By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Pete Antonacci, a political fix-it man who garnered bipartisan praise during a career in public service that spanned more than three decades, died of a heart attack Friday afternoon.
Antonacci, a former prosecutor and supervisor of elections, most recently headed a controversial new state office charged with probing voting irregularities.
Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Antonacci,73, as director of the Office of Election Crimes and Security in July.
“He was a dedicated, tenacious, and assiduous public servant, lawyer, and respected professional — a friend to all in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said in a statement Friday, adding that Antonacci “vigilantly sought to uphold the law throughout his lengthy career” in the state. “His fighting passion will be missed, and his legacy will persist in the hearts and minds of many.”
Governors turned to Antonacci to straighten out tangles in troubled offices ranging from the Broward County elections office to the South Florida Water Management District.
Antonacci, whose death was first reported by Florida Politics, was appointed last year by DeSantis and the Cabinet as chief judge of the state Division of Administrative Hearings, before being tapped this summer to direct the office that critics have dubbed the “elections police.”
His career also included stints as CEO of the state business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida and state attorney in Palm Beach County. Antonacci spent 12 years working for the prominent GrayRobinson law firm in Tallahassee.
Former Gov. Rick Scott appointed Antonacci, a longtime ally, to take over as Broward County elections supervisor after suspending Brenda Snipes from the post in 2018 shortly before Scott left the governor’s office. DeSantis later effectively undid Snipes’ suspension but kept Antonacci in place.
In addition to elections supervisor, Scott appointed Antonacci as state attorney in Palm Beach County; executive director of the South Florida Water Management District; and CEO of Enterprise Florida. Antonacci also served as Scott’s general counsel.
Antonacci “leaves behind a remarkable legacy of honorable service” to the state, Scott, now a U.S. senator, said in a statement Friday.
“Ann and I are devastated to learn of his loss and are praying for his family, friends and the countless Floridians who knew and loved Pete as we did. Pete was a proud Floridian, raised in Hialeah, and devoted decades of his life to serving Florida families as a prosecutor, master of the law and leader. When it came to his work, Pete could get anything done,” Scott said, referring to his wife, Ann.
Antonacci “worked hard, with total integrity, and knew how to bring people together and solve problems. I was honored to call him a friend and proud to work with him,” Scott added.
While Antonacci had a long history of being a go-to guy for Republicans, he also held a high-ranking position under former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat. In addition, former Democratic Gov. Bob Graham appointed Antonacci as a “specially assigned prosecutor throughout the state,” according to a profile on The Federalist Society’s website.
Antonacci “was beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the finest people I have ever had the honor of knowing,” Steve Vancore, a longtime friend, told The News Service of Florida on Friday. “He wasn’t just a jack of all trades but was an organizational master who understood how to bring out the best in people. Florida was lucky beyond measure to have had him for as long as we did.”
Vancore’s public-relations firm worked for the Broward elections office while Antonacci was supervisor.
Antonacci’s short time at the new elections security office included some controversy.
Antonacci in August joined DeSantis at a news conference in Broward County to announce that 20 felons across the state were being arrested on allegations they voted illegally in 2020.
“You may think that 20 voters is not a lot. But you’re in Broward County. And you know that you just elected a person to Congress here this year by five votes,” Antonacci said at the Aug. 18 event, alluding to a close special congressional election. “And I’m certain that in that tranche of voters, there have (been) plenty of illegal ballots cast.”
While elections supervisors were skeptical about the creation of the new office, Antonacci’s selection to head it offered reassurances.
“I think Pete Antonacci was a proven public servant. He was always put in situations which were politically fraught, but in all the arenas I worked with him, which was always elections, he was always very fair, open-minded, willing to listen, always wanted to learn before he acted,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, who is the president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association, told the News Service. “I’m just shocked that he’s not going to be with us anymore in that post. I think he was the right man for the job, so it’s going to be interesting to see how things evolve from that.”
News of Antonacci’s sudden death rippled through the state, with condolences and praise rolling in on social media and in email inboxes.
“Devastated to learn of the passing of former Deputy AG Pete Antonacci. Pete was an extremely-talented lawyer who used his expertise to serve the state in important leadership roles. Many attorneys on my team worked with Pete and we are heartbroken by this terrible news,” Attorney General Ashley Moody tweeted.
Charlie Crist, a former governor who is running against DeSantis in November, also hailed Antonacci.
“Peter Antonacci was a dedicated and respected public servant with a long history of working with members from both sides of the aisle to better Florida. May he rest in peace,” Crist campaign spokeswoman Samantha Ramirez said in a statement.
— News Service staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.