TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel abruptly resigned Thursday, after a newspaper obtained photos of the elections chief wearing blackface on Halloween more than a decade ago.
Ertel was one of the first appointments by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who named the former Seminole County supervisor of elections as secretary of state before the governor took office this month.
Photos published online by the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper Thursday showed Ertel wearing blackface and red lipstick and clad in a New Orleans Saints bandanna 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, eight months after Ertel’s appointment as the Seminole County elections chief and two months after Hurricane Katrina’s widespread destruction in New Orleans 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., 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 at a news conference in Marianna, DeSantis called Ertel’s resignation “unfortunate.”
“I think he regrets that whole thing 14-15 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,” DeSantis said at an event outside the Jackson County Emergency Operations Complex.
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.
Last week, DeSantis named Christopher Anderson, a U.S. Army veteran who is black, as Ertel’s replacement as Seminole County elections supervisor.
Ertel’s sudden departure --- and the racially charged photos --- stunned the elections community, of which Ertel had been a respected member for years.
“This is a shocking development. His resignation seems like the only acceptable option,” Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said in an email.
As Seminole’s elections supervisor, Ertel --- whose personal Twitter account has been deleted --- boosted voter enrollment, pushed for civic participation and was active on social media. His team earned kudos for the speed and transparency with which it handled manual recounts following the November elections.
But Florida state elections officials and their county counterparts are under intense scrutiny, at least in part because of the November passage of Amendment 4, which “automatically” restores voting rights to felons who have completed the terms of their sentences. The constitutional amendment, which excludes murderers and sex offenders, went into effect this month, and supervisors began registering felons who immediately started signing up to vote.
Looking to implement the amendment, lawmakers are grappling with questions about which crimes should be included in the “murder” exclusion and what financial penalties, such as court fines and restitution, must be satisfied for voters to be eligible.
Local elections supervisors are relying on the state Division of Elections, which is part of the Department of State, to give them guidance about how to interpret the amendment. Meanwhile, state elections officials told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee this week they need direction from the Legislature.
While many elections supervisors expressed strong support for Ertel’s appointment as secretary of state, Ion Sancho, who served as Leon County’s elections chief for nearly three decades before retiring in 2016, pointed out that Seminole is the only county that is not a member of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.
Sancho said he was “stunned” by the 14-year-old photos of Ertel in blackface dressed as a Katrina victim, “because supposedly he’s a social media guru.”
Ertel “knows what to do,” Sancho said.
“He’s always tweeting,” he said.
But Ertel was viewed as somewhat of an outsider by other supervisors, according to Sancho.
“We’re a close-knit organization, like a family. We lean on each other for technical support. He was viewed as doing his own thing. He really sought out publicity more than most supervisors of elections do,” Sancho said.
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley is among the people who were screened by DeSantis’ transition team for the secretary of state position last month, sparking social-media speculation Thursday about Corley as a possible replacement for Ertel.
In a text message Thursday, Corley said he appreciates “the kind words by those who would consider me qualified” for the post.
“However, my interest has been & continues to be laser focused on serving the citizens of Pasco County and striving to continually improve all facets of the Pasco Supervisor of Election's Office,” he said.
Information provided by The News Service of Florida. NSF staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.