TAMPA — To lead a county elections office beleaguered by tragedy and scandal, Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday tapped a veteran of local government, former Hillsborough County schools superintendent Earl Lennard.
"I'm extraordinarily pleased to serve the people of Hillsborough County again," Lennard said. "I aim to make sure each candidate feels that they have been treated fairly and that all residents will trust that their votes will be counted."
The son of a farmer, he began a 42-year education career as a fifth-grade teacher at Ruskin Elementary School. Lennard will serve as supervisor of elections at least until the November 2010 election, at which point he said he might run for the office.
He's the county's third supervisor of elections since January, replacing Phyllis Busansky, who died three weeks ago of natural causes. Busansky vowed to restore the public's confidence in county elections. Her predecessor was Buddy Johnson, whom she defeated in November. After a series of Election Day mishaps and spending irregularities, the FBI launched an investigation of Johnson in February that is ongoing.
The pick to replace Busansky, a Democrat, posed a potential pitfall for Crist, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate. Johnson, a Republican, was appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003. After Busansky's death, voting rights groups and Democrats warned Crist not to play politics this time.
Crist said Lennard "understands the importance of elections in our democracy and has a fundamental sense of fairness." For now, it looks like a safe pick. Though Lennard is a Republican, his experience as superintendent makes him hard to portray as unqualified for a job that requires administrative skills.
"He may not have elections experience, but he knows how to run a large organization," said Bob Henriquez, a Democrat who was a finalist for the job. "He understands personnel and budget issues. He's a bright guy, fair-minded, and I think he can be nonpartisan."
The other Democrat who was a finalist for the job, Busansky's chief of staff, Craig Latimer, also said he was impressed with Lennard. Latimer met briefly Tuesday with Lennard, who told him he would continue as chief of staff.
The two know each other well. When Lennard was superintendent, Latimer was a sheriff's major who coordinated the school resource officer program. Lennard called Latimer a "friend" and said he would have the same duties he had under Busansky.
Lennard, 67, was a longtime Democrat who became a Republican almost immediately after stepping down as superintendent in 2005. He launched a bid that year to replace Tom Lee as the state senator from Brandon, but withdrew when Ronda Storms announced she was running. He lost a 2007 bid for state education commissioner.
As superintendent, Lennard managed the nation's ninth-largest school district from 1996 to 2005 during a period of record growth. He directed the opening of 65 new and rebuilt schools, and the renovation of 170 campuses. Lennard got high marks for navigating the district through a new era of student accountability.
But his tenure as schools chief wasn't without controversies. His son Jeremy raised eyebrows by getting paid consulting fees for the district before he filed a conflict of interest form. Lennard also was leading the district when it struggled to launch a computer system that ended up costing millions over budget.
Computer problems plagued the elections office under Johnson, but Lennard said he won't repeat the mistakes of the past.
"All of life's experiences prepare you, if you learn from them," he said.
School Board member Candy Olson, who initially voted against Lennard as superintendent because she thought he was too cautious, said his firm and steady approach won her over.
"He's one of the most straight-arrow, honest and hard-working individuals I know," Olson said.
Lennard will be sworn in today to the job that pays $132,000 a year.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3402