If past is prologue and 2000 is doomed to somehow repeat itself Tuesday , the role of Secretary of State Katherine Harris will be played by a former beer lobbyist named Ken Detzner.
But where Harris came to symbolize the partisanship in the 2000 race — serving as George W. Bush’s state campaign chair before presiding over the recount — Detzner, 60, benefits both from changes to Florida’s election laws and a different, more muted demeanor.
“We’re not going to have a Katherine Harris problem,” says Guy Spearman, a lobbyist and longtime friend of Detzner.
“Unlike Katherine, who was arrogant, he’s exceedingly politically astute from having worked in Tallahassee so long,” Spearman said. “We’re hearing all the time that it’s us and Ohio who will decide this, us and Ohio, so there’s no doubt, Ken’s got a tough job ahead of him. But he’s up to it.”
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Detzner’s job in some ways is less than important than it was 12 years ago.
The position of Secretary of State is no longer an elected position — thanks to a change in the state Constitution — and has far less leeway to make binding decisions that can swing an election. Detzner now defers to Gov. Rick Scott, who appointed him to the $140,000 post earlier this year.
In addition, Detzner is lauded by those who know him for not being like Harris, as someone who prefers to blend into the background.
Still, the position by its nature invites criticism.
Voting rights groups in recent months have clashed with Detzner’s office, particularly over the state’s moves to purge non-U.S. citizens from the rolls and restrict early voting.
“He’s not as flashy as Katherine Harris,” said Rebecca Wakefield, spokeswoman for the Education Fund, a group that aims to increase voter registration among under-represented groups.
“But style aside, he’s the good soldier sort. There’s no question that government should do everything possible to improve access to voting, and that’s exactly what Florida has not done since 2008,” Wakefield said. “It’s very clear what’s happening, and he’s a part of it.”
Detzner said early voting didn’t need to be extended an extra day, despite long lines and fewer required voting hours than four years ago.
“On Election Day, we’ll have 6,000 voting sites, compared to 300 for early voting,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have long lines because there are more places to vote.”
Detzner, a Chicago native, is more subtle in his political leanings than Harris, making him a smaller target for critics.
He spent more than a decade as a lobbyist for the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, and served briefly in 2002 as interim secretary of state at the side of Gov. Jeb Bush.
Detzner’s quick to point out that he was a registered Democrat (he switched to the Republican Party in 1984). He’s also didn’t become publicly involved in the presidential race, unlike Harris.
“Ken understands you can’t hold those positions and remain impartial,” said Kurt Browning, who oversaw the 2008 presidential election as secretary of state. “We’re a lot more sensitive to elections issues than we were 12 years ago.”
This year, Detzner was mostly silent when it was discovered that a vendor for the Republican Party of Florida had fraudulently filled out voter registration applications in a case that is now under criminal investigation.
But he was outspoken in another case that involved mysterious letters sent to top Republicans suggesting that their citizenship had come under question.
“We are very serious about this matter,” he told CNN.
“It’s fine he goes on CNN and is adamant about resolving the issue,” said Camila Gallardo, a spokeswoman for National Council of La Raza, which sued over changes to Florida voting laws including reductions in the number of days of early voting.
“But that type of attention needs to be given to other groups.”
Detzner says he treats all constituencies equally, placing no greater importance on any single group.
After today, all the controversy will fade away, he said.
“There won’t be a replay of 2000,” Detzner said. The results “will be close, but I have confidence things will go smoothly.”