DeSantis replaces disgraced secretary of state with Tampa Bay judge

Hillsborough circuit judge Laurel Lee, the wife of state Sen. Tom Lee, is replacing Mike Ertel after photos surfaced of him in blackface.
Circuit Court Judge Laurel Moore Lee and her husband State Senator Tom Lee, R- Brandon. 1st day of the 2016 Florida legislative session. Florida Senate. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Circuit Court Judge Laurel Moore Lee and her husband State Senator Tom Lee, R- Brandon. 1st day of the 2016 Florida legislative session. Florida Senate. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jan. 28, 2019|Updated Jan. 28, 2019

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday tapped Hillsborough circuit judge Laurel Lee to be Florida’s next Secretary of State, following the abrupt resignation of her predecessor last week after photos surfaced of him in blackface.

Lee, a former federal prosecutor, is the wife of state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. She has no experience in elections, but she has deep ties to Florida’s attorney general and was being considered as a running mate to DeSantis last year.

“It is clear to me that Judge Lee’s background and experience make her an excellent choice to serve as Secretary of State for Florida,” DeSantis said in a statement. “She is ready to handle the important elections administration duties and cultural responsibilities accorded to this position with a steady hand and good judgement.”

Experience with elections is not a requirement for the job of secretary of state. Past secretaries of state have had various unrelated backgrounds. Ken Detzner, for instance, was a beer lobbyist when he was named to the job by Gov. Jeb Bush on an interim basis. Nine years later, Gov. Rick Scott named him to the same job.

Lee replaces former Seminole County elections Supervisor Mike Ertel, who served just 16 days before resigning Friday after photos surfaced of him appearing at a 2005 party in blackface. He also wore a New Orleans Saints bandanna around his head and a shirt with the words “Katrina Victim” written on it, photos revealed.

Lee takes control of an office that could help shape the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in the nation’s largest swing state. As Florida’s top elections official, the secretary of state can decide to purge voter rolls or extend voting hours, while overseeing the reporting of the state’s election results.

The office is also responsible for registering corporations and handing out cultural arts grants. Once an elected position that helped comprise the Cabinet, it was downsized in 1998 to an appointed position, starting in 2002. That was the same year Katherine Harris won, becoming the last elected secretary of state. Two years later, she would be accused of playing a biased role during the 2000 presidential election.

Lee is a former federal prosecutor and public defender who was appointed to the bench by Scott in 2013. She was re-elected without opposition the next year. It’s unclear what she’ll be paid. Her predecessor, Detzner, made $142,000.

“She’s got an outstanding reputation with both the plaintiff and the defense bar,” said Hillsborough Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta.

“She’s smart. She’s smart as a whip and very collegial, works well with others,” Ficarrotta said. “ The 13th (judicial) circuit’s loss is definitely going to be the state of Florida’s gain. I hate to lose her.”

She’s served in the family law division, volunteered to go to Plant City and then returned to Tampa, where she has been in civil court.

She got some publicity in 2014 when she refused to grant a divorce to a lesbian couple — since Florida’s law banned same-sex marriages then. The case was one of the last tests of Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal in 2015.

She’s been friends with Florida’s new attorney general, Ashley Moody, since their days attending the University of Florida together. And after law school at UF, Lee clerked for Moody’s father, U.S. District Judge James Moody.

“She’s bright, she’s a hard-worker, she’s diligent, and I think she’ll do a good job at whatever she does,” James Moody said Monday.

As a lawyer, Lee was fair and fearless, according to Lee Bentley, the former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida who was appointed to the post by President Barack Obama in 2014.

Lee’s biggest case was probably the successful prosecution of three skinheads who murdered two homeless men in Tampa in 1998.

But Bentley, who worked with her on that case, said she had a tough reputation well before then.

He recalled that during her two years as a federal public defender, Lee once went into a notorious Ecuadorian prison to interview a witness that could help her client’s case.

Bentley, who was prosecuting Lee’s client, said the prison was basically run by the inmates, and even police were reluctant to go inside. Lee was undeterred, he said.

“Most people in law enforcement — even the agent — thought she was crazy,” Bentley said. “I was given an opportunity to go down as well, and I said, ‘No thank you.’ I had no interest in going into an Ecuadorian prison.”

Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report.