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Editorial: Clemens failed test of character and let down many people

The resignation of Jeff Clemens — his abrupt departure from the state Senate prompted by news of an affair with a lobbyist — is a disappointment to his constituents, a setback for Florida’s Democratic Party and a reminder that personal character is, in the end, absolutely essential in sound leadership.

This Editorial Page had consistently endorsed Clemens, going back to his successful run for mayor of Lake Worth in 2009. As a senator, he held a firm command of the issues and worked hard for his constituents on such problems as sober homes. Although one of the chamber’s most progressive members, he had a knack for working successfully with Republicans on matters of mutual interest.

RELATED LINK: Incoming Fla Senate Dem Leader Clemens apologizes for affair, resigns

His colleagues in the Legislature respected him so much that they picked him as their next Democratic Senate leader, which put him in charge of efforts to improve the election prospects of the long-lagging party. He helped score a big win in September when Annette Taddeo won a special election in the Miami district formerly held by Republican Frank Artiles.

Clemens’ disgrace, coming just six months after Artiles’, speaks volumes about the culture in which our legislators operate in Florida’s capital — and that’s using “culture” as loosely as possible. Artiles quit in late April after a racially tinged tirade against two black legislators in a Tallahassee bar. He was forced to apologize on the Senate floor but then resigned when it was reported that he used his political committee to hire as “consultants” a former Hooters “calendar girl” and a Playboy “Miss Social” with no political experience.

Clemens, 47 and married, resigned on Friday, just hours after Politico reported that he’d had an affair with Devon West, then a lobbyist for Martin County. As the relationship disintegrated, West came into possession of Clemens’ laptop computer and, according to Politico, “gained access to all his contacts and personal information and then informed his wife of the tryst.”

To get back the laptop, Clemens enlisted the help of two pals, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and current Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Lakes.

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

“I have made mistakes I [am] ashamed of, and for the past six months I have focused on becoming a better person.”

In years past, a show of contrition and repentance often has been enough for a politician to keep his job. But in the short month since The New York Times and The New Yorker detailed a host of women’s allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, there’s been a screeching U-turn in attitudes on sexual misbehavior in the workplace.

In this zero-tolerance atmosphere, Clemens had no choice but to step down as soon as his secrets — these aided by two other prominent senators — got out.

Still to be sorted out is whether this is a case of inappropriate sexual relations between consenting adults, or, given the power imbalances between a lobbyist and the lawmakers they must professionally woo, a case of sexual harassment.

In either case, it appears that Clemens saw the opportunities for extracurricular carrying-on as a perk of the job.

It’s a sure bet that a story like Clemens’ isn’t unique in the chummy world of Tallahassee, where married lawmakers live apart from their families for weeks or months. Observers aren’t wondering whether other legislators will be disgraced but who they will be.

Just Monday, two state senators, Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, urged sexual harassment victims working in the Legislature to speak up and file complaints. The two women, both sexual assault survivors, said, “We understand what it means to be victimized, demoralized and silenced in the face of sexual assault.”

The people of Clemens’ District 31 — from Delray Beach north through Lake Worth and Greenacres — have every reason to be angry with him. When on duty in the state capital, he used his service to them as a vehicle for his own gratification.

He and his family are suffering the consequences, but so are many Floridians who had put their hopes for more progressive state policies on his seemingly capable shoulders.

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