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Florida Secretary of State Michael Artel steps down after blackface photos surface | TribLIVE.com
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Florida Secretary of State Michael Artel steps down after blackface photos surface

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FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2013 file photo, Michael Ertel speaks during a panel discussion on election problems at a pre-legislative news conference in Tallahassee, Fla. Ertel, Florida's top elections official has abruptly resigned after a newspaper obtained pictures of him in blackface posing as a Hurricane Katrina victim. Secretary of State Ertel resigned Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, just hours after he testified about election lawsuits before a state legislative committee. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon, File)

FORT LAUDERDALE — Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel resigned Thursday when photos emerged of him wearing blackface as a Hurricane “Katrina victim” at a Halloween party in 2005.

The stunning development ended the former Seminole County election supervisor’s 16-day stint as Florida’s top elections officer.

The Tallahassee Democrat obtained the photos and showed them to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office on Thursday morning. The governor’s office announced Ertel’s resignation just hours later.

“It has been an honor to serve you and the voters of Florida,” Ertel’s resignation letter stated.

The Tallahassee Democrat reported that the photos were taken two months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005, leading to an estimated 1,836 deaths.

Ertel, 49, a Republican, had been appointed Seminole supervisor of elections just a few months earlier by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. He had previously served as spokesman for Seminole County and the county sheriff’s office.

Ertel told the Tallahassee Democrat that he was the man “in blackface and red lipstick, wearing earrings and a New Orleans Saints bandanna, and falsies under a purple T-shirt that had ‘Katrina Victim’ written on it.”

Ertel would not talk with the paper about the circumstances surrounding the photo.

“There’s nothing I can say,” Ertel said. He did not respond to the Orlando Sentinel’s request for comment.

In an appearance at a Panhandle news conference, DeSantis said he thought the controversy was “unfortunate” and that Ertel regretted the incident. He added that Ertel had done good work in his two weeks on the job, but that he didn’t want the distraction in his administration.

“I want people to be able to lead and not have these things swirling around him,” DeSantis said. “I’ve got to have an administration that’s going to be focused on what matters to Floridians, and I don’t want to get mired into kind of side-controversies.”

After his appointment in 2005, Ertel was elected supervisor in 2006 and re-elected three times.

Republican State Rep. Scott Plakon, of Lake Mary, had just praised Ertel at a state House committee hearing Thursday morning, telling legislators “they had a slogan that he would use for his office: ‘America’s Finest Elections Team.’ I think by him being secretary of state, we are going to, despite our history and some challenges we’ve had … (have) America’s finest election process here in Florida. Seminole County’s loss is Florida’s gain.”

After Ertel’s resignation was announced, Plakon echoed his earlier remarks. Ertel was “very effective in Seminole County and well-respected by members of both parties,” Plakon said. “It’s a big loss to the state.”

Plakon had been good friends with Ertel, who he said had helped and supported him while his wife was battling Alzheimer’s.

“That is not the Mike Ertel that I know,” added Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine, who had been considered one of the potential successors to Ertel as supervisor.

However, DeSantis named Chris Anderson, chief investigations officer for the Seminole County Tax Collector’s Office, as the county’s new supervisor of elections on Jan. 18.

Ertel’s appointment to the key post of secretary of state, which oversees the Division of Elections, earned bipartisan praise after the state dealt with chaos during the November election and an unprecedented three statewide recounts.

Ertel “has proven that he is vastly qualified to lead the state’s elections efforts as secretary of state, and will strive to ensure that Florida voters are confident that elections continue to be fair and accurate,” DeSantis said at the time.

Ertel had long been active on social media, providing opinions on Twitter and Facebook about elections issues.

He had called for closing the loophole that allows a single write-in candidate to close off primaries, criticized President Trump’s allegation that “millions” voted illegally in the 2016 election and had stressed protecting Florida’s elections systems from hackers.

But on Thursday, his Twitter account was deactivated.

The Seminole elections office had also received plaudits for its programs during Ertel’s tenure, including the student registration efforts which earned it a prestigious First Time Voters Award in 2017 from the International Elections Awards in Jordan.

Last Friday, DeSantis suspended Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher at the recommendation of Ertel, who wrote a three-page letter that listed what he called “ingrained institutional incompetence” at the Palm Beach office.

“I strongly recommend you (suspend Bucher),” Ertel wrote, “allowing fresh, competent leadership to take the reins of the much-maligned office.”