MIAMI — At a “watershed moment” for dealing with sexual harassment, four women seeking to lead the Florida Democratic Party pledged Thursday to bring changes after former party chairman Stephen Bittel abruptly resigned amid accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women.
The candidates vying to replace Bittel — Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel, Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez and Service Employees International Union Florida President Monica Russo of Miami — appeared together for about 2½ hours at a forum sponsored by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
A vote on party chair is scheduled for Dec. 9 in Orlando. Other candidates could emerge before the vote and Russo might not be eligible unless she succeeds in getting a rules change to open up the process to people who aren’t county party officials.
Bittel apologized and stepped down last month after six women told Politico Florida that he often made demeaning remarks to women, leered at them and kept a breast-shaped stress ball in his desk.
Bittel’s downfall comes as a variety of men in politics and media have been confronted with accusations of harassing and abusive behavior toward women. Democrats, who used to routinely accuse Republicans of waging a “war on women,” have been stung by accusations against Hollywood mogul and liberal donor Harvey Weinstein and two prominent members of Congress: liberal Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and longtime U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.
“Let’s take a moment to realize that we are in a cathartic moment in our society, that this is our opportunity to do some soul searching, including at the Florida Democratic Party, and to identify the deficiencies that we have,” said Gonzalez, who is an employment lawyer and said she’s the only candidate for chair who has filed a sexual harassment complaint. She said she’d order a full investigation of the Bittel matter if she’s elected.
“I know that sexual harassment is real and that we ought not immediately jump to a conclusion that some woman is making it up. We believe you. For every woman who has told her ‘Me, too’ story and for those of us who have not had the courage to come forward, let me say now, unequivocally, I believe you,” Gonzalez said.
Said Rizzo: “This is a watershed moment in our culture, in society…Finally women are coming forward and we are being believed and it’s about time.”
If she becomes party chairwoman, Rizzo said she would implement policies and procedures to combat harassment and require party employees and members of county Democratic executive committees to undergo sexual harassment training.
SEIU President Russo said that when she became pregnant as a young labor organizer, a boss “told me I had to abort the child to stay employed. FYI, my child is alive and well in Gainesville, Fla….These are the sorts of things that we need to share so that folks know that’s not acceptable.”
Patel said new policies and procedures aren’t enough.
“The fundamental thing that we have to figure out is a change in our culture,” Patel said. “How do we exert feminine power in a way that transforms our power structures, such that we’re not using wealth, privilege, class and other things to dictate power?”