State Rep. Jennifer Sullivan promises to bring back sexual harassment bill: ‘What are they afraid of?’

State Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R- Mount Dora, was disappointed her signature piece of legislation to tighten sexual harassment policies for the state’s 116,000 employees was bottled up in the waning days of the legislative session, despite being told otherwise, but she promised to try again next year.

It was the “opportune time … to reform a culture that has gone rampant,” said Sullivan, 26, who was the youngest women elected to the Legislature in 2014 at 23. “This issue isn’t going away … we’re in the fight for the long haul.”

In the midst of the #MeToo movement and on the heels of the resignation of two state senators over inappropriate relationships and touching, Sullivan was keen on making a law “to say loud and clear we have no tolerance for that kind of behavior anymore.”

Florida Sen. Lauren Book speaks during the session at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., Monday March 5, 2018. (AP Photo)
Though the House version passed 114-0, it was stripped of some of its language twice after back-and-forth talks with the Senate, Sullivan said.

“They had some concerns, and we sat down with them … we had all parties agreed, and in the last few hours, they decided not to put it back on.”

Afterward, Sullivan questioned the motives behind Senate leadership that saw a bill that was all-but-passed by both chambers suddenly freeze.

“There’s some speculation that perhaps they didn’t want some of these policies in place,” Sullivan said. “Why? What are they afraid of?”

Senate President Joe Negron was unable to comment about why the bill didn’t receive a vote because he was attending his daughter’s wedding, a spokesman said.

lorida Senate President Joe Negron speaks during the Florida AP Legislative Day at the Florida Capitol Nov 2, 2017. (AP Photo)

But he spoke with reporters on the session’s last day, March 9. In response to a question about whether people should conclude that the Senate’s male leadership isn’t interested in sexual-harassment reform, he responded that the bill would have “tied the hands” for agencies to fire those guilty of sexual harassment and “set up a labyrinth of proceedings.”

“There were serious problems in their approach,” Negron said.

The bill sponsored by Sullivan would make “a single unwelcome sexual advance … an actionable offense” requiring discipline. It also would direct state agencies to establish their own policies and procedures to prevent sexual harassment.

The Senate had already imposed rules in January for staff and lawmakers mandating online training on sexual harassment prevention and clarifying language to define sexual harassment in the wake of two scandals just before the session began Jan. 9.

In October, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, gave up his seat after reports of an extramarital affair with Tallahassee lobbyist Devon West.

Two months later, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, resigned after two misconduct investigations accused him of groping women he worked with and derailed his bid to run for governor.

The new rules in January “clarified our no tolerance in this arena,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who represents most of Lake County. He allowed a separate bill by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, that strengthened sexual harassment policy die in a committee he chaired.

“We dealt with the immediate,” Baxley said. The legislation “was going to affect a lot of people” and needed more thought, he said.

He also said he “ran out of committee meetings” to give the issue a more thorough evaluation.

The roadblocks in the Senate contrasted with the legislation’s movement in the House.