- By Wayne Washington Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Jeff Clemens had established himself as a policy expert, an incisive debater and a pro at all of the campaign fine points whose mastery leads to victory on Election Day.
His own wall included some choice political pelts — Pete Brandenburg, Mack Bernard and Irv Slosberg, men whose talent, connections or wealth made them formidable opponents who, nonetheless, were defeated by Clemens on his rise to political stardom.
Democrats in the Florida Senate named Clemens as their incoming leader, a perch from which he’d carry their fight against Republicans who dominate politics in Tallahassee.
It’s not far from caucus leader in Tallahassee to congressional or even gubernatorial candidate. But that’s not a trip Clemens, 47, will be taking any time soon — if ever.
The Atlantis senator pulled the pin on his career on October 27 after Politico reported he had an extramarital affair with Broward County lobbyist Devon West.
He admitted to the affair, apologized and resigned on the same day. It was an abrupt fall that only just eclipsed the swiftness of Clemens’ rise from newspaper reporter to small city mayor to state legislator to would-be Democratic leader.
Extramarital affairs haven’t always torpedoed political careers. But in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the voting public could be developing an intolerance for anything that smells of a powerful man wielding his clout for his own gratification at the expense of others.
Clemens wasn’t to face voters again until 2020, and there is no indication his affair broke any laws or that West is alleging sexual harassment.
The former senator apologized to his wife, and his public statement indicated an understanding that some could view his actions as disrespectful to women.
“I have made mistakes I (am) ashamed of, and for the past six months I have been focused on becoming a better person,” he said. “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.”
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has moved to change how alleged sexual harassment is handled in the Senate, which was on the receiving end of sharp criticism from House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. Corcoran said senators erected a “wall of silence” that protected Clemens.
Corcoran’s remarks drew a rebuke from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who complained that there is an “organized effort to tear down the Senate.”
Latvala is running for governor, and Corcoran is considering a run.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Palm Beach County and Tallahassee are left to wonder what might have been for Clemens, who had worked as a reporter in Naples and played guitar in a rock band before embarking on his political career.
Clemens might have attended a legislative delegation meeting with Palm Beach County commissioners on Thursday, but the meeting went on without him. The name of the man who carried county bills and was poised to become one of the most powerful voices in Tallahassee was not mentioned a single time.
With the surprise and disappointment of Clemens’ resignation still fresh, some county officials were unwilling to discuss him. Others recalled a singular talent who understood policy and how to win.
Indeed, it seemed Clemens couldn’t lose.
He served as president of the College Park Neighborhood Association in Lake Worth and then as chairman of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
The Lake Worth CRA crafted a 6th Avenue South redevelopment plan to spend $6.2 million on roadway, sidewalk, utility and landscaping improvements. Critics contended the money would be better spent on other blighted areas, but that criticism ebbed when the improvement project was completed on time and under budget.
Clemens, in his 30s, was poised for a mayoral run. Lake Worth’s mayor at the time, Marc Drautz, wanted another term.
Defeating incumbents, who know all of the players, typically have an easier time raising money and usually have higher name recognition, is no small task. But Clemens made it known he planned to knock on every door in the city to introduce himself to those who didn’t know him and to ask for support from those who did.
He narrowly defeated Drautz in the general election, then beat Drautz again in a runoff, becoming mayor in March of 2007.
Crime was a significant problem for Lake Worth, and Clemens attacked that problem with vigor. He called for a tighter focus on gangs, which he described as some of the most dangerous in Palm Beach County.
Clemens’ work had him partner with other elected officials, including a man he’d tangle with in the not-too-distant future: then-Delray Beach city commissioner Mack Bernard.
“I remember him serving as mayor in the city of Lake Worth,” Bernard said. “I was a city commissioner. We worked on numerous issues together.”
The impression of Clemens offered by Bernard matched that of others who spoke to The Palm Beach Post for this article and described Clemens as smart, informed and adept at politics.
After two years as mayor, Clemens was ready for another climb up the political ladder, this time to the state House of Representatives.
Clemens had served as an aide to state Rep. Mary Brandenburg, who could not seek re-election again because of term limits. Her husband, Pete Brandenburg, entered the race to succeed her.
Clemens’ connections to the Brandenburgs did not dissuade him from running. Then 39, he drew a stark contrast between himself and his 63-year old opponent.
“I’m the only candidate who’s sat on the dais and made multi-million-dollar decisions,” he said. “I’m young. I’m energetic. I’m going to Tallahassee to fight for our constituents.”
Clemens defeated Brandenburg in the Democratic primary, won the general election and went off to Tallahassee, as he said he would. He did not stay in the House long.
After his first term, Clemens ran for a seat in the state Senate. His opponent in the Democratic primary would be none other than Bernard, who had also moved up from municipal service to the state House.
The Clemens-Bernard race was a clash of Democratic fast-risers. Both men hit the primary campaign trail hard, pulling in major endorsements, Bernard from business interests and Clemens from unions.
Because of the district’s Democratic tilt, the winner of the party primary would be a shoo-in in the general election.
Clemens beat Bernard in the primary by 17 votes out of the more than 24,000 ballots cast. The result withstood a recount and a suit filed by Bernard, who sought to have additional absentee ballots counted.
In the general election, Clemens was unopposed.
“I think that was one of the toughest races,” Bernard said of his battle against Clemens. “He was a great campaigner. He worked hard. We both worked hard. He was able to get the victory.”
In the Senate, Clemens was an early proponent of the legalized use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, putting him at the vanguard of an effort that culminated last year with the passage of a referendum allowing for expanded use medical marijuana.
County officials came to rely on Clemens to fight against Tallahassee-generated efforts to usurp local control.
Scandals lurk like mines in the state Capitol, still largely a bastian of powerful men who spend weeks at a time away from spouses and family. Lechery there is rarely a secret, but none of the people contacted by The Post said they saw any indication that Clemens was sowing the seeds of his own political destruction.
“I was his seat mate in the Senate for four years,” state Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, the Boynton Beach Democrat who served with Clemens in the Senate from 2012 until Abruzzo ran for a House seat in 2016. “I got to see him up close and personal.”
Abruzzo said Clemens used his experience as a reporter to draw attention to issues important to him.
“Jeff had an incredible understanding of the media, having been a reporter,” Abruzzo said. “He knew instinctively how to make a point, knowing reporters would pick up on the line instantly.”
Every now and then, Abruzzo said, Clemens would slip from the practiced, formalized style of speech legislators used to address one another.
“Jeff wasn’t about that,” Abruzzo said. “He wore his heart on his sleeve. If someone got under his skin, he couldn’t hold back.”
Seeking re-election in 2016, Clemens first had to get past state Rep. Irv Slosberg, a wealthy Boca Raton Democrat who poured $1.9 million of his own money into the race. No matter. Clemens crushed him by a margin of almost 30 percentage points and was again unopposed in the general election.
Clemens’ greatest legislative triumph — and his spectacular fall — was still to come.
Sober homes — unregulated, transitional housing for recovering drug addicts — had proliferated in southern Palm Beach County, plaguing neighborhoods with discarded needles, violent arguments and overdoses.
The Post reported extensively on the problem, and local leaders called for action.
Clemens sponsored legislation designed to crack down on shady practices at sober homes, but getting buy-in from legislators in other parts of the state wasn’t easy.
“In the beginning, he had a lot of push back,” said state Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana. “A lot of the rest of the state didn’t think this was a big issue.”
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who convened a task force to address the problem, welcomed assistance from Clemens.
“Jeff was involved in the sober homes issue early on,” Aronberg said. “It was a natural fit for him to sponsor the legislation.”
With the opioid epidemic metastasizing — and with the sober home problem worsening along with it — legislators in other parts of the state became more receptive. The Legislature passed the sober homes bill in May, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law the following month.
Passage of the sober homes legislation confirmed for Democrats that they had made a good choice in selecting Clemens to be their leader after the November 2018 elections.
Clemens, though, won’t have a chance to reward their faith. His affair and resignation could have lasting impacts into the upcoming legislative session. It could impact Latvala’s run for governor.
Politico reported that Clemens went to Latvala for help in retrieving Clemens’ lap top from West. Latvala would not address the Politico report, saying he does not talk about private conversations with colleagues.
Late Friday, Politico reported that six women who work at the Capitol say Latvala touched them inappropriately or uttered demeaning remarks about their bodies. In an interview with Politico, Latvala pointed to the fact that in 16 years in the Senate he has never had a complaint filed against him.
Until a special election is held to fill Clemens’ seat, Democrats will have one less member in the Senate, making it even harder for them to combat Republican efforts.
“I take full responsibility for my behavior, and I apologize for bringing any embarrassment to the Caucus,” Clemens said in an email to his colleagues after the scandal broke. “I have spent much of the past six months going to therapy, strengthening my relationship with my wife and my kids, and trying to be a better human being. I still have quite a ways to go. But I am unwavering in my resolve to get there.”