Pete Antonacci, the former general counsel to outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott, was sworn in as elections chief in Florida's most liberal county Thursday, beginning a shotgun marriage with Broward Democrats that could prove crucial during the 2020 presidential elections.
Picked by Scott to replace suspended elections supervisor Brenda Snipes, Antonacci referred to himself as a "caretaker" following a ceremony in Fort Lauderdale inside the 15th floor courtroom of Chief Judge Jack Tuter. The 70-year-old Republican said he hopes to ensure that "every vote counts" and restore trust in the elections process following a rocky recount that saw the governor cast Snipes and her staff as "unethical liberals" trying to steal the election from Republicans.
But how can voters in Florida's Democratic bastion trust that a Scott appointee will run the office with integrity?
"Watch me," he said.
Antonacci has been in Broward County and meeting employees at the elections office since Monday morning. Upon his swearing in at 11:06 a.m., he assumed control of operations at the autonomous $19 million department, where Scott has announced Antonacci will serve the remainder of Snipes' term through the 2020 elections.
But Antonacci may be walking into a buzz saw.
Snipes announced the day after her suspension that she would rescind her previously submitted plan to resign on Jan. 4 and fight to be reinstated. Democrats in the Florida Senate are beginning to prepare for a possible trial overseen by the upper chamber. And Broward County commissioners, who don't control the supervisor but will set Antonacci's budget, ordered their team of attorneys Tuesday to look into whether they have recourse to challenge Snipes' suspension or at least block Antonacci from serving beyond the time when her ouster becomes final, should that be the case.
"The governor didn't need to do what he did," said Broward Commissioner Dale Holness, who is part of an effort to organize opposition to Snipes' suspension. "There was no need for it. And he's putting somebody in place who's not from Broward, and who from what I've read is a political hatchet man."
Antonacci, who was a Democrat until switching parties in 2010, is registered to vote in Tallahassee, a city where he recently served Scott as the governor's general counsel. Antonacci has been something of a utility man to the outgoing governor, who has previously tapped the former deputy attorney general to fill temporary roles as Palm Beach County state attorney and director of the South Florida Water Management District. Antonacci most recently served as Scott's secretary of commerce.
In appointing Antonacci, Scott said his pick "will be solely focused on running free and fair elections." Antonacci said Thursday that he won't run for reelection. Former attorney general Bob Butterworth, a Democrat under whom Antonacci served as a deputy in the 1990s, predicted that he'll be successful after holding the bible for his former deputy as Antonacci gave the oath of office.
"I can't think of a better person to do the job than Pete Antonacci," Butterworth said. "This is not his first challenge."
It would be inaccurate to say there's heavy support for Snipes, given her recent history of missteps in elections dating back to the 2016 primaries. Her office was the source of national controversy during last month's recount after her staff's slow pace in counting nearly 100,000 late-tabulated votes played a large role in the unexpected shrinking of Republican leads and forcing three statewide recounts. Scott, 48 hours after polls closed, called a press conference and accused Snipes without evidence of voter fraud and scheming to hand his win over U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson over to the Democrats.
"Morale is important, whether you're running an army or a cub scout troop," said Antonacci, who met with staff Tuesday to begin discussing "what went wrong" and begin preparing a report to release to the public.
But Scott's decision to remove a supervisor with one foot out the door — whose resignation would have come in time to allow Scott to appoint her successor before leaving office — has irked Democrats. State Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat who is vice chairman of the Senate committee that will hear Snipes' case if she indeed seeks reinstatement, called her ouster a "bad precedent" and noted that the governor has previously only removed officials over criminal charges. State Rep. Shevrin Jones, the Democrats' deputy whip in the House, said it's hard not to view the ouster of an African American elections chief ithrough a racial lens given that other supervisors ran into well-publicized problems.
Jones said there are a series of press conferences being set up in support of Snipes.
It's a tricky situation for Antonacci, who along with running elections will bear the responsibility of restoring faith in a department battered by the man who appointed him and earning trust among Democrats who question whether he's involved in a scheme to "sabotage" his former party. Broward Commissioner Steve Geller, who is pushing the county to sue the state over Antonacci's appointment, described the new supervisor Tuesday as a "Republican operative" even while defending his character.
Geller said his fear is that Antonacci's appointment is part of a larger plan by Scott to tilt the scales in Florida in favor of President Donald Trump, who will almost certainly need to carry the nation's largest swing state in order to win reelection in 2020. Conversely, Trump's challenger, whoever that will be, will almost certainly need to run up the score in Florida's most heavily Democratic county in order to beat Trump.
"I don't think that a Republican operative should be appointed supervisor of elections by a governor on his way out of office when that governor is known to be close to President Trump and may be trying to deliver Florida to President Trump," Geller said.
As elections supervisor, Antonacci will be responsible for a budgeted staff of 74 and hundreds of election-time workers and volunteers. He'll handle voter registrations, outreach, early voting and election day precincts. He'll also sit on the canvassing board that officiates the counting of ballots.
Antonacci said he planned to go apartment shopping early Thursday afternoon in order to move to Broward and register to vote in the county. He's hoping to sit down one on one with each of the county's commissioners and is already planning for municipal elections in March.
"It's not a political job," Antonacci told reporters after being sworn in. "I'll stand on my record."
Scott's office did not respond to a request for comment. Other Republicans, meanwhile, are saying little about the matter.
Senate President Bill Galvano, appearing Tuesday at a Sarasota conference of elections supervisors that went unattended by both Snipes and Antonacci, declined to speak about Snipes' suspension and pending hearing before the Senate. As of Tuesday, Snipes' attorney had called the state's general counsel to discuss Snipes' situation, but had not sent anything in writing, according to a Galvano spokeswoman
Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who leads the Senate's ethics and elections committee, said that it's premature to weigh in on Snipes' ouster. "Right now it's a discussion between the role of the governor and the role of the supervisors," he said.
Meanwhile, Antonacci — an attorney who has no elections experience — says he's trying to learn more about the department he just inherited and prepare for elections that begin in a matter of weeks. He said he's found Snipes' employees to be "honorable," but also said "change is inevitable" when asked if he'd seek to bring in his own people.
Antonacci has severed ties with at least one prominent elections figure: Burnadette Norris-Weeks, a contract attorney who has represented the office for years and served as its general counsel. Antonacci said he terminated her contract because he wants the elections department to use the county attorney's office as its legal counsel, which is typical for most of Florida's elections supervisors.
Norris-Weeks' ouster, which she said came via an Antonacci email sent from his cell phone, wasn't particularly surprising, given that she appeared with Snipes at a press conference Saturday announcing the ousted supervisor's plans to fight to keep her job. But Norris-Weeks said she worries that Antonacci intends to drop the supervisor's defense of lawsuits involving the Republican Party and an effort to purge voter rolls.
"There is a sound record but the Governor's office cannot be trusted," she said in a text message. "They have been trying to hijack the SOE's office in one way or another for years. It's shameful."