By Jim Bleyer
“Tallahassee short nights.”
That’s the sobriquet that lobbyists, state workers, lawmakers, and their staffers attached to legislative sessions back in the 1970s, known as the “Golden Era” of Florida government.
Gov. Reubin Askew served two terms and Bob Graham launched his gubernatorial career in that shining decade. They were two of the greatest leaders Florida has ever known. Iron-fisted Dempsey Barron commanded the Florida Senate. Republicans, a distinct minority, and Democrats were collegial, working together to craft legislation that, for the most part, actually helped Floridians, not just lobbyists.
The fact that any noteworthy bills ever got to the floor defies science. Legislators, often numbering close to a veto-proof majority, appeared at the Capitol weekday mornings resembling the Wreck of the Hesperus.
Askew, a Democrat, worked closely with Sen. Warren Henderson, a Venice Republican and the legislature’s “Mr. Environment,” to enact benchmark legislation intending to protect Florida’s natural resources for generations to come. At the outset of the seventies, Republican governor Claude Kirk streamlined state government, adding order and efficiency to what had been a hodgepodge of agencies. Graham continued to focus on the environment but his biggest achievement was improving the academic standing of the state’s universities, community colleges, and public schools.
In the midst of glorious political accomplishments, predatory sex was pervasive among aides, secretaries, committee staff, lawmakers, and lobbyists. Unwanted advances and coercing subordinates were not uncommon practices. Jack Latvala, who began a five-year stint working in the offices of the Republican Party of Florida, participated in that culture, impeccable sources have told Tampa Bay Beat.
Those sources, in fact, informed us of Latvala’s behavior well before the latest charges hurled at him. We’re not piling on here.
Six unnamed individuals have made sexual harassment claims against Latvala, now a state senator, and the Office of Legislative Services is investigating. A Senate staffer has also filed a rules complaint against Latvala.
A candidate for governor, Latvala has denied any wrongdoing asserting the allegations are politically motivated. He gleefully announced he passed a polygraph exam administered by his legal team as evidence of his innocence.
Like many other Florida politicos, Latvala cut his teeth on the partying scene at the notorious Silver Lake Plantation, a spread some 25 miles east of Tallahassee owned by Henderson and State Rep. Jim Tillman. If you were invited to “the plantation,” you were guaranteed a good time.
Actually the plantation more resembled a hunting lodge, a two-story structure with a plethora of bedrooms surrounding a vast entertainment area. A cattleman who grew up in rural Georgia, Tillman was an avid hunter; mounted 12-point bucks, antelopes, black bears and other wildlife ringed the walls of the lodge.
Those were not the only trophies collected at Silver Lake. The sexual romps there made Beach Blanket Bingo look bush league. Aides and secretaries participated; the vast majority were female which satisfied the preference of the carousing politicos. As an executive for the Republican Party, Latvala had easy access to the lodge’s sumptuous offerings.
Henderson, who sported a fully stocked bar in his Capitol office, and Tillman hired a full-time staff to maintain the lodge and the vast green expanse that extended to the lake itself. In addition to the nearly non-stop frolicking that occurred during legislative sessions, cookouts and lavish, informal dinners livened the menu.
Silver Lake, like state government at the time, operated collaboratively. A regular contingent of Democrats also joined the bacchanalian chorus, a former legislator who knew Latvala told Tampa Bay Beat.
“It wasn’t just the entertainment aspect,” he explained. “Many deals were cut at the plantation that would affect the lives of Floridians for decades.”
Latvala’s fulltime Tallahassee tenure ended when he was hired as a political gunslinger for drug store magnate and failed gubernatorial candidate Jack Eckerd who resided in Pinellas County.
Warren Henderson passed away in 2011; Jim Tillman in the following year. Many secrets permeating those Tallahassee short nights at Silver Lake died with them.
(The writer, who visited Silver Lake twice, was a journalist for the Tampa Tribune in the seventies and District Aide for Jim Tillman when he was House Minority Leader)