About six weeks after Supervisor of Elections Ida Cooper Elliott stepped down due to health concerns, Gov. Rick Scott Friday chose County Commissioner Pinki Jackel to fill the roughly 16 months remaining in her term.
In a late afternoon press release, Scott announced his decision, effective that day, to appoint Jackel, 57, who has twice been elected to represent District 1, which encompasses St. George Island and much of Eastpoint.
Jackel, expected to be sworn in this week by County Judge Van Russell, becomes the second Republican constitutional officer in the modern era, in a county with two-and-a half times as many registered Democrats as Republicans.
The other countywide elected official, Sheriff Mike Mock, won in 2012 as a Democrat, but after the election switched his affiliation.
In making his choice, Scott opted against selecting two other candidates: Assistant Supervisor Heather Riley, who has worked at the elections office since 2002, and former state representative Will Kendrick, who now works as a legislative liaison for the Florida Department of Corrections.
Kendrick said Tuesday he had not pursued his application all the way through to the interviews, which were conducted by Scott’s appointments office, led by Craig Carbone.
“I pulled out a couple weeks ago,” said Kendrick. “Quite honestly it wasn’t in mine or my family’s best interest, when I looked at what I made today, and the cost of relocating or commuting.”
The supervisor of elections job this past fiscal year paid $77,031 annually, less than what Kendrick is earning at the DOC. He noted that while he now lives in Crawfordville, state law would not have required he live in Franklin County.
“It’s a requirement to be elected but not a requirement to hold the office,” he said. “I would have liked the opportunity to come home. It would have been a great opportunity for me to come home but that wasn’t in the cards at this point.”
Kendrick said he did not speak to the governor about the appointment, but did advise staffers on his thoughts in general. “I did make them aware that it would be enlightening to follow Facebook pages, that they should probably pay attention to what’s happening locally,” he said.
Facebook comments in advance of the governor’s decision ran strongly in favor of Riley, and still do to this day, many of them strident and lacking careful polish. “I’m sure they saw the professional manner there,” said Kendrick.
But beyond the informal passions of Facebook which may or may not have been considered, the governor received a great deal of recommendations over the past several weeks.
At the outset of the selections process, Scott’s press secretary, Jeri Bustamante, issued a statement that “Anyone is welcome to apply and give recommendations on this position.” Following Friday’s announcement, Bustamante declined to respond to a series of specific questions as to what those recommendations had been, how many were provided and from whom, on behalf of the three applicants.
“Governor Scott is confident that Pinki Jackel will faithfully serve the residents of Franklin County as supervisor of elections,” Bustamante wrote in an email.
Three recommendations confirmed to have been made the governor were that of Elliott, who endorsed Riley in her resignation letter; Elliott’s predecessor, Doris Shiver Gibbs, who served as county supervisor of elections for 28 years and first hired Riley 13 years ago; and the county’s Republican Executive Committee (REC).
“I sent an email to the governor and sent a letter of recommendation when she (Riley) submitted her application,” said Gibbs. ”I also called and talked with someone in the appointment office. My understanding is that they told her (Riley) she should be proud of her community in terms of the amount of letters, emails and phone calls on her behalf.”
Gibbs said she believed Riley received letters of support from several supervisors of elections throughout the state, both Republican and Democrat, as well as from Kurt Browning, a former secretary of state under Scott who is now superintendent of the Pasco County Schools.
Jackel was beneficiary of a letter of support from the county's Republican Executive Committee (REC), which met in regular session July 9. REC chair Kristy Branch Banks said she and six members of the REC - Joyce Estes, Ned Pooser, Liz Sisung, Rita O'Connell, Willie Norred, and Polly Pooser - met, with Jackel present, and voted to send a letter asking Scott to give "strong consideration" to Jackel's application.
While she was not present at the meeting, Riley, a registered Republican since 2007, provided Sisung with a copy of her resume, which was shared with the REC. Jackel said in an interview Sunday that she spoke with Kendrick in advance of the meeting, and told him she would share that he, too, was vying for the post.
“There was discussion of other candidates (at that REC meeting),” said Jackel.
She said that after she applied for the job, which was subsequent to when Riley applied, she called to speak with her personally.
“The next morning I called Heather to tell her I had applied and I said to her ‘I wanted you to hear it from me,’” said Jackel. “I feel these offices should be an open and public process.”
She said she wished Riley the best, and that she would support her if she secured the appointment, and hoped Riley would do so as well in the event Jackel secured the governor’s nod. “I look forward to working with you,” Jackel said she told Riley. “I want you to keep the same position you have. I hope you will work with me. That was the essence of our conversation.”
Riley said in an interview Friday evening that Carbone called her earlier that afternoon and in a brief exchange told her she had not been selected, and agreed to forward her a copy of the news release. Asked to characterize her reaction to the news, Riley said she felt “shock, disappointment and hurt,” largely because she felt her hands-on experience in the office was greater than the other two contenders.
Riley, who has overseen the elections office during the last several months while Elliott’s cancer treatments required her to be away from the office, reported to work on Monday.
Jackel said she received a telephone call from Scott, informing her of his decision. “That was all he said, it was very, very brief,” she said. “He asked me to do a good job.”
Reflecting on the governor’s decision, Kendrick said Scott “made the choice between the two based on the information he had. The governor’s a pretty smart man in some respects. When it comes to those appointments, he takes them pretty seriously.
“I am not sure how much influence they (the recommendations) had in the whole process,” Kendrick said. “Sometimes he doesn’t go with the flow of popularity, and that’s hard to do when they’re local. I’m not sure how much he and his staff weighs the local party’s (recommendation). He looks at what’s best for the most part in these communities.
“New blood’s always good,” Kendrick added. “It’s always an opportunity to improve things. Over the past years we’ve had some great supervisors who have done well, not only locally and statewide.”
Jackel reflects on process
In a telephone interview Sunday afternoon, Jackel addressed talk around the county that Scott was primarily motivated by political considerations in selecting her. She said she is a conservative Republican who has long backed the governor.
“Yes, I’ve been a supporter of Rick Scott, I worked with him as a commissioner and I supported him for reelection. I participated in a fundraising event,” she said.
“I would just say the process from start to finish has been fair, and the concern that it has been anything other than fair I don’t think is right,” said Jackel. “It was an open process; anyone who wanted to apply could apply. I have certain qualifications and others have certain qualifications and I think I am just as qualified as anyone else that applied. And to characterize this as the governor appointed me because of politics is very unfair to me.”
In the news release, Scott noted Jackel has served as county commissioner since 2008 and has chaired the Tourist Development Council since 2012. She received her bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Florida State University in 1977.
“I think the governor knows I’m qualified and that I have successfully run two campaigns since 2008,” Jackel said. “He knows I’m a seasoned candidate and he knows that I have leadership skills. And I think overall it was probably a very tough choice between someone who, obviously Heather is qualified, and I on the other hand had experience in running for elected office and being elected.”
Jackel made it clear she had no intention of firing either Riley, or the office’s other staffer, Carrie Johnson.
“I’m not going to go in there firing people,” she said. “Those ladies do a good job. I’m not going in there with that kind of mindset.
“Somebody had to be appointed and the governor chose,” Jackel said. “That’s the political reality of this. I’m hoping she will put this behind her and move forward to me. It’s simple.”
Prior to Scott’s decision, Riley said regardless of the outcome she intended to seek the office at the ballot box in Nov. 2016. On Friday, she said her mind had not changed in this regard.
In Sunday’s interview, Jackel said it was likely she too would seek election to the supervisor’s job. Her current term ends Jan. 3, 2017.
“I’ve learned the older I get not to say what I’m going to do too far into the future,” she said. “As you know anything can happen. I could have family issues and I could have health issues. At that time, if I feel like it’s the right thing to do, then I will. If it’s not, then I will not. I’m not saying going to say absolutely. I just have to assess it at the proper time.
“The main thing I’m focused on is getting into the office figuring out where we are,” she said.
Jackel said her first order of business, beyond the office basics, would be find out the security procedures and figure out if the server is protected, “because of confidentiality of what we’re responsible for.
“I want to, in general, increase the visibility of the supervisor of elections office in the county,” she said. “And what I mean by that is to get out in the public, and attend functions where we can talk about the importance of voting, the importance of participating in elections. And I want to be a regular in some capacity at Franklin County School and the ABC School as well. There are a number of fun things we can do, with student debating, student forums. For most of the schools let’s get these students registered to vote.”
Jackel said her office can begin by pre-registering 16-year-olds, and then making sure “we absolutely register every 18-year-old coming through the school system. I would like to see the supervisor of elections organize candidate forums. I think people really enjoy seeing and hearing from the candidates.
“I want to increase voter registrations,” she said. “We have roughly 7,200 registered voters, and the population is about 11,000. We can probably increase that percentage of registered voters in the county.”
Jackel also said she looked forward to the winner-take-all presidential primary March 15, 2015. “We have a historic primary coming, the earliest primary in a long while,” said Jackel. “The state of Florida is going to have a pivotal role in helping elect the presidential nominees for the 2016 election. One of my goals for Franklin County is to have one of the top five participating percentages in Florida for the presidential primary.”
Scott is now tasked with appointing a successor to Jackel, whose term on the county commission is up for reelection in November. Anyone is welcome to apply for this position and can find more information at www.flgov.com/appointments/.
“I will not get involved in sponsoring an applicant. As supervisor of elections, it would not be the good foot to get off on,” said Jackel. “If want to be elected to this job, I absolutely have to be fair to everybody and do things completely nonpartisan.”