Top Democrat in Florida Senate resigns after affair with lobbyist disclosed

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PHOTO VIA FLORIDA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
  • Photo via Florida House of Representatives
State Sen. Jeff Clemens, poised to take over as leader of the Senate Democratic caucus, abruptly resigned from his legislative seat Friday after admitting he had an affair with a lobbyist.

Politico Florida on Friday morning reported the affair between Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, and Devon West, a Broward County lobbyist. By the end of the day, Clemens had stepped down.

“Please consider this email as my resignation from the Florida Senate,” Clemens wrote in a message to Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, at 5:55 p.m. Friday.

About an hour earlier, Clemens issued a statement through a spokesman, apologizing and saying he had “made mistakes” he is ashamed of.

The political consultant and former Lake Worth mayor said he has spent the past six months “focused on becoming a better person.”

“But it is clear to me that task is impossible to finish while in elected office. The process won't allow it, and the people of Florida deserve better. All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better,” said Clemens, who spent two years in the Florida House before being elected to the Senate in 2012.

Clemens, 47, also apologized to his wife, his family, and “everyone that I have treated poorly in the past for putting you through this in such a public way.”

Clemens said he will continue in therapy and “will seek to personally apologize to anyone I have wronged while seeking forgiveness, and will spend my time being a better husband and father.”

Negron issued a statement saying, "It is clear to me Senator Clemens made a decision he feels is best for both his family and his constituents.”

Clemens was expected to formally take over as minority leader after the 2018 elections, and his resignation was the second time this year that a senator has stepped down in disgrace.

This spring, former Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, resigned after a profanity-fueled and racially tinged outburst at a private club near the Capitol.

Ironically, Clemens' cachet as the incoming minority leader was burnished last month when Democrat Annette Taddeo defeated Republican former Rep. Jose Felix Diaz in a heated contest to replace Artiles. Clemens helped lead efforts to elect Taddeo.

News of the Clemens affair —- and the hasty resignation of the future leader —- rocked the Democratic caucus, fresh off the heels of the special-election victory.

State Sen. Audrey Gibson said she was “just floored” when she read the account of the affair Friday morning.

“I couldn't believe what I was reading,” Gibson, D-Jacksonville, told The News Service of Florida Friday evening. “It was just the fact that here this thing that happened was now public, blasted all over everywhere at a time when, as a caucus, we are moving in a forward direction.”

Clemens' departure comes as lawmakers prepare for the legislative session, which begins Jan. 9. Committee meetings are already underway. It is unclear how soon his Senate District 31 seat could be filled in a special election, though the Palm Beach County district is a Democratic stronghold.

Senate Democrats will continue to move forward, Gibson predicted.

“And as a matter of fact, the resignation probably helps us put it behind us quicker,” she said.

Senate President-designate Bill Galvano, who would have been Clemens' counterpart after next year's elections, said in a text that he trusts Clemens made the right decision.

“My thoughts are with his family,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, wrote.

Pressure for Clemens to resign, had been building throughout the day among a handful of Senate Democrats, especially among those who feared that worse news was yet to come.

“I think that is what needed to happen,” Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said of Clemens' resignation. “As a woman, and representing many women in my district, I think that is the best conclusion to the situation.”

The reaction to an affair between a married legislator and a lobbyist may have been heightened by a series of nationally renowned powerful men, such as film mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexual harassment or worse by dozens of women. The reports about Weinstein sparked a social-media firestorm and resulted in other high-profile celebrities being called out for sexual improprieties.

Even without the national focus on sexual harassment, Clemens' behavior should not be tolerated, Stewart said.

“We're a body of senators that try to have the highest of loyalty and highest ethics. I think this would just be a bad situation for us to move forward in, if he had not done this (resigned). I think he did the right thing and I appreciate him doing the right thing,” she said in a telephone interview.

It's unclear who will take over for Clemens as the upper chamber's next minority leader. Democrats were already engaged in a heated contest for who would succeed Clemens in 2020, with Sens. Gary Farmer, of Fort Lauderdale, and Bobby Powell, of West Palm Beach, the leading candidates.

Gibson could be in the running to replace Clemens next year, Stewart said.

“I think we might benefit having a woman in charge,” she said.

But Gibson demurred when asked Friday evening.

“As a caucus, we now have to come together and discuss moving forward under new leadership,” she said.

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