after it was restructured in 1992. “It is more subtle. Women are held to way different standards and often judged on looks rather than their talents.”
Tallahassee’s culture is a combustible mixture of alcohol, power, money, sex and influence, where business is often done at night over drinks. Lawmakers and lobbyists spend two months in Tallahassee, away from their families in a high-pressure, competitive environment removed from Florida’s major population centers. Some lawmakers live like college students during the session, sharing houses.
Even in the #MeToo era, the Legislature remains dominated by men, and speaking out about bad behavior is risky for those who wish to advance their careers, Glickman said.
“There is enormous pressure to toe the line or be ostracized, which could affect your work,” she said.
Traditions persisted in the Legislature’s not-so-distant past that raise eyebrows today. Young women competed for the title of Miss Rotunda, an unofficial contest where lobbyists voted for the most attractive intern.
A lobbyist in charge of hiring interns proclaimed in a 2006 newspaper article, “They hire these girls because they’re drop-dead gorgeous. Let’s face it. Some legislators like beautiful women.”
Firms have been known to use “closers,” attractive young women hired for their sex appeal and deployed to speed up the legislative process.
Another lobbyist who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the climate for women in 2021, put it this way: “It is largely still the good ol’ boys club.”
Despite the downfall of two of its top legislative leaders in recent sex scandals, the Florida Legislature hasn’t acted on changes that could bring more accountability to elected leaders.
Sometimes, taxpayers foot the bill to resolve harassment allegations involving politicians.
In January 2018, Republican Sen. Jack Latvala resigned amid harassment allegations from six women. A Senate investigator’s report included allegations that Latvala, a powerful budget chairman, requested sexual favors from one lobbyist in exchange for votes.
The Florida Senate paid $900,000 in taxpayer money in January 2019 to settle a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case stemming from Latvala’s harassment allegations. Rachel Perrin Rogers, a legislative aide, alleged she faced retaliation for accusing Latvala of harassment. Perrin Rogers resigned her position as part of the settlement, which did not include an admission of wrongdoing by Latvala or the Senate.
Just before Latvala’s resignation, Jeff Clemens, the incoming Democratic leader in the Florida Senate, resigned after admitting an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
Cindy Polo, a former Democratic state representative from Miramar, tried unsuccessfully last year to create a public-integrity officer position to ensure tax dollars aren’t used to resolve sexual harassment claims filed against state lawmakers. It wasn’t a debate many of her colleagues appeared eager to have, with one Republican member calling it a “solution in search of a problem.”
Ultimately, the Florida House voted down her proposal.
“It is not an environment where we are encouraged to talk about difficult things,” said Polo, who lost her reelection bid last year. “You get up there and you are supposed to learn the way things have been done, and you just fall in line.”
The Florida Legislature handles and disposes of sexual harassment allegations, a process outlined by a seven-page policy in the Senate and in the House’s rules. In the Senate, complaints can be made to the Senate president, staff, or the Legislature’s human resources office. Complaints in the House go through the House Public Integrity and Ethics Subcommittee.
Senators are required to take an hour of sexual harassment training each year.
While provisions in state law allow for independent investigators to be appointed, the political nature of the process makes people hesitant to step forward, and unspoken rules don’t encourage open discussion of the Legislature’s workplace culture, Polo said.
“Is there a billboard that says, ‘What happens in Tallahassee stays in Tallahassee?’ No,” Polo said. “Are you told that in not so many words? Absolutely.”
Bills that sought to address sexual misconduct failed to pass after the Latvala scandal. The legislation would have created new rules and penalties for sexual harassment and made it easier to bar lobbyists who commit violations from participating in the process. Lawmakers also took up measures that aimed to stop the use of closers and crack down on sexual favors between lobbyists and lawmakers.
Such issues aren’t unique to Tallahassee. New York’s state capital has been rocked by sexual harassment complaints against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The U.S. Congress reformed its rules in 2018 amid reports that tax dollars had been used for secret sexual harassment settlements. The change required lawmakers to be personally financially liable if they pay out money to resolve harassment or retaliation claims. As a congressman, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis supported this effort.
Setting aside harassment and misconduct, Tallahassee is an ideal environment for romantic relationships to develop, and politicians are having their love lives watched more closely than ever, said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime political operative in Florida politics.
“You put men and women together in highly stressful situations away from homes and families, and relationships are going to develop,” Stipanovich said. “It’s human nature. The greater the stress and smaller the space, both physical and mental, the higher the probability.”
Hidden cameras have been used to find dirt on politicians. Two former South Florida state senators of opposing parties — Oscar Braynon and Anitere Flores — went public with an extramarital affair in 2018 after a website published hidden camera footage that purported to show Flores entering and leaving an apartment rented by Braynon.
Flores is a Republican, and Braynon is a Democrat.
Florida Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Gary Farmer disclosed to colleagues in 2019 he had separated from his wife and entered into a relationship with a lobbyist. Farmer’s Democratic colleagues did not object to the relationship, and the Lighthouse Point senator said he doesn’t think it constitutes a conflict of interest.
While a “boys club” still exists in Tallahassee, the situation is improving, said state Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach.
Naples Republican Kathleen Passidomo is in line to become Senate president in 2022, giving a woman a key leadership post in the Senate.
“There is some change, but it is slow,” Berman said. “I would like to see it be a little faster, but change takes time unfortunately,”
Women are still underrepresented in the Florida Legislature. Fifteen of the Senate’s 40 members are women. In the House, 40 of 120 representatives are women.
Eskamani said she hopes Florida’s latest scandal will encourage people to speak out. Eskamani shared a voicemail message she received from Gaetz and his friend, former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg, that she considered to be an unprofessional attempt to foster a more intimate relationship with her.
In the July 4, 2019, voice message, Greenberg said he and Gaetz had been talking about Eskamani’s “lovely qualities,” while Gaetz chimed in that they thought Eskamani was the “future of the Democratic party in Florida.”
“People need to share their stories because that’s the only way we can hold people accountable,” Eskamani said.
Skyler Swisher, South Florida Sun Sentinel