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  1. Opinion

Carlton: A Republican in blackface? Not a good image

Florida's new secretary of state resigned last week when photos of him dressed as a female Katrina victim in blackface surfaced. The image can't be good for Republicans.
Michael Ertel had barely gotten started as Florida's Secretary of State when photos emerged of him at a 2005 Halloween party in black face dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim. He quickly resigned.
Published Jan. 28

Michael Ertel, we hardly knew you.

The longtime Republican elections supervisor from Seminole County got to be Florida's secretary of state for about two and a half minutes before photos came to light showing him doing something so colossally stupid and offensive it was hard to believe what we were seeing.

There he was, 13 years ago, in photos obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat, dressed up for Halloween as a busty woman. He wore a New Orleans Saints bandana wrapped around his head, big earrings and a shirt that said "Katrina Victim."

As in, the killer hurricane that had just slammed into Louisiana months earlier and that raised serious questions about government response.

But what really did Ertel in was the blackface he wore to complete his costume.

This wasn't some teenager with a brain not fully baked or a frat boy trying to be funny. This was a grown-up man working as the elections chief of his county at the time. (Which, if you think about it image-wise, does not help counter the longstanding argument that Republicans have worked to suppress the black vote in Florida.)

Perhaps Ertelgate is but a blip on the radar at a moment when America is busy being politically on fire. But could it come at a worse time for the Republican Party in terms of race?

Before Friday's short-term deal to re-open the federal government, hundreds of thousands of workers didn't get paid for a month while President Trump held out for billions to build a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants, some of whom he has described as "animals."

In 2017, after a woman was killed protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Trump opined that there was blame and also "very fine people, on both sides" of the conflict. Which you could read to mean that he thinks there are some very fine racists out there.

Just recently, Republicans had to rebuke one of their own, Congressman Steve King of Iowa, for questioning in an interview how the terms "white nationalist" and "white supremacist" had somehow "become offensive."

Here in Florida, it took the will of the voters in November to end Republican Gov. Rick Scott's draconian practice of failing to restore the right to vote to felons who had done their time — many of them black.

And tension simmers on over police shootings of black citizens.

After those embarrassing pictures of Ertel hit the news this week, it's not surprising some people around here wondered whether they might reflect the feelings of others in the Republican Party.

Ertel quickly resigned, an inglorious end for a man who had been elections supervisor for nearly 13 years, who had won awards for improving elections and registering voters. As the newly-appointed secretary of state, he would have been the guy overseeing the new-day restoration of voting rights to those aforementioned Florida felons.

It is good news that there was no hemming and hawing over accepting that resignation from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who hit the ground running in his first weeks to set his own tone in Tallahassee.

Ertel has "done a lot of good work, but at the same time I've got to have an administration focused on what matters to Floridians," DeSantis said. "I don't want to get mired into side controversies. I felt it was best to accept the resignation and move on...I want people to be able to lead and not have these things swirling around them."

There was zero talk about this being an unfortunate but forgivable mistake, or any assumption that Ertel could still, in any universe imaginable, effectively do the job.

Because images do matter.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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