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Clash of merit vs. politics

After 11 years as supervisor of elections, Mike Bennett is retiring. He has recommended an obvious choice: his chief of staff. But a surprise candidate has also applied: Commissioner James Satcher.

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The Marine Corps’ core values are honor, courage and commitment.  

In the “Marine Leaders Notebook,” the first principle of courage is “do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.”

Which brings us to this:

Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett is retiring  March 1, about 10 months before his third term in office ends.

As a result, he has created what should not be, but is a political dilemma for Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Time is running short for DeSantis. He needs to appoint Bennett’s replacement before the March 19 presidential primary.

Actually, he should have a supervisor in place by March 6. That’s the day all 67 of Florida’s canvassing boards — consisting of the supervisor, chief judge and county commission chairman — are required by law to oversee the testing of their counties’ voting equipment.

As with many of his appointments, DeSantis is faced with this choice: competence or politics.

The right thing, the right way, for the right reasons should be obvious.

Retiring Manatee Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett
Photo by Jay Heater

Bennett thought that would be the case.

Bennett told us he decided to retire because of his age, lack of drive and his wife of 58 years, Dee.

“My next birthday, I’ll be 80,” he said. (His birthday is Jan. 1.) “I want to spend more time with Dee as we’re getting up in years.” Declining specifics, he said her health is a factor as well. 

In addition, he said, “With a major election coming, I really felt my heart wasn’t into it, and my drive wasn’t into it.” 

So Bennett, an experienced politician himself, having served 12 years in the Legislature, strategized his own political calculus. He figured if he announced his retirement at the end of December, which he did, and submitted his resignation letter Feb. 1, which he did, those steps would do two things:

  1. Cause DeSantis to act swiftly;
  2. Make it abundantly clear the right person to succeed him — particularly as the primary approaches — is his No. 2 in the supervisor’s office, Chief of Staff Scott Farrington. Bennett wrote DeSantis a letter recommending Farrington.

“Scott is very cool under pressure,” Bennett told us. “And he is as cheap as I am about spending taxpayers’ money. He watches every nickel going in and out. The staff loves him and loves his leadership. I just can’t say enough about him.”

Manatee Commissioner George Kruse told us: “Scott Farrington, bar none, is the most qualified elections guy in the state of Florida.”

Hell-raiser to public office

Bennett, a longtime Republican, is far from being in the inner circle of Gov. DeSantis. But his judgment and word should be an imprimatur. His record of service to the state and nation and his business experience should be persuasive and convincing.

Including all of his time in elected office, Bennett has served Manatee and Sarasota counties and Florida for 23 years.

Manatee County voters elected Bennett to the Florida House in 2000. Two years later, they elected him to the Florida Senate, where he served until 2012. 

In the Senate, Bennett authored legislation that cleared away growth management regulations that were adding burdensome costs to housing. His last position in the Senate  was president pro-tem. 

Before the Legislature, Bennett was an entrepreneur. He started  Aladdin Ward, an electrical contractor, in 1985. He grew it to 175 employees before selling it in 1998. While not in legislative sessions, Bennett then became a prominent developer and land purchaser in Manatee — until the 2008 crash.

It is most likely true that Bennett’s business and public service success in Manatee and Sarasota came as a surprise to Bennett’s Sarasota High School classmates. He was a high school hell-raiser.

He appeared so many times before Chief Circuit Court Judge Lynn Silvertooth that an exasperated Silvertooth gave Bennett an ultimatum. Get out of town in two weeks or Bennett “wasn’t going to like the alternative.”

Silvertooth sent Bennett to the first floor of the courthouse, where the Marine and Navy recruiters had offices. Bennett chose the Marine recruiter. But he told Bennett it would take about three weeks before the recruiter could get him to Paris Island. 

The Navy recruiter said: “I can get you on a bus in the morning.” Bennett remembers his response: “I’m your boy.”

From there, 1963-1967, Bennett served four tours in Vietnam, flying in helicopters to rescue stranded, injured and dying soldiers.

“Judge Silvertooth saved my life,” Bennett said last week.

In 2011, retired Judge Silvertooth sent Sen. Bennett a letter: “I have been pleased to see how well history has vindicated that decision in your life …”

‘I’m not a politician’

For the past 11 years, out of the legislative arena and development, Bennett has worked side by side with his chief of staff, Farrington.

Essentially, Farrington is the chief operating officer of the supervisor’s office, the guy in the trenches making sure everyone and everything is working properly.

Manatee Supervisor of Elections Chief of Staff Scott Farrington
Courtesy image

Farrington has worked in supervisors’ of elections offices for 21 years — five years as chief of staff in Sarasota County and 11 in that role in Manatee.

His application to the governor includes the coordination and oversight of more than 50 elections, including five presidential and six gubernatorial elections. 

“This includes everything from developing agency budgets to implementing new laws or technologies to creating efficient and effective policies and procedures. 

“My strong background in technology and computer science supports me in the ever-evolving landscape of election technology and cybersecurity,” Farrington wrote.

Farrington is the only certified elections administrator in Manatee and is a Master Florida Certified Election Professional.

“I’m not a politician,” Farrington wrote in his application. “My only focus is honest, transparent elections, and I put in the work every day to make that happen.”

‘Where I can do most good’

Despite Farrington’s credentials, DeSantis apparently is weighing his options: politics or merit? 

Bennett thought his March 1 departure and the impending presidential primary would prompt DeSantis to appoint Farrington quickly to keep continuity  through the presidential elections.

But the only communication from the governor’s office has been acknowledgement of Bennett’s recommendation for Farrington. 

When we inquired, the governor’s deputy press secretary responded: “There is no set time frame. Once the office is vacant, and the governor has appointed a replacement for said vacancy, our press office will announce the appointment.”

In addition to Farrington, the other candidate who has applied  — as of press time — is Manatee County Commissioner James Satcher. 

Manatee Commissioner James Satcher has been appointed to be Manatee County's supervisor of elections.
Photo by Jay Heater

Asked why he applied, Satcher said: “Election integrity is important. I’m willing to serve in whatever way I can make the biggest difference.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Satcher added, “I have an amazing role right now. I love being the commissioner for District 1.”

Asked if his application suggests he no longer wants to be a commissioner, he said: “That has nothing to do with it. A public servant is generally going to be looking or open to the role where he can make the biggest difference and do the most good. That’s how I’ve made decisions my whole life, honestly.”

A Manatee commissioner is paid $98,743 annually; the supervisor of elections is paid $168,563.

Follow the money

Gov. DeSantis likely has been catching up on much of the governor’s responsibilities since he dropped out of the presidential race Jan. 22, and that plausibly could be delaying his selecting the Manatee supervisor.

But it is also plausible this decision falls under the umbrella of politics. Gubernatorial appointments are often driven more by rewarding and favoring loyal supporters than by choosing competence.

Follow the money.

Among Gov. DeSantis’ contributors, Bennett is not one. But among likely influencers with the governor, two prominent Manatee people who are DeSantis and Satcher contributors are the homebuilders Carlos Beruff and Pat Neal.

DeSantis last year also re-appointed Beruff to the Citizens Property Insurance board.

Beruff declined to comment. Neal did not respond before deadline.

Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said he expressed the positives of Farrington and Satcher to the governor’s office. Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Lakewood Ranch, said he has not recommended either candidate to the governor.

Merit should trump politics

Gov. DeSantis frequently touted on the presidential campaign trail how Florida has become the national leader in “running the most secure elections in the country.” He says Florida has “the best election integrity measures in America.”

But laws don’t do that. Competent people who enact the laws make them secure.

Selecting a Manatee supervisor of elections to replace Bennett should be an easy decision: Do the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons.

Merit and competence should  trump politics. We shall see.          



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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