Occam’s Razor and FDP’s sudden sexual harassment resignations

Something isn’t adding up about the sudden resignations of the Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel and President Sally Boynton Brown. 

Following reports of “creepy behavior” and boob-themed desk accoutrement, Bittel quickly stepped down from his position as party chair on Friday, and yesterday, after an open letter that seemed to indicate every intention to dig in, Boynton Brown resigned with an almost matter-of-fact note that cited “prayerful consideration” as her determining factor for shuffling back to Idaho.

I didn’t expect Bittel who is also a member of the powerful DNC rules committee, and an important leader within secretive Democracy Alliance, to concede without a fight from allegations of what seemed to be obnoxious frat house behavior. Even in the current zero-tolerance environment toward sexual harassment, it seemed to me Bittel would leverage his stature, provide apologies and promises of sensitivity training, and put the problem to bed—since we’re just talking about some wandering eyeballs. Right?

Well, it didn’t work out that way, and now folks are taking to social media to speculate why both Democratic Party leaders flew the coop so fast. Some have hinted there may be more troublesome allegations. Others fear a conspiracy by consultants. But I believe the explanation is fairly straightforward.

In the legal tree of sexual harassment it matters if the behavior is systemic rather than episodic. A systemic problem would entail more than one “bad actor.” Systems require enablers who insulate powerful organizational figures instead of pursuing changes that protect employees. An episodic case of sexual harassment would require the removal of one bad apple. A systemic case of sexual harassment…well, that’s entirely more complicated. 

Boyton Brown did herself no favors when she published a casual open letter to membership on Sunday.

The odd missive was published on the personal blog site Medium rather than as an official statement. Entitled “Sexual harassment in the workplace,” you’re forgiven if you tried to read and fell asleep because it pretends to be a college essay for an intro to women’s studies class: “Our current political culture reinforces an imbalanced power structure that allows men to abuse, take advantage of, and objectify the women who work beside them.” Darn tooting, but we all know that’s not what she came to discuss.

After the throat clearing, Boynton Brown gets to the point that she was totally unaware of any offensive conduct that was sexual in nature that staff felt they must tolerate in order to keep their jobs. Also sadly, members of her staff “may have not felt comfortable coming to me to share their truths.”

This is the “I sucked at my job” defense, and the rest of this column explains why it’s not adequate.

First off, no one shares their “truths” with their boss. You share truths with your best friend in the eighth grade. You report abusive behavior to your boss, or better, a neutral third party that you know won’t run straight to Mr. Creepy Pants and let him know. Boyton Brown’s defense seems to be that she’s not accountable for keeping her employees safe, because they failed to trust her enough to report abuse. But whose failure would that have been? Had she already leaked that information back up to him at some point?

Next, and maybe most egregiously, Boynton Brown shares a bullet-point presentation on all the things the FDP should have been doing to ensure a safe workplace for women. My sense is that she intended to demonstrate that she was on top of things. But the list just makes the party look worse for knowing exactly what the problems are, how to fix them, and neglecting to make the workplace safe for women.

There are two items from the list that especially beg further questioning. First, we learn the FDP didn’t have a neutral third-party to whom employees could report abuse. This is egregious because, without a neutral party, employees fear retaliation for reporting abuse. It’s not like this needed to be a hired position. It could be a committee. Secondly, it’s clear that Democratic party leaders had not even signed-off on a code of conduct. Who doesn’t have a code of conduct in 2017? It’s not the 1970s for chrissakes. Were they also smoking in the office?

But what is even more gobsmacking is that right after providing this incriminating list, Boynton Brown contradicts herself on the matter of being unaware of the Chair’s leering and creepiness.

In a neck-snapping 180-degree turn, Boynton Brown describes how she actually was aware of the hostile work environment which she characterizes as Bittel’s “conversational style” that some found “off-putting.” And despite what she said in the opening of her letter about the imbalanced power structure that “allows men to abuse, take advantage of, and objectify the women who work beside them,” Boynton Brown seems confused that she does not help Bittel’s case or her own by saying “it is unfortunate that not everyone who has worked with Chairman Bittel has had the same experience I have.” Privilege, much?

As President of the party, she says that Bittel treated her as a “full partner,” as if that should be surprising. She’s selling the fact that things are working as they should—being treated as a full partner when you were hired as President of the state party. But she’s also comparing her experience as President to that of a junior staffer and not seeing the difference. As a supervisor, that’s a problem. It indicates that she wasn’t receptive to staff concerns because she was treated as an equal. Is this why she sucked at her job? Did her elevated perception cloud her ability to see through the eyes of others?

Also, let’s take a moment to appreciate what a shit euphemism “conversational style” is for “sexual harassment.” Think about how dismissive this sounds to the women who were objectified, disempowered, and disadvantaged. When they were repeatedly leered at, or suffered unwanted advances, you can bet it didn’t feel “conversational.” It probably felt dehumanizing. If you’re a supervisor in an organization and you diminish the concerns of your staff with greasy glad-handing language you pretty much suck at being human.

What was the purpose of this letter? The title, “Sexual harassment in the workplace” suggests a think piece, not a mea culpa. After the first paragraph, though, it’s clear the author is less concerned with sexual harassment and more concerned with the job performance of herself and her boss. She throws complete support behind Bittel saying she will miss his “complete confidence and willingness to empower others.” That’s sweet, but it was an ill-advised strategy given the conflagration Bittel left behind for Florida Democrats.

And let’s not forget that Stephen Bittel, as Miami-Dade committeeman, will cast 62 votes toward the next chair. That’s trickle down democracy in action, my friends.

Sally Boynton Brown resigned on Monday, and it’s a mystery if she resigned out of loyalty to Bittel, or was asked to leave the party because of possible legal liabilities. Given the timing of Boyton Brown’s departure, on Monday following the massively ill-advised Sunday memo, I’m leaning toward the possibility of legal hassles chasing both figures out of office, and here’s why.

In an organizational structure, when something really bad happens, you want to find everyone culpable and get rid of them quick to reduce the organization’s exposure to liability. It’s obvious what Bittel’s exposure is. So let’s say Boynton Brown was aware of allegations of a hostile workplace prior to the current kerfuffle (as her letter suggests), and didn’t take actions to protect the employees (such as she outlined in her letter), that could be problematic—and I’m just going by the material she self-published on Sunday.

With six staffers known to be party to allegations of systemic workplace harassment (and an unknown number who haven’t yet come forward), an organization would be wise to err on the safe side and ask for resignations sooner rather than later.

The principle of Occam’s Razor is a simple guide that states that between competing hypotheses, the one with fewer assumptions is stronger. We have before us a matter of sexual harassment that looks to be systemic. We have an open letter published by the staff supervisor outlining how she was aware of harassment and did nothing, despite knowing precisely the simple actions that needed to be taken (in bullet points). We have a Party Chair who was rumored to have issues with women before being elected to office, and who even handed out cards that said “size matters.” He was allowed to keep a squeezy-ball on his desk that looked like a boob. He was an authority figure who had the potential to make staffers feel uncomfortable and objectified with leering and unwanted banter. Moreover we know from Boyton Brown’s memo that Bittel only directed his sexualized tone to lower-level staff which shows that he wasn’t an “equal opportunity harasser.” By all accounts, his behavior with staffers was a problem from the start, but wasn’t addressed or even papered-over with a simple code of conduct.

When sexual harassment can be shown to be systemic, rather than a bad apple or two, it becomes a much bigger problem. 

Stephen Bittel and the Democratic Party are both very big fish that any number of litigators would love to sink their teeth into. Regardless of outcome, this is an unattractive prospect to carry into 2018. Imagine constant headlines reminding us of the association of the Democratic Party with sexual harassment and our inability to reflect our values in our state party office. The damage could be catastrophic during our do-or-die 2018 election cycle, which means there is only one correct answer coming out of this fiasco: clean up our house and do it right this time.

8 comments

  1. Yet Rizzo (with Siegal still attached to her hip) wants to be chair? This woman has enabled Siegal, who made a deal regarding sexual harassment.
    Also you have dumb and dumber keep Shahid for years while he stole money and was accused of rape. All these folks are bad.

  2. Louise Fowler · · Reply

    Bitter much former PBC person?

  3. Both realized that a long drawn out investigation, distracts from the upcoming elections. While he states he was not aware of these employee concerns, Brown was hired to manage staff. If she was unaware of the concerns, then she would be at fault too. It was best for the party to both step aside. Now, we move forward to hire and elect replacements.

  4. Nancy Smith · · Reply

    Impressive commentary.

  5. Hank Porter · · Reply

    I’d suggest the most straightforward explanation is that the 4 Gubernatorial Campaigns all demanded that he resign.

  6. This is very well written. It is disappointing that he will stay on until after the election and Sally enabled him. It is also sad that the folks in Palm Beach County will replace them and the situation is the same.

  7. Ruth Ann Eaddy · · Reply

    This past convention was the most impressive that I have attended ever. The fact that special elections have been won this year appears to mean nothing to the powers that be . Also, the Central Committee meeting Sunday morning was the first time that I saw a profit and loss report ever and Sally had to say it was not complete as they are working thru all kinds of accounting problems of the past. Could it be true that Sally’s competency was scary for the past leaders? I guess it is best for her to get out of town when she was working for a party that did not appreciate her abilities. I might also add that I as a working women in the past can also say “me too”, so I do understand sexual harassment. I guess I would feel better if those anonymous women had an attorney and were suing the party with proven real facts and probable cause. I maybe should not post this, but I am as disappointed with the Democratic Party as much as I was after the election of 2016. Florida has elected two presidents by default and it appears that unless there is change, it will mean a Republican in the US Senate in 2018.

    1. @ruthann — Your comment raises some very good questions/issues. #1 SBB used a defense I characterized as “i was bad at my job,” but i don’t think she was — so, I don’t think that defense holds water. By many important measures, she excelled. So, why this particular form of ball-dropping?

      It’s not bigotry, I wouldn’t believe that in a million years. SBB is no misogynist. This isn’t about identity. It’s about power. She’s good at navigating the spoils system that is the modern Dem party w/o rocking the wrong boats. Which brings me to #2. In the letter SBB primarily expressed indebtedness to Bittel rather than to voters/party activists who were betrayed in this situation. Nothing could better encapsulate what’s wrong with our party right now.

      SBB raised the bar on grassroots involvement. Let’s raise it further, and do it while working on the other thingy. I have a feeling the two will mutually enhance each other.

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