Oops: Miss Florida pageant crowns wrong person

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Winners of the Miss Florida pageant last week in St. Petersburg can be summed up in one word – “oops.”

Pageant officials announced on Friday that the votes were “miscounted,” leading them to crown the wrong woman, Elizabeth Fechtel of Leesburg.

Fechtel had been Miss Florida for only six days, before being replaced by first runner-up Victoria Cowen of Panama City, who will now advance to Atlantic City for the Miss America pageant on Sept. 14.

“Elizabeth has changed her life all around in these last five or six days,” Vince Fechtel Jr., her father, told the Tampa Bay Times.

To compete for Miss America, the 20-year-old Fechtel withdrew from the University of Florida, where she was Miss University of Florida as well as a student senator from a well-connected family. Her father served in both the Florida House and Senate through the 1970s and ’80s. He was good friends with the late Bill McBride, who was Elizabeth’s godfather.

Fechtel’s brother owns Lutz-based high-end homebuilder Fechtel Co.

Elizabeth Fechtel also was beginning her media tour conversations with local newspapers and TV stations, posting thank-you notes on her Facebook page, saying the win was “life changing.”

As of Friday, her picture was still on the pageant’s Facebook page, surrounded by competitors, in a sequined gown and wearing a crown.

Pageant officials broke the news at Fechtel’s home Friday evening.

“Just like me and her mother, she was extremely upset, Vince Fechtel told the Times, “for a lot of different reasons.”

“We were very concerned that it be clear that Elizabeth did nothing wrong, absolutely nothing, and she had spent all this time working. We were very distraught.”

Elizabeth’s mother Dixie Fechtel said in an email they were told one of the judges changed his mind when scoring first and second place during the pageant and “in the last 15 seconds of the time allotted to vote, that he drew lines to reverse his first vote.”

By Friday, it was becoming apparent that Fechtel wasn’t the winner.

A news release from the pageant said there was an “error in the tabulation process” and that an independent audit of the scores established that Cowen indeed had the highest score.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.