“One of the hallmarks of our republic is the electorate’s trust in our elections.”
Those were the words written by Mike Ertel in a memo to his boss, Gov. Ron DeSantis, just a week before he was forced to quit his job as secretary of state after a newspaper published photos of Ertel wearing blackface while dressed up for Halloween in 2005 as a female Hurricane Katrina victim.
Ertel sported the costume eight months after he was appointed to serve as the Seminole County elections chief, a post he held until DeSantis a month ago tapped him to oversee elections in the third-largest state in the nation.
Confronted by the photos, obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat, Ertel told the capital city newspaper: “There’s nothing I can say.”
Florida already has an ugly history dating back to the Jim Crow era of disenfranchising African-American and other minority voters, and the embarrassing photos once again focused an unwelcome national spotlight on the state’s elections.
Ertel’s replacement will be under intense scrutiny, not only because of Ertel’s speedy exit. The country is watching how the state handles a constitutional amendment that automatically restored the right to vote to most felons who have completed the terms of their sentences. Proponents of the measure say as many as 1.4 million Floridians could now be eligible to register to vote.
Lawmakers are grappling with how to carry out the amendment, which excluded murderers and people convicted of felony sexual offenses from having their rights restored. Questions remain about the definitions of “murder” and whether full repayment of fines, fees and restitution should be an eligibility requirement.
TIME TO ‘MOVE ON’ AFTER 16 DAYS
The photos published online Thursday by the Tallahassee Democrat showed Ertel wearing blackface and red lipstick and clad in a New Orleans Saints bandana and a purple T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Katrina Victim,” under which he wore falsies.
According to the Democrat, the photos were taken in 2005, two months after Hurricane Katrina’s widespread destruction in New Orleans --- 60 percent of whose residents are black --- and along the Gulf Coast. The Democrat shared the photos with Ertel last week and with the governor’s office Thursday morning, the story said.
Shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday, Ertel, who confirmed to the Democrat that he was the man in the photos, submitted a 25-word email to Diane Moulton, director of the governor’s executive staff.
“I am submitting my resignation as Florida Secretary of State effective immediately. It has been an honor to serve you and the voters of Florida,” wrote the 49-year-old Ertel, who had appeared at a House subcommittee meeting earlier Thursday.
Ertel’s email “signature” included a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “These men ask for just the same thing, fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have.”
Ertel’s hasty exit from the Department of State is the first stain on DeSantis’ administration and came just 16 days after the Republican governor took office.
Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, DeSantis called Ertel’s resignation “unfortunate.”
The governor said he felt it was best to accept Ertel’s resignation and “move on.”
“I think it’s unfortunate. I think he’s done a lot of good work, but at the same time I have got to have an administration that is going to be focused on what matters to Floridians. I don’t want to get mired into side controversies,” he said.
NOT A GOOD MONTH FOR GILLUM?
State ethics officials on Friday found probable cause that former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost the governor’s race to DeSantis last year, violated Florida ethics laws by allegedly accepting gifts from lobbyists and failing to report them.
After a closed-door hearing at the 1st District Court of Appeal, Gillum’s attorney, Barry Richard, and Erwin Jackson, a Tallahassee businessman who filed the complaint, told reporters the Florida Commission on Ethics was unanimous in its support of staff findings regarding the alleged violations. The case is now headed to a hearing before an administrative law judge.
“The month of January is not going to be good for Andrew Gillum,” said Jackson, who hopes the commission’s findings will be followed by criminal charges against the former Democratic mayor.
The alleged ethics violations include a pricey ticket to the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” a New York City boat ride and a Costa Rica vacation. Public officials in Florida are prohibited from accepting gifts of $100 or more from lobbyists and others that work with the government.
The ethics complaint and questions about an FBI investigation into Tallahassee City Hall dogged Gillum in the days leading up to the November election.
But Richard said the findings were based on Gillum receiving gifts and that the former mayor never solicited anything.
“But there is no evidence in this case, and there is no allegations that he ever did anything for anybody, as a quid pro quo for receiving a gift. There is no suggestion he took a payment he wasn’t entitled to, that he voted for somebody for something,” Richard said.
MUNIZ MAKES THREE
In the final step in reshaping the Florida Supreme Court, DeSantis on Tuesday named Carlos Muniz, general counsel at the U.S. Department of Education, as his third selection to the state’s highest court.
The appointment of the 49-year-old Muniz, who served as chief of staff to former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and deputy general counsel to former Gov. Jeb Bush, solidifies a conservative majority on the court after years of justices regularly thwarting the Republican-led Legislature and the GOP governor.
“The court is going to apply the law as written,” DeSantis said while announcing his selection outside the governor’s mansion.
“You may not agree with every decision, but they are not going to go off on a major tangent. I think that is very good for us. I think that the separation of powers will be strengthened with the newly constituted court.”
Muniz said in his new role he has a “solemn duty to set aside my own policy preferences.”
“The role of a judge is to preserve the Constitution, not to add to it or subtract from it,” Muniz said. “I believe strongly in judicial independence, but judges have to earn that independence through their fidelity to the Constitution.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: Former Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel was forced to resign after less than three weeks on the job, following the publication of Halloween photos from 2005 in which he was wearing blackface while dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I think he regrets that whole thing 14 to 15 years ago, but at the same time I want people to be able to lead and not having any of these things swirling around them.” --- Gov. Ron DeSantis, referring to Ertel.