Former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, shown here in February 2015, co-founded Ruth's List Florida in 2008. (Tampa Bay Times file photo) Former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, shown here in February 2015, co-founded Ruth's List Florida in 2008. (Tampa Bay Times file photo)

Former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, shown here in February 2015, co-founded Ruth's List Florida in 2008. (Tampa Bay Times file photo)

Joshua Gillin
By Joshua Gillin September 28, 2015

Men named William outnumber women in Florida politics, group says

A pro-Democratic group has sent out the call that 2016 is the year Florida voters need to choose a female candidate.

Ruth’s List Florida, which supports female political candidates, sent out an email that made its point by offering an unusual comparison: "Did you know that fewer women have been elected to statewide office than men named William?" read the email that reached our desk on Sept. 22, 2015.

The email went on, "This isn’t right. More women than men vote in Florida, but 26 men named William have been elected to statewide office and only 7 women have had the honor. We have to fix this in 2016."

Is it possible that in Florida’s 170-year history, only seven women have filled statewide office? And did voters pick 26 men named William? Get ready for a state civics lesson.

The Williams

Ruth’s List did not respond to our repeated inquiries by phone, email and even Twitter about how they came up with their tally, so we don’t know exactly what they counted. What we do know is that things can get considerably convoluted.

Depending on whom you count and how, we found 30 men named William  -- or possibly more -- who have held statewide office. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they were elected. We’re not going to go through every single one, but if you’d like to see all the ones we found, we’ve provided our list here.

Keep in mind that a number of the Williams on our list were appointed to their post, rather than elected, as Ruth's List Florida said. We could confirm 14 different Williams were actually elected to office, although there could be more. While we know some were appointed, historical records for a few simply didn’t give enough detail about how they won office, especially during the state’s early history. Those men certainly could have won via election, but we just can’t tell. If we counted all the unknowns as being elected, that would total 22 Williams.

Increasingly in recent years, Florida has moved toward appointments rather than direct elections. The state had six elected cabinet positions until 2003, at which point the roster was whittled to three.

To give you a sense of how difficult counting Williams can be, consider Florida’s roster of U.S. senators: Depending on how wide you cast a net, there have been between zero and four Williams in the U.S. Senate.

William James Bryan was appointed in 1907 to succeed a man who died, but then died himself less than three months later at age 31. He was succeeded in 1908 by another appointee, William Hall Milton, who served a year and did not run for re-election. Also appointed as a successor to a dead senator was William Luther Hill, who served four months in 1936 before leaving office without running for a full term.

Finally, there’s current Sen. Bill Nelson, who has been in office since 2001 and was also state treasurer back when it was an elected position. But Nelson’s full name is Clarence William Nelson. Should we count him as a William just because he goes by Bill?  

There are other twists, such as two appointed and two elected Supreme Court justices, one of whom went by the middle name Glenn. Also, lieutenant governors are now elected as members of a party ticket, but were elected independently until 1889, so you can add two more Williams there.

It’s entirely possible we’re missing some details here, such as a William who was elected state grapefruit juicer or state dog walker or some such. But we will concede that even if the total you come up with isn’t 26, it’s still way more than the number of women we counted.

The women

We counted eight different women who were actually elected to office, but we had to do some digging to reach that total.

The Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University keeps tabs on women in statewide executive elections, providing a list for each state. The school said that in Florida, those women are:

Name (Party)

Office

Years served

Pam Bondi (R)

Attorney general

2011-present

Jennifer Carroll (R)

Lieutenant governor

2011-2013

Alex Sink (D)

Chief financial officer

2007-2011

Toni Jennings (R)

Lieutenant governor

2003-2007

Katherine Harris (R)

Secretary of state

1999-2003

Sandra Mortham (R)

Secretary of state

1995-1999

Betty Castor (D)

Education commissioner

1987-1993

Paula Hawkins (R)

U.S. senator

1981-1987

Paula Hawkins (R)

Public service commissioner

1973-1979

Mamie Eaton Greene

Railroad commissioner

1927-1934

 

That appears to be nine — with Hawkins, the state’s only female senator, counted once — but remember a couple of points we’ve mentioned before. First is that there are fewer offices available, so some women have been elected to positions no one can seek today.

Secretaries of state and education commissioners have been appointed since 2003, when the cabinet was cut in half to three spots. The Florida Public Service Commission chose three members by statewide election until 1979 (three were named William, by the way), but those positions are now appointed, too.

Next is the caveat that lieutenant governors are elected on a party ticket, not independently. When Gov. Rick Scott won, Carroll won with him. For argument’s sake, we’ll count that as winning an election, but it’s worth noting the difference.

Although she was the first female lieutenant governor, Jennings did not win by election and therefore doesn’t count for our purposes. She was chosen by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to succeed Frank Brogan, and took over in March 2003 right after Bush’s second term began.

There have been other women in Florida’s offices, but very few were elected. Dorothy Glisson, for example, doesn’t make this tally even though she was the first woman to serve in a Florida Cabinet position. The longtime elections supervisor was appointed secretary of state by Gov. Reubin Askew in 1974 when her predecessor ran for Senate.

And finally, keep in mind that women couldn’t run for office or even vote until 1920, so there are fewer decades from which to compile the list. Greene, who first got her seat as railroad commissioner because her husband died in 1927, became the first woman in Florida to win a state office when she ran for re-election in 1928.

It’s hard to discern if a single-digit total, however you count it, means Florida is really lagging behind other states, though.

Kathy Kleeman, the communications director at the Rutgers center, said because every state organizes differently, there’s no baseline for everyone to follow. Maine’s governor, for instance, is the state’s only statewide executive position. Georgia and North Dakota, meanwhile, have 13 positions that the center counts on its list.

"All of this makes comparing numbers almost meaningless and percentages not a whole lot better," Kleeman said. "Still, seven — or even nine, as we show on our website — isn't very many in all those years, any way you cut it."

Our ruling

Ruth’s List Florida said that "26 men named William have been elected to statewide office and only seven women have had the honor."

Because of changes in state government and elections, plus how officeholders came by their positions, it’s difficult to parse the exact count the group came up with. The total of officials we could confirm were elected and not appointed was 14 Williams (although there could be more) and eight women. That’s off from the numbers in the email, but the gist of the statement is still defensible. There have been many more men named William than women holding major elected offices in Florida.

We rate the statement Mostly True.  

Our Sources

Ruth’s List Florida, Email to voters, received Sept. 22, 2015

Tampa Bay Times, "Bush names Florida's first female lieutenant governor," March 4, 2003

PolitiFact Florida, "Jennifer Carroll could make history if elected lieutenant governor," Sept. 3, 2010

Washington Post, "Exit polls 2012: How the vote has shifted," Nov. 6, 2012

Florida Supreme Court, "Succession of Justices of Supreme Court of Florida," Aug. 28, 2013

Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics, "The Gender Gap: Gender Differences in Vote Choice and Political Orientations," July 15, 2014

Tampa Bay Times, "Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll admits to ethics violation, pays fine," July 24, 2015

Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics, "State Fact Sheet — Florida," accessed Sept. 24, 2015

MyFlorida.com, "Structure of the Florida Cabinet," accessed Sept. 24, 2015

Florida Supreme Court, "History of the Florida Supreme Court," accessed Sept. 24, 2015

Florida Supreme Court, "Justices Listed in Chronological Order," accessed Sept. 24, 2015

On This Day in Florida History, "June 13, 1974," accessed Sept. 25, 2015

Women in American Politics: History and Milestones, miscellaneous offices, accessed Sept. 25, 2015

Florida Public Service Commission, "FPSC Commissioner History," accessed Sept. 25, 2015

Florida Attorney General, "Florida Attorneys General (1845 - Present)," accessed Sept. 25, 2015

Florida Department of State, "Florida Governors," accessed Sept. 25, 2015

Florida Department of State, "Office history," accessed Sept. 25, 2015

Florida Public Service Commission, "Overview and Key Facts," accessed Sept. 25, 2015

2013-2014 Florida Handbook, multiple entries, accessed Sept. 24-25, 2015

Interview with Kathy Kleeman, Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics communications director, Sept. 24-25, 2015

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Men named William outnumber women in Florida politics, group says

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