Women urge changes, ‘soul-searching’ in Florida Democratic Party after chairman’s resignation

Candidates for Florida Democratic Party chairwoman, from left: Palm Beach County Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, Hillsborough County Democratic State Committeewoman Alma Gonzalez, Service Employees International Union Florida President Monica Russo and Brevard County Democratic Chairwoman Stacey Patel. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

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.

>>RELATED: Palm Beach County’s Terrie Rizzo Claims She’s Nearly Half-way to Florida Democratic Chair Win

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?”

>>RELATED: Hastings, Deutch, Frankel endorse Terrie Rizzo for Florida Democratic Chair


Frankel: Trump “locker room” tape could be a pivot moment

Trump with actress Arianne Zucker and "Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush in 2005.
Trump with actress Arianne Zucker and “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush in 2005.

Thursday night, soon after the Donald Trump  “locker room” tape surfaced, author Kelly Oxford tweeted out, “Women: tweet me your first assaults.”

Oxford expected a handful of replies, but according to the New York Times, by Monday afternoon, the number of people responding or at least visiting her twitter page was up to a staggering 27 million.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, is vice chair, and presumptive incoming chair, of the bipartisan Congressional Women’s Caucus (the selection is in November).

On Tuesday, Frankel, who faces two opponents for reelection, visited the editorial board of The Palm Beach Post. She was asked if the furor Trump’s comments generated is a pivot point in exposing both the extent of sexual harassment and people’s perception of it or if the attention will fade.

“One good thing that’s come out of all this nastiness is a highlight on an issue that’s been very hush-hush,” Frankel said.

She said the Congressional Women’s Caucus plans to soon hold a discussion on sexual assault in high schools. And she said assault on college campuses “has been rampant.”

Frankel said the caucus also will focus on the military. And, she said, she’s separately working on bills to remove into the civilian sector investigations of, and punishment for, sexual harassment within the military, especially cases where superiors intimidate female subordinates into taking part in liaisons and use threats to keep them from reporting anything.

Sachs says ex-aide’s allegations “ludicrous and scurrilous”

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach
Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach

Faced with a federal complaint alleging sexual harassment by a fired aide, Sen. Maria Sachs countered Monday by releasing documents showing that he rang up thousands of dollars in unauthorized credit card charges before let go.

Sachs, a Delray Beach Democrat, isn’t seeking re-election. Her former aide, Matthew Damsky, 28, of Boca Raton, has complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Sachs would undress fully in the office in front of him.

She called Damsky’s claim “ludicrous and scurrilous groundless accusations.”

Sachs also released an affidavit signed by Damsky and dated Jan. 21 in which he acknowledged using her American Express Platinum card for more than two dozen purchases, all either airline tickets or payments at Walgreen’s from August through October 2015.

“For my family, we are still calculating the depth of deception that resulted in a loss of at least $100,000 in charges that he racked up on credit cards in my name and the names of my family members, without our knowledge or approval,” said Sachs, 67.

Damsky resigned from the Senate in February. His attorney, Jonathan Etra, said Monday that “we stand by the allegations” outlined in the EEOC complaint.