TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced outgoing Secretary of State Laurel Lee on Friday with state Rep. Cord Byrd, who cursed at Black Democratic lawmakers during the session and whose wife has made comments supporting QAnon and the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots.
DeSantis described Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican member of the House since 2016, as a “staunch advocate for election security, public integrity, the fight against big tech censorship and the de-platforming of political candidates.”
“Cord Byrd has been an ally of freedom and democracy in the Florida Legislature, and I am confident he will carry that mission forward as Secretary of State,” DeSantis said. “I look forward to his successes ensuring Florida’s elections remain safe, secure and well-administered.”
DeSantis recently appointed Byrd’s wife, Esther Byrd, a former Marine who works in her husband’s law office, to the state Board of Education. She defended theories of QAnon, a far-right conspiracy cult that says the world is ruled by Satan-worshipping child molesters, after the couple was seen flying a QAnon flag on their boat.
They both quit Twitter for more than a year after she posted comments supporting the Capitol insurrection.
“ANTIFA and BLM can burn and loot buildings and violently attack police and citizens. But when Trump supporters peacefully protest, suddenly ‘Law and Order’ is all they can talk about!” she tweeted. “I can’t even listen to these idiots bellyaching about solving our differences without violence.”
At the time, Cord Byrd laughed off her comments as “hyperbole.”
Democrats and civil rights leaders have criticized Byrd for his legislation banning sanctuary cities, requiring all public employers and many private ones to use the E-Verify system to screen applicants, and the parents’ bill of rights, which was used by the DeSantis administration to prevent school districts from requiring students to wear masks.
He also sponsored last year’s “anti-riot” bill, HB 1, which critics said unconstitutionally curtained lawful, peaceful protest. A federal judge in Tallahassee blocked the law from being enacted, which DeSantis has appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Byrd has supported partisan bills that place barriers to voting and has verbally assaulted Democratic members in the legislature, too,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, tweeted.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said it could be the governor’s most frightening appointment to date.
“Florida now has a QAnon conspiracy theorist and promoter of the ‘Big Lie’ overseeing our state elections and DeSantis’ elections police,” Smith said. “We need a Secretary of State whose top priority is free and fair elections, not a hyper-partisan GOP loyalist who takes orders from Ron DeSantis.”
The announcement comes a day after Lee, who announced her resignation effective Monday, amid several lawsuits challenging state election law and as elections officials across the state gear up for an Aug. 23 primary and Nov. 8 election.
Lee, a former Hillsborough County circuit judge, didn’t say why she was stepping down, but there is widespread speculation she may run for a newly created congressional seat in the Tampa Bay area.
For more than three years Lee overhauled the state’s election system, shoring it up against cyber attacks and making sure county supervisors of elections to make sure they had the resources they needed to run efficient, safe elections.
Byrd will have to quickly assume those responsibilities as well as set up the state’s newly created elections police force, an initiative of the governor’s that the Republican-controlled Legislature approved over the objections of Democrats. They said there was little proof of widespread voter fraud in Florida to justify spending millions to create a new agency that would be duplicating the work already being done by law enforcement and elections officials.
During last session’s often emotional debates over another controversial law that banned abortions after 15 weeks, Byrd exploded in an expletive-filled rant at Democratic state Rep. Travaris McCurdy.
After meeting with House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Byrd privately apologized to McCurdy.
That didn’t stop Rep. Angie Nixon, a Democrat from Jacksonville, from saying at the time that Byrd was unfit to serve.
Her opinion hasn’t changed. Nixon said he is unqualified “in his credentials and his temperament” to lead a department that oversees elections in a diverse state of 21 million-plus people.
“The idea that he will now be in charge of the Governor’s Elections Police force should be a frightening thought for every Floridian,” Nixon said in a prepared statement. “This is another glaring example of Ron DeSantis’ attempt to weaponize government against his political opponents and we will not be silent in the face of the attacks on Black and Brown communities we know are coming.”