Florida’s top Democrat resigns after claims of ‘inappropriate behavior’

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In this December 20, 2016, photo, Stephen Bittel, right, chats with voters as members of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party Executive Committee meet in Wynwood, Florida, to elect a new state committeeman.

The head of Florida’s Democratic Party resigned Friday on the heels of a Politico report alleging he had engaged in inappropriate and demeaning behavior toward women.

Stephen Bittel, who was elected party chairman in January, became just the latest powerful man embroiled in controversy after being publicly accused of behaving inappropriately toward women.

Based on interviews with six unnamed female former staffers or consultants, Politico reported Bittel “created an unprofessional workplace environment for women that include(d) persistent inappropriate comments, leering at young women and even inviting them on his private jet,” and that, according to one of the women interviewed, “it became a policy that women, especially junior staff, were never to be left alone with him in his office, plane or house.”

One former Democratic Party staffer told CNN that she had experienced Bittel’s inappropriate behavior firsthand for months before quitting. “It didn’t matter if a woman was a low-level aide or senior executive. He was inappropriate with all of us,” said the staffer, who spoke to CNN only on the condition of anonymity.

Bittel, who “has been involved in progressive political activism for the past 40 years,” according to his biography on the state party’s website, sent a statement to CNN saying he was “deeply sorry” for his comments and actions.

“Every person, regardless of their gender, race, age or sexuality, should be treated with respect and valued for their hard work and contributions to our community and if any of my comments or actions did not reflect that belief I am deeply sorry,” he said. “I have much to learn, but my goal is and has always been to make sure every member of our party has a safe environment in which to succeed. It seems I’ve not been successful in that goal, and I will do better.”

That apology was not enough for some, including the party’s top contenders running to replace Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

“No one should have to work in an uncomfortable environment. Bittel’s behavior and the atmosphere he has created is unacceptable. He must resign,” said Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman who’s the daughter of former Florida Gov. Bob Graham.

“I hope Chairman Bittel does the right thing and steps down as chairman,” added Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine. “No individual should feel less than safe and comfortable in their workplace.”

“Stephen Bittel must step down as FDP Chair,” Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said in a statement. “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. Although these allegations are not criminal, they clearly paint a picture of a hostile working environment for women.”

Bittel then issued a second statement, this time to announce his resignation.

“When my personal situation becomes distracting to our core mission of electing Democrats and making Florida better, it is time for me to step aside,” he said. “I am proud of what we have built as a Party and the wins we have had for Florida families, but I apologize for all who have felt uncomfortable during my tenure at the Democratic Party.”

The Florida Democratic Party said the party’s first vice chair, Judy Mount, will take over on an interim basis until the State Executive Committee elects its new leader December 9.

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