New elections boss faces busy year

Published March 17, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Ken Detzner wasn't looking for a new job, but Gov. Rick Scott gave him one anyway.

Detzner, 59, was Scott's choice last month to be secretary of state, a job that puts him in charge of Florida's voting apparatus at a critical time. It's a presidential election year in which all voting districts are shifting because of reapportionment, and changes to election laws remain subject to intense legal scrutiny.

Several key changes to election laws have not yet been approved by the federal government and, until then, cannot be implemented in five counties: Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry.

On a day when Detzner stopped by the governor's office on a routine lobbying mission, Scott asked him to replace Kurt Browning, who had returned to his native Pasco County to run for superintendent of schools.

For Detzner, there's a sense of deja vu in his new job: He briefly ran the agency a decade ago under former Gov. Jeb Bush, when it was evolving from an elected Cabinet post to an appointed one.

Detzner's duties also include historic and cultural programs, libraries and corporate filings. Next year the agency will conduct a yearlong "Viva Florida 500" observance of the state's 500-year history.

"This agency touches almost every Floridian in some way," Detzner said. "To be called to serve in this position is a very high honor, and I'm going to take advantage of it every single day."

He said his guiding principle is to be as open as possible and to treat all people fairly, and he wants to encourage more people to vote.

Detzner himself has not always been the most consistent voter. Leon County election records show he skipped municipal and primary elections between 1992 and 2004. A spokesman, Chris Cate, noted that Detzner hasn't "missed voting in any election for 8 years and has always voted in every general election."

As secretary of state, Detzner is paid $140,000 a year, and his office sits in the shadow of the campus of Florida State University, where he earned a degree in political science in 1975.

As a college student in 1973, he landed a summer job at Congressional Quarterly, which was then owned by the Times Publishing Co. The job gave Detzner a front-row seat to one of the greatest political spectacles of the 20th century: the Senate Watergate Committee hearings that hastened President Richard Nixon's downfall and eventual resignation from office.

Scott selected Detzner on an acting basis, pending Senate confirmation. Scott must reappoint Detzner within 45 days, because he was one of three agency heads and hundreds of board appointees not confirmed by the Senate in the 2012 regular session.

Florida is operating awkwardly under two different sets of election rules because of an ongoing federal legal review of changes the Legislature made last year to early voting and third-party voter registration laws. Those changes are also the subject of lawsuits in state and federal courts.

"It's going to be a trial by fire for him," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor and a critic of the voting law changes. "From what I've heard, he's a technocrat, and that's not a bad thing. You want to minimize the political influence that's coming from the state Capitol."

Tall and silver-haired, the low-key Detzner has long-standing ties to Pinellas County.

A Chicago native whose father worked for the railroad, he took summertime train trips as a boy to visit an aunt in Clearwater. He got a basketball scholarship to St. Petersburg Junior College, as it was then known, but stopped playing when he realized he couldn't balance sports and academics.

Detzner was a Democrat until 1984. His mentor was Jim Smith, the former state attorney general, who hired the young Detzner to be an executive assistant specializing in drug legislation.

When Smith ran for governor as a Democrat in 1986, Detzner was his finance director.

"Everything I asked him to do he did very, very well," said Smith, now a Republican and a veteran lobbyist.

Detzner spent more than a decade as a lobbyist for the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association.

When Katherine Harris quit as secretary of state to run for Congress in 2002, Bush appointed Smith on an acting basis, who promptly made Detzner his chief of staff. After Bush won re-election in 2002, Detzner served briefly as secretary before former Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood took the position.

"I said, 'You've got to come over here and help me,' " Smith recalled. "He's been kind of an unsung hero as a public servant, and never asks for any credit."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.