Pasco's Kurt Browning new secretary of state
By STEVE BOUSQUET and DAVID DECAMP
Published December 15, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - Gov.-elect Charlie Crist on Thursday chose Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning to be secretary of state, taking charge of Florida's voting systems at a time when they are again under close national scrutiny.
Browning, 48, becomes the first elections expert to head the agency since Florida voters made it an executive branch department in 2003.
Browning has opposed the need for a paper audit trail on electronic voting machines, which Crist supports, but the appointee quickly put himself in line with his new boss.
"As the incoming secretary, I need to be open about all the technology that's out there," Browning said. "I believe that voters need to have a high level of confidence in their voting systems."
Browning, whose county is one of 15 using touch screen machines, has consistently defended the reliability of the electronic units.
But the machines are now at the center of controversy because of 18,000 undervotes in a congressional election in Sarasota last month. The results of that race remain in dispute, which has not escaped the attention of Crist, elections experts or the Legislature.
"We certainly can't ignore it," Browning said. "It's there, and we want to do what best serves the voters of Florida."
Browning served on an Elections Reform Task Force in 2001 that voted to ban antiquated punch card voting, and recommended that each county decide whether to switch to touch screens or optical scan ballots.
Browning said the time may have arrived for all 67 counties to use the same system.
"We probably, in all likelihood, need some uniform policy across the state," he said.
Browning has been something of a boy wonder in the close-knit community of elections supervisors. First elected to the Pasco post in 1980 at age 22, he started working at the elections office as a high school senior.
Browning has become a mentor for other supervisors when they run into questions or trouble, said Jerry Holland, elections supervisor in Duval County, a perennial spot for voting disputes.
"Everybody always has one idea at conferences, but Kurt has a dozen," said Holland, who said being one of their own will help Browning work with county supervisors.
Under his direction, Pasco has had a lengthy run of problem-free elections. On election night, Pasco's results are regularly counted before the rest of Florida's counties. While Browning often expresses pride in it, he also gives credit to his staff's dedication to getting details down pat.
The success has meant Browning has never been seriously challenged at election time - by either party.
He did face Democratic criticism for switching to Republican in 2002, the closest he has come to controversy in office. Democrats haven't forgotten, though many still laud his work.
"I just want to see fair elections," Pasco County Democratic Party chairwoman Alison Morano said. "That's one thing about Kurt: He always was fair, and I attribute that to his Democratic side."
As secretary of state, Browning will manage a budget of $167-million and nearly 500 employees. Pasco's election office has 24 employees and a $3.6-million budget.
The state job was an elected position until 2002, when voters amended the state Constitution by downsizing the Cabinet.
Its last elected occupant was Katherine Harris, who oversaw Florida's presidential recount in 2000. The current secretary of state under Gov. Jeb Bush is Sue Cobb, a businesswoman who formerly ran the Florida Lottery. Cobb is a former U.S. ambassador to Jamaica.
Also on Thursday, Crist appointed a new secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, which manages the state's massive Medicaid program.
He is Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, 41, chief operating officer for the St. Joseph Health Care System, which runs hospitals in California, Texas and New Mexico.
He is a former CEO of Atlanta's Grady Health System, the largest public health care network in the southeastern United States. After taking over there in 2003, he virtually eliminated a $60-million deficit, in part by firing inefficient managers and laying off workers.
A native of Scotland, he has lived in the United States since 1992.
Agwunobi is the younger brother of John Agwunobi, Florida's former health director who now works as a top federal health official.
He recently resigned as a board member of WellCare, a major Tampa-based managed care company.
Times researchers Angie Drobnic Holan and Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or 850 224-7263.
[Last modified December 15, 2006, 06:51:23]
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