As recounts rage on, Ron DeSantis begins transition to power

Even though the governor's race is being recounted, DeSantis' team isn't wasting any time.
Florida Governor elect Ron DeSantis waves to supporters while flanked by his wife Casey, left, and Lt. Governor elect Jeanette Nunez after thanking the crowd Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Orlando.
CHRIS URSO | Times Florida Governor elect Ron DeSantis waves to supporters while flanked by his wife Casey, left, and Lt. Governor elect Jeanette Nunez after thanking the crowd Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Orlando.
Published Nov. 12, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — He had barely gotten off the stage after giving his victory speech at an Orlando hotel on Election Night when Ron DeSantis was asked about his schedule for the days ahead.

"When I stepped down from Congress, part of it was I knew I wasn't going to be making the votes while I was campaigning," he told reporters Tuesday. "But even more significant was thinking after the election, you have to put together a government … we've been doing this quietly behind the scenes — not to be presumptuous, but just because you don't have enough time (after the election)."

Things have changed a bit since then.

DeSantis' margin of victory shrank in the days after Election Day to fall within the 0.5 percentage point gap that triggers a recount by tabulation machines (making the governor's race the third statewide race to fall into a recount, along with U.S. Senate and commissioner of agriculture).

Yet while the chaos and finger-pointing of three simultaneous recounts engulfs Florida in all-too-familiar national spotlight, Ron DeSantis and his transition team are steadily establishing a new government.

That puts DeSantis in an uncertain, first-ever position for the state of Florida: a presumed governor-elect who must continue to push ahead while the results of his election are still being debated and recounted.

He is, at least, in the best position of the two other statewide Republicans facing a recount. As of Saturday, 0.42 percent separated him and his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum. That's about 34,000 votes — which means a change in outcome is doubtful.

"We'll let the lawyers do what they got to do but we're good," DeSantis told reporters at a Thursday event in Hialeah.

On Saturday, it wasn't clear if Gillum would accept the outcome of a machine recount that must conclude by 3 p.m. Thursday.

Gillum "is not waiving any legal right he has to ensure all the votes are counted," said his recount attorney, Barry Richard, when asked if the Democratic Tallahassee mayor would accept a machine recount result showing DeSantis with a total beyond the manual recount margin.

DeSantis let it be known he isn't even going to wait for the machine recount. He's acting like there's no doubt he's already been elected.

"At noon, today, Supervisors of Elections from across the state submitted their election returns to the Secretary of State. Those results are clear and unambiguous, just as they were on Election Night, and I am honored by the trust that Floridians have placed in me to serve as your next governor," DeSantis said after the recounts were ordered. "With the election behind us, it's now time to come together as a state as we prepare to serve all Floridians."

After a period of getting organized, selecting a transition team and setting up an email domain, his team's work begins on Monday at their transition office in Tallahassee. It's a city that DeSantis hasn't spent much time in until now. But as long as the election results hold, he's about to get really familiar, with the help of former Miami state Rep. Jeannette Nuñez, his pick for lieutenant governor.

The team is being led by Susie Wiles, who chaired his campaign and also played a major role in Gov. Rick Scott's transition to power. DeSantis has also recruited state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, and former Lieutenant Governor Toni Jennings to his team.

DeSantis' former chief of staff while he was in Congress, Scott Parkinson, will also aid in the transition.

The team must now fill hundreds of jobs, both within DeSantis' office as the future governor but also outside his office as appointments to oversee state agencies. He also must appoint people to hospital boards, state college boards, family care councils and other small government bodies throughout the state which have rotating openings as the officeholders' terms expire.

"Transitions are a very important time, to both understand the policy levers and attract the right talent to help you achieve your goals," said Kathleen Shanahan, who worked on transitions for former Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. She now heads a major electrical and industrial distributing company in the Tampa Bay area.

Miami state Rep. José Oliva, who is designated to become the House Speaker next session in March, said he's offered his help but that DeSantis has been seeking advice from those who have experience doing this.

"I know that he's also done a fantastic job of reaching out [to people involved in former transitions] like former Gov. Bush," Oliva said.

DeSantis "has to organize his branch first and foremost," he added.

The new governor will be sworn in Jan. 8, leaving little time for the team to fill all positions and raise money to pay for inaugural events. Some governors-elect have also opted to hold events around the state before getting Tallahassee's swearing-in ceremony.

The inauguration has not been paid for with taxpayer money in the past, and is instead financed by contributions from private donors, many of whom are special interest groups seeking favors in the new state government.