Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee to resign, eyes congressional run

Lee oversaw the state’s elections under Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee speaks at an October news conference in Tallahassee.
Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee speaks at an October news conference in Tallahassee. [ STEVE CANNON | Associated Press ]
Published May 12, 2022|Updated May 12, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee is stepping down Monday in a precursor for a likely run for a Tampa Bay-area congressional seat.

Lee submitted a letter of resignation to Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to a Thursday email sent to the state’s county election supervisors by Maria Matthews, director of the state’s Division of Elections.

Matthews said Lee was resigning to pursue “other opportunities,” but she’s considered to be jumping into the race for Congressional District 15, which takes in Zephyrhills, western Lakeland and part of Lake County as well as northeastern Hillsborough. Lee’s letter to DeSantis gives no reason for the resignation and says nothing about her future plans except, “I look forward to what the future holds.”

Lee is a former assistant U.S. attorney and circuit judge in Hillsborough, who was appointed secretary of state by DeSantis in 2019.

Related: DeSantis replaces disgraced secretary of state with Tampa Bay judge

She has strong ties to the area through her husband, former state Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Thonotosassa. He comes from a prominent, Brandon-based family and served 18 years in the Florida Senate, where he served as president from 2004 to 2006. The couple have a young daughter.

She is also close to Attorney General Ashley Moody, who is originally from Plant City.

DeSantis’ communications director, Taryn Fenske, said in a statement that they were grateful for Laurel Lee’s service to the state and for helping “ensure Florida had an efficient election in 2020, with accurate results.”

“During her tenure, the Department of State formed strong partnerships with federal agencies to make sure Florida received all possible federal resources that are available to prevent and respond to cyber threats on elections,” Fenske said. “We wish her the best of luck in all her future endeavors.”

Lee didn’t respond to requests for comment, and personal spokesperson Sarah Bascom said in a statement she would be reserving any comment on her future plans until she leaves the Department of State.

Since joining the DeSantis administration, she has won bipartisan praise, particularly for the state’s handling of the 2020 election, one of the state’s smoothest in decades.

She’s also managed to stay out of the political fray while the state’s elections became a political target for Republicans and supporters of former President Donald Trump after the 2020 election.

Despite the state’s success with that election, DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature have passed numerous changes to the state’s voting laws in the name of rooting out voter fraud.

Nearly all of those changes have led to lawsuits by civil rights and advocacy groups, which have argued they were unconstitutional. Lee, who is responsible for overseeing and implementing those changes with the state’s 67 election supervisors, has been a named defendant in many of those lawsuits.

Related: Appeals court reinstates Florida’s disputed voting law

The recent legislation and ensuing litigation have created a constantly changing environment for the state’s elections.

Her tenure was a welcome change for the state’s county election supervisors, though.

“Over the years, the last decade or so, the relationship with the secretary of state and the supervisors had not been as good as what all of us would have liked it to be,” said Marion County Elections Supervisor Wesley Wilcox, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections. “She has righted that ship and has been a wonderful partner with us.

“I wish her nothing but the best. It’s a horrible loss from the secretary of state’s perspective.”

As secretary of state, Lee was 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 a position appointed by the governor, starting in 2002.