Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's push to bridge partisan and racial divides following his narrow election last year is being tested by the revelation that one of his top hires had dressed up in blackface and mocked Hurricane Katrina victims.
Secretary of State Mike Ertel abruptly resigned Thursday after a newspaper obtained photos of him dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim at a 2005 party. The photo was taken several months after Ertel had become election supervisor for Seminole County and just two months after the storm ravaged the Gulf Coast and left nearly 2,000 people dead.
At the time, coverage of the 2005 storm took on a racial undertone as TV footage showed mostly black residents of New Orleans in distress.
DeSantis, a Republican, said he accepted Ertel's decision to resign to avoid getting "mired" in controversies. Last year, DeSantis narrowly defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum in a bitter race with racial overtones. If elected, Gillum would have been Florida's first black governor.
In the first few days of his administration, DeSantis had drawn praise from Democrats and Republicans for a series of quick actions on everything from environmental policies to pledging to change medical marijuana laws. But the incident raised questions about the vetting process used by DeSantis and his transition team for top hires, many of whom still need to go through state Senate confirmation.
"It's heartbreaking that someone selected for a top government position would mock the tragic happenings to the people who suffered through Katrina," said Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson who is from Jacksonville. "It's pretty sickening, and I'm heartbroken by what I saw."
Voting rights groups, meanwhile, say they plan to keep a close eye on who DeSantis ultimately picks to fill Ertel's post since his agency helps decide whether someone is eligible to register to vote.
"Floridians deserve a chief election official who will respect the integrity of their position and who will be neutral, fair and impartial in the exercise of their duties," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "While Ertel has resigned, we will be watching closely to ensure that Gov. DeSantis makes a future appointment that better reflects the growing diversity of the state and one that can help restore public confidence in this most important role."
The departure of Ertel comes at a critical time. Last year voters approved Amendment 4, which altered Florida's lifetime voting ban for those convicted of felonies. Now most felons will automatically have their voting rights restored when they complete their sentences, but it's up to the Department of State to review files to determine voter eligibility.
DeSantis selected Ertel at the same time he picked dozens of other high-level appointments before he came into office. The incoming governor assembled a transition team led by his campaign manager and included others such as U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz that helped with finding people for the incoming administration. The northwest Florida Republican said Thursday in a text message that he "strongly" urged DeSantis hire Ertel but noted he had support from members of both parties. DeSantis interviewed Ertel before offering him the job.
Ertel's swift departure came in the wake of pictures obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat that showed Ertel in blackface while wearing earrings, a New Orleans Saints bandanna and fake breasts under a purple T-shirt with "Katrina Victim" written on it.
Ertel, who had been on the job less than three weeks, resigned just hours after he testified about election lawsuits before a state legislative committee. He didn't respond to a message seeking comment.
"There's nothing I can say," he told the newspaper.
DeSantis said during a Thursday news conference that Ertel regretted dressing up in blackface but was right to step down after the pictures surfaced.
"I want people to be able to lead and not have any of these things swirling around," DeSantis said.