Larry Hawkins The Man Who Loved Women

Vietnam left him paralyzed and in constant pain. But his female co-workers -- who have spent the past fifteen years fending off unwanted advances and inappropriate comments -- say his greatest handicaps are from the neck up.

She says she is offended at Hawkins's public denials of his actions. "I'm telling you this because I respect those women [DiFede, Nudelman, and Fernandez], and I don't want to leave them hanging out there all alone," she explains. "It's not right. Those women are not making up these things. His conduct is unbecoming of an elected official. If he wanted to become a lech, then he should have bought himself a porn shop."

Virtually no one seems willing to confront Hawkins about these matters -- not his closest aides, not his fellow commissioners, not even people who say they consider Hawkins to be a personal friend. "You've basically got a guy who needs some help," says one prominent political player who has known Hawkins since his days in Tallahassee. "Larry is beyond a state of denial. I just think he doesn't realize that what he does is wrong. Look at the comments he's made to the press and to the ethics investigator. And besides that, I've been in his office when he's made rude comments about Mary [DiFede]. I think the guy is just blind to it."

So why doesn't this friend challenge Hawkins directly? "I know, I know, I've thought about it," he says. "Somebody should."

Ralph Velocci has known Hawkins for ten years, considers him a good friend, and says he has nothing but admiration for the commissioner. "The guy gets up every morning, climbs into that wheelchair, and dedicates himself to public service," says the former head of Industrial Waste Service. "He has plugged away for a lot of years to help this community." As for Hawkins's apparent problems, Velocci allows, "Maybe he does have a long tongue. Maybe he does talk too much. I think he talks without thinking. Why does he do it? Maybe because he's trying to prove himself. We all like to prove ourselves sometimes."

According to Hawkins, anyone who believes he harasses women because he is confined to a wheelchair and has something to prove is simply dead wrong. "I don't view myself from any perspective of having to prove anything," he says, his voice filling with emotion. "I know who I am. I don't have to prove my sexuality. I don't have to prove my intelligence or lack thereof. I don't have to prove that. If other people are uncomfortable with the fact that I'm in a wheelchair, if other people think that because I'm in a wheelchair that I have to act in a certain way, then I can't change that about them. But I know who I am and I'm comfortable, I'm not ashamed, I'm not embarrassed about anything about me. Because for 26 years I've beaten the odds."

It may be too early in this year's county commission campaigns to rank Hawkins's odds for victory, but he acknowledges the need for support among female voters, and he is aware of the danger he is now facing: a growing perception that he is an insensitive sexist, a classic chauvinist pig. During one of his interviews with New Times, Hawkins said many women have approached him with reassurances that he needn't worry, that they know the sexual harassment charges are false. He even provided the names of several women he believed should be contacted for comment.

Among those women was Colleen Griffin, whom Hawkins appointed to the zoning appeals board in 1990. Griffin said she has never experienced any problems with Hawkins. "He's a hard-working commissioner who puts in a lot of extra hours and a lot of time for his district," Griffin stated. "He's brought us through a lot from the hurricane."

Pat Fernandez is Hawkins's current executive secretary. She has held the job for the past year and said she has never seen the commissioner act improperly. "I've never felt uncomfortable with Larry," she offered. "He can be very demanding. When he wants something done, he wants it done right away."

Another woman Hawkins recommended was Deborah Mayo. This is what he had to say about her: "She used to work for me. She's an attorney now and is as attractive as anybody in the Metro-Dade Center." Without prompting, Hawkins decided to emphasize the point: "I will tell you right now that if you looked outside this door for ten minutes and watched the males and females pass, and Deborah Mayo was one of those people, and you came back in here, and knowing she was single and I was single and I said, 'You know, of all of the people you saw in the last ten minutes, who would you think I'd ask out for a date?' You'd say, 'The dark-haired girl, the tall one. Boy, is she nice.'"

In a subsequent telephone interview, Mayo recalled that Hawkins did come courting once, a long time ago, with a box of chocolates and an armful of flowers. She turned him down for a date, but the two have been friends for years. "He's a genuinely fine and kind gentleman," she said, adding that he is "slightly flirtatious." As for the allegations of sexual harassment, she is shocked by them and doesn't believe them. "I'm not suggesting that any of these girls didn't feel uncomfortable because of Larry's sweet flirtatious nature," she noted, but Hawkins would never try to hurt or demean a woman.

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