Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Education

Kurt Browning resigns as Florida's secretary of state

TALLAHASSEE — Secretary of State Kurt Browning resigned Wednesday as Florida's chief elections official and said he may run for superintendent of schools in Pasco County, where he has lived all his life.

Browning, 53, submitted his letter of resignation to Gov. Rick Scott during a 15-minute meeting in Scott's office. Browning agreed to stay on until Feb. 17 to oversee his last statewide election, the presidential preference primary on Jan. 31.

He will leave at a time when the state has not yet won federal court approval of major changes to state election laws, including a reduction of early voting from 14 days to eight, which prompted Democratic claims of voter suppression by Republicans.

Browning did not advocate those changes but after the Legislature adopted them, he loyally came out in support of them.

Browning said he decided to resign over the holidays because of the strain of commuting between Tallahassee and Dade City, where his wife, Kathy, still lives in the couple's home and works as a nurse in the school system.

"It's stressful every Sunday afternoon when you have to load the car and head north," Browning told reporters.

Running for Pasco superintendent "is an option," he said, but added: "That's not the reason I'm going home. It's to be with my wife and my family and my community."

Browning kept his Pasco County residence for all five of his years as secretary of state, including a year under Scott and four under Gov. Charlie Crist.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he has heard from "very good sources" that Browning plans to run for superintendent.

For Browning, the race could be difficult for several reasons. He was a Democrat until 2002 and has never run a school system.

He would have to challenge fellow Republican Heather Fiorentino, a two-term incumbent who announced her re-election bid a week ago and under whose tenure graduation rates have improved and dropout rates declined.

Pasco is the largest of 41 Florida counties where the school superintendent is still elected, not appointed by school boards as in the other 26 counties.

Browning also would face criticism for being a so-called "double dipper." He returned to the state payroll and collected a $140,000 state salary after retiring and taking a lump sum payment of $427,000 under DROP, the state's deferred option retirement program — a controversial practice that has been curtailed somewhat by the Legislature.

He also draws an annual state pension of $87,000, most of which is a result of his 26 years as Pasco County's supervisor of elections.

The job of superintendent pays $134,400, and if Browning took that salary too, "people are going to take a look at that," said Bill Bunting, Pasco's Republican state committeeman.

Browning was first elected to the Pasco elections post at age 22, making the towheaded former Eagle Scout the youngest county elections official in Florida history.

While waiting the required six months in 2010 before he could re-enter state employment after receiving his deferred money, Browning was honorary chairman of a business-backed political action committee, Protect Your Vote. The group spent $4 million in an unsuccessful effort to defeat two constitutional amendments that forbid legislators from drawing districts that favor candidates or parties.

Voters overwhelmingly passed amendments 5 and 6, and they are greatly influencing the mapmaking process now going on in Tallahassee.

Browning is the second state agency head to quit Scott's administration in the past six months. Former prisons chief Ed Buss was forced out last August after repeated skirmishes with Scott's top aides.

Scott praised Browning in a statement that cited "his dedication to overseeing orderly, fair and error-free elections and ensuring Florida's elections system is secure and defended from fraud."

The first candidate to succeed Browning surfaced Wednesday: Republican Mike Ertel, 42, election supervisor for the past seven years in Seminole County in Central Florida.

Ertel was one of several election supervisors who praised Browning as a highly capable and knowledgeable elections administrator.

"Kurt exudes competence," Ertel said. "You know he knows what he's talking about. There's comfort in that."

Browning said he did not recommend a successor to Scott, but he hoped one would be chosen before he leaves in mid-February.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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