Ron DeSantis narrowly won the governor’s race by relying on President Donald Trump’s endorsement, demonizing his opponent and avoiding clear positions on many state issues. When the 40-year-old Republican is sworn into office Tuesday as the youngest governor in a century, the Tallahassee outsider will become the governor for all Floridians and face a steep learning curve. Yet DeSantis has an opportunity to be an approachable, engaged and thoughtful governor who can make a long-term impact in a vibrant state facing significant challenges.
The two months between the election and Tuesday’s inauguration have been encouraging. The transition committees reviewing various policy areas have generally been inclusive and open, and DeSantis has leaned toward solid experience and Tallahassee backgrounds in making key appointments. Seminole Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel is an excellent choice for secretary of state, the state’s chief elections official. Another strong selection is Simone Marstiller, a former appeals court judge who also worked for former Gov. Jeb Bush, to run the Department of Juvenile Justice. DeSantis has appointed a well-qualified Democrat to run the Division Emergency Management, which oversees the state’s response to hurricanes, and recommended another Democrat to head the Department of Revenue. His chief of staff worked for former Gov. Charlie Crist, and his policy director is a former key aide to Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
The incoming governor’s highest-profile personnel move is his most troubling. New Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the former House speaker from Pasco County, is no advocate for public education. He is a strong supporter of tuition vouchers for private schools and for privately operated charter schools, and in the Legislature he helped financially starve traditional public schools. With his deep knowledge of state policy and politics, he also could become DeSantis’ unwelcome version of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The new governor’s most significant appointments will be three new Florida Supreme Court justices to succeed the justices who are retiring this week. Only two of 11 finalists submitted by a nominating commission are women, and none are African American. The seven-member court should not be all male or without an African-American, and DeSantis should ask the nominating commission for additional names. The incoming governor sent an inclusive message by pledging to promptly consider pardons for the Groveland Four, the four black men wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in 1949. Seeking more names to preserve some measure of diversity on the Florida Supreme Court would send another positive signal.
In some policy areas, DeSantis also appears headed in a positive direction. He stood up to the sugar industry during his six years in the U.S. House, and he is a strong supporter of the planned reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that would help reduce the discharges from the lake that have led to the spread of the green algae blooms toward both coasts. He appears focused on water quality issues and ready to restore some expertise and integrity to the water management districts. In public education, he has advocated for more vocational training and other programs to prepare students to compete in today’s job market.
In other areas, the incoming governor appears too aligned with the Republican-controlled Florida House’s most extreme positions that have been consistently blocked by the Senate. He wants to continue expanding vouchers for private school tuition and school choice, and he has an education commissioner who fully embraces that approach. He also sounds amenable to the House’s wrong-headed, free-market approach on health care, and the Senate again will have to block those efforts.
If he hasn’t already, DeSantis will discover this week that his inattentive predecessor left him with plenty of messes to clean up. From the Department of Juvenile Justice to the Department of Corrections, there have been persistent discipline issues and a lack of leadership. The privatized foster care system is overwhelmed, Medicaid costs are exploding and the election exposed weaknesses in voting regulations. The state’s transportation philosophy should shift more toward transit, and the Florida Panhandle will need plenty of help to fully recover from Hurricane Michael. Amendment 4, which automatically restores voting rights to most felons who have completed their sentences, should be quickly implemented.
Enjoy your inauguration Tuesday, Gov.-elect DeSantis. The heavy lifting starts immediately.