To Florida, Seminole County and Sanford:
Right now this may not be a popular thing to do but as the old saying goes, “What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.”
As many of you have heard, our local, long-standing Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel just resigned from his recently governor-appointed position as Secretary of State. He served 16 days in the position.
Someone leaked photographs to the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper a few days ago of Ertel at a private Halloween party from 14 years ago. In those pictures he was dressed as a woman in an - I’ll say it - distasteful costume of a Hurricane Katrina victim. He was wearing what the media very quickly deemed “blackface.”
Let me be clear.
I am not defending the decision to wear such a costume. I’m not saying it’s O.K. or appropriate.
It was not the right thing to do, and if the last few and upcoming days are any indication, it was a wildly unpopular decision.
And here comes the really unpopular notion… Should a man that has served his country and done so much for his local community be judged by one night that happened 14 years ago? What he wore did not physically harm anyone. What he did was probably humorous amongst his peers that night. Had that picture not come out, no one would have ever had the opportunity to be offended by it.
Fourteen years ago I was 19. I’m sure there are a few people that could recall a couple of pretty embarrassing party moments or stories from that period of my life. Most of those people I have equally embarrassing stories on, and we remain friends to this day. It’s called privacy and trust in a friendly atmosphere away from your “public” life.
The difference is I’m not an elected official. I’m not on the public stage day after day. I’m not expected to be held to the highest of moral standards.
I’m in the journalism industry. We are expected to be ruthless and expose any seedy, underbelly doing we deem fit to make a great headline and sell papers. A picture from 14 years ago that will ruin a good man’s career? The Tallahassee Democrat deemed that worthy as well as many other news outlets.
You may notice that in today’s edition of the Sanford Herald we did not cover this story. As Editor I decided to take a different route. I decided to do what I thought was right.
Here is what I know of Mike Ertel:
First, you may note that he’s referred to as Mike. Everyone who has ever know Mike knows it’s not Michael, the elected official, it’s Mike. He wants his constituents to refer to him as his friends do.
I met Mike ten years ago when I began at the Herald as a reporter. Of all the elected officials I’ve known throughout my career he is the one of the most accessible and real people in office I’ve dealt with. He was always quick to reply to any information request I had and was able to speak knowledgeably on any subject.
When the Herald office moved to downtown Sanford, Mike himself, not his employees, joined us in our office almost every month at Alive After 5 in an effort to register voters when he knew crowds of Seminole County residents would be accessible.
And did I say accessible enough?
Mike is the ONLY elected official I’ve ever known that had his personal cell phone and home number on his business card. That means not only was he willing to answer his work phone calls from the public on his cell phone, but his wife and kids probably had to deal with quite a few of them at home too. That’s commitment.
On a personal note, both times I had to change my voter information, once because I bought a home and once because I married and changed my name, I contacted Mike. He informed me that I could change each easily at the polls on Election Day. A lot of counties don’t have this luxury. It is because of Mike that voting in Seminole County is easy, quick, and let me say again… accessible.
But then there’s a different form of accessibility. It’s the kind that allows people to quickly judge based on a headline or tweet they read while scrolling through any number of news or social media sources.
As of Thursday afternoon this 14-year-old picture had become national news. A search of Mike’s name on Google produced results from the Orlando Sentinel, Washington Post and ABC News. The last line of his Wikipedia page had already been changed to include what was only hours-old news.
But here’s the first ninety-five percent of that Wikipedia page:
“Ertel was born in Jacksonville, and grew up in Seminole County, attending Lake Howell High School and then later the University of Maryland University College and the Defense Information School. He served in the United States Army, first in the Infantry and then as a public affairs representative, and took part in Army operations during the 1992 Los Angeles riots; during Operation Able Sentry, in which the United States established a base in Macedonia to monitor sanctions against Serbia; and in Bosnia during the Bosnian War. In the Army, he earned the Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal, among other honors. After completing his term in the Army, Ertel returned to Seminole County, where he continued his work in public affairs. After a trio of hurricanes rattled Florida in 2004, he was contracted to conduct post-disaster media relations for Visit Florida, which was closely affiliated with the Florida Commission on Tourism.
When longtime Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Sandy Goard resigned from her office in 2003, Dennis Joyner was appointed as her replacement. However, in 2005 Joyner announced his resignation as Supervisor of Elections in a letter to then-Governor Jeb Bush, noting, "My physicians have advised that I [resign] immediately," which was effective on January 10. Ertel, along with a number of other individuals, applied for the appointment to fill Joyner's position, and he was appointed by Governor Bush to serve a two-year term until the next general election.
In 2006, Ertel ran for re-election, and was opposed by Democratic activist Marian Williams, who had run two years prior. He was endorsed by the Orlando Sentinel, which praised him for the fact that he "has run elections well and has taken creative approaches to voter registration and streamlining of office operations." In the end, Ertel defeated Williams by a solid margin, winning 59% of the vote. In 2008, 2012 and 2016, Ertel was re-elected without opposition. In 2012, when Governor Rick Scott purged thousands of voters that he claimed to be non-citizens from the voter rolls, Ertel spoke out, noting that since there were so many instances in which the purged voters were actually legally eligible voters, "[T]he list [of purged voters] should have been vetted quite a bit more before they were given to us." In 2013, Ertel received the International Electoral Ergonomy Award from the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies for his work as the Seminole County Supervisor of Elections; specifically, they praised him for the fact that the Voter Trust Plan he implemented increased voter confidence, increased turnout, and was "exemplary for election management bodies worldwide.”
I’d say all those years count for a heck of a lot more than one picture that some poor, obviously vindictive and sad person decided to release when a good man was reaching the next step in his goals in public service. A role that he had already, in his short-term, begun to make strides in.
He has been our neighbor, our friend, and our appointed and elected official more than once. I don’t say this as Snarky, or as an Our Take. This is My Take, Rachel Graeser, 22-year Seminole County resident, registered voter, and a friend to those I believe in.
It may not be popular, but I believe it’s right to stand behind Mike.
And when he returns to his home of Seminole County, I hope everyone will greet him with the smile, kindness and support he gave to us for so many years.
Sanford and Seminole County Resident