A review of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ record as he seeks re-election shows that, among other things, he defied expert advice on the coronavirus and portrayed himself as a political maverick. He fueled hostility towards gays, banned discussion of slavery in schools, curtailed street protests and weakened abortion and voting rights, all wrapped in Christian nationalism.
The governor ended mandatory vaccination and mask-wearing early, despite experts’ warnings that the coronavirus (COVID-19) posed a deadly threat. He then boasted that he saved jobs and created “the freest state” in the union.
He rode roughshod over opposition to his anti-mandate policy. He threatened to fine the Special Olympics $27.5 million – for an anticipated 5,500 violations – during its games in Orlando if it enforced the mandate. Local governments, school districts and businesses receiving state contracts were similarly forced into acquiescence.
He hired a surgeon-general without infectious diseases experience but who agreed with his insistence that responses to the virus should be an individual choice and who denounced the federal response as being “almost like a religion."
The state was opened, the economy thrived and schools went back into in-person session. But COVID-19 killed more than 82,000 Floridians and sickened more than seven million, Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center reported.
DeSantis revoked the 55-year-old special taxing district status of Walt Disney World Resor for criticizing his “Parental Rights in Education Act” – mocked as the “Don’t Say Gay” law -barring educators from discussing gender identity in kindergarten through grade 3. Parents can sue school districts that do not comply.
The governor also signed the “Individual Freedom Act” to ensure “education, not indoctrination” – that is, critical race theory (CRT) — is taught in schools. A “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees law — a cute title shortened to “Stop WOKE” — allows parents to sue school districts where they ﬁnd CRT is being taught and collect attorneys’ fees if they win. It also bars schools from paying consultants connected to CRT and staff members from attending “anti-racist therapy” or training.
DeSantis invoked Martin Luther King Jr. to justify his stance against teaching about slavery: “You think about what MLK stood for. He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.”
The governor ridicules CRT as “an at tempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions and … a form of cultural Marxism. They really want to tear at the fabric of our society.”
But Education Week explains that CRT is merely a 40-year-old “academic concept” whose “core idea is that race is a social construct and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” It is not taught in schools.
As for “woke,” a DeSantis darling word, the dictionary deﬁnition is “alert to justice, especially racism” and it comes from African American Vernacular English (AAVE), sometimes called “Black English.” But DeSantis and others use it as another racist buzzword, like CRT. And the onslaught against CRT (and gender identity) has led to school texts and library books being banned or censored – in the 21st century, in the United States of America -a country which sent a telescope into the sky that can see 13.5 billion years into the past but where children’s books are censored.
And, just as CRT, gender identity and “wokeness” are not problems requiring state responses, so too street protests. Still, DeSantis signed the “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” which creates six new crimes aimed at protests, enhances penalties for some existing ones and gives legal cover to motorists who drive into demonstrators. Even RICO, the federal anti-racketeering law, can be invoked in some cases. Local governments can be sued for trying to reduce spending for law enforcement. And, for good measure, it is now a second-degree felony to damage or destroy Confederate symbols — in a state with 75 of them.
Like several of DeSantis’ policies, the anti-protest legislation sparked a lawsuit. A federal judge ruled it unconstitutional, likening it to Florida’s “history of passing laws to prevent demonstrations against Jim Crow-era practices.” Two Floridians complained to the United Nations, whose Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination agreed that it “unduly restricts the right to peaceful assembly.”
Also, the Florida Secretary of State received 262 complaints out of more than eight million votes cast in the 2020 elections and DeSantis himself boasted about that record. But, as former President Donald Trump continues to lie that he won re-election, the governor signed a law creating an Ofﬁce of Election Crimes and Security in the Florida Department of State – an agency under the governor’s jurisdiction – with a staff of 15 to conduct preliminary investigations of election fraud. The measure also allowed DeSantis to appoint up to 10 law enforcement ofﬁcers to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement dedicated to investigating election crimes.
The governor signed legislation diluting a constitutional amendment which 64.55 percent of Floridians approved in 2018 to retore civil rights to some 1.4 million ex-felons. The law requires that they pay all related court and other costs before they can vote, thus maintaining the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of Floridians who cannot afford to pay and marking a return to the poll tax of the past.
DeSantis also pressured the Legislature to scrap two redistricting maps and approve one which he drew that increases the number of Republican Congressional seats by four, to 20, reducing the number of Democratic seats to four, including abolishing two of the four majority African districts. And that even though the state constitution prohibits racial gerrymandering.
Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings died on April 6, 2021, but DeSantis waited 280 days to call a special election. That left 800,000 Floridians without representation and deprived the Democratic Party of one seat in the House of Representatives during that time.
DeSantis also signed a law reducing from 24 weeks to 15 the time in which abortions are legal — and with no exception for incest, rape or human trafficking. On immigration, he hired two planes to pick up 47 Venezuelan and two Peruvian refugees from the Texas border and fly them to Massachusetts, even though they had been legally allowed entry pending court hearings.
DeSantis launched a vendetta against President Joe Biden, whose election he has questioned. He deemed his Democratic challenger Charlie Crist a “worn-out old donkey” and called Dr. Anthony Fauci, a distinguished infectious diseases expert, “that little elf.”
Speaking at Hillsdale College in Michigan in February, DeSantis told conservatives: “Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes. You will face flaming arrows but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them, and in Florida we walk the line here. And I can tell you this, I have only begun to fight.” He refused to say during the recent debate with Crist whether he would do so for the full four-year term if re-elected.
Critics will probably say that, with such a record, DeSantis’ legacy as governor will be like that of other ideologically extreme conservative who have scorned elevating political dialogue, preferring bitter divisiveness and the dumbing down of their constituents through a meaningless culture war, bringing fringe groups into the mainstream and setting the stage for destabilizing the democratic process. That genie cannot be put back into the bottle.
Still, the polls are showing that DeSantis is very likely to be reelected, so criticizing him is like spitting in the wind. That, at least, is possible – until a law is passed to ban it.