A key Florida ally and big-time donor for Barack Obama and Joe Biden finds himself under pressure to exit as state Democratic chair — again. Six women accuse Stephen Bittel, whose wealth and influence has led him to the highest level of state politics, of creating a harassing and “demeaning” environment at the party’s headquarters. The complaints include unwanted sexual advances, invitations to a hotel room, and a, er, unique method of decorating his office:
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 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.
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.”
Politico’s Marc Caputo and Matt Dixon describe Bittel as someone with deep connections to both the state and national Democratic party organizations. Former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a personal friend, as well as Bill Nelson, who currently faces a tough election fight in 2018 if Rick Scott decides to challenge for the seat. Bittel has also played host to Obama and Biden.
All of them may have to answer for his presence at the top of the Florida Democratic food chain, especially when Bittel’s behavior was apparently — wait for it — an open secret:
Other women said they found Bittel “demeaning,” saying he had a reputation among party loyalists and staffers who all knew what might happen if a woman was left alone in his company.
How open was it? Caputo offered this eye-popping context on Twitter:
Longtime source/friend who knew Bittel through Miami political circles said she remembers he accidentally (she thinks) sent her an email with “pictures of dozens, if not hundreds, of clitorises … I didn’t know there was such variation. I’ve only seen one!”
— Marc Caputo (@MarcACaputo) November 17, 2017
Ugh. So far two Democrats, one of whom will run for governor next year, have already called for Bittel’s ouster after the allegations went public:
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum requested Bittel step down as chair.
“These courageous women came forward with disturbing stories of harassment, and it’s our duty to stand in the gap for them and others in these situations,” Gillum said in a statement. “Although these allegations are not criminal, they clearly paint a picture of a hostile working environment for women.”
Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham agreed and said she, too, wanted Bittel to step down.
“No one should have to work in an uncomfortable environment,” she said. “Bittel’s behavior and the atmosphere he has created is unacceptable. He must resign.”
Amazingly, Bittel has already survived one call for his ouster this year for entirely different reasons. Early this summer, Caputo reported that Bittel was ready to step down for accusing the state’s African-American legislative caucus of “playing the race card” after chiding them for “acting like three-year-olds” for not getting introduced at a party event:
The embattled chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, Stephen Bittel, is prepared to quit if members of the legislative black caucus want him gone for dismissing them as “childish” amid a dispute at a million-dollar weekend fundraising gala, top Democrats tell POLITICO Florida.
Bittel compounded the controversy Saturday night by initially accusing the African-American lawmakers of “playing the race card” once they took offense, lawmakers say. But Bittel soon apologized and spent two days expressing contrition to party leaders.
Caputo raised another point in the curious tenacity of Bittel’s chairmanship at that time:
One reason neither lawmaker may ask for Bittel’s resignation: many Democrats think he’s the best chairman for the party. Bittel, an independently wealthy developer and longtime Democratic donor, can still raise money.
Elected just six months ago on a pledge to unite the party and help it raise an astonishing $30 million, Bittel has done neither. Knowledgeable insiders have been sidelined. And some state lawmakers say they sensed the chairman doesn’t understand the limits of their power and fundraising capacity in Tallahassee, where Republicans control the Legislature, the governor’s office and the three statewide Cabinet posts.
So how exactly did Bittel stay in this position as long as he has? He’s held the job for almost exactly ten months and has failed to raise the money he promised. On top of that, Bittel has exacerbated racial animosities within the party and created a hostile working environment for women. The Republican Party in Florida is hardly perfect — Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala is facing harassment and groping allegations too — but Bittel appears to be the reductio ad absurdum of how Democrats like to paint Republicans. And yet he perseveres. Hmmmmm.
Perhaps Florida Democrats should start asking Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Bill Nelson, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama how Bittel’s managed to do that.
Addendum: SaintPetersBlog’s Joe Henderson wondered in January how Bittel got the job in the first place. Maybe they should be asking that, too. (Front page image from SaintPetersBlog.)
Update: Aaaaaaaaaaand … he’s gone:
Stephen Bittel said it was “time for him to step aside” in the wake of a Politico report quoting anonymous women who said that Bittel would leer at them, make comments about their appearances or breasts and exhibit other behavior that made them uncomfortable. He also had a breast-shaped stress ball in his office. …
Bittel said he is working with the party leadership to set a date for his departure.
His departure still leaves questions about how Bittel lasted as long as he did — and why he got the job in the first place.