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Ron DeSantis hire a Democrat? After election, a shift in tone

In considering hiring a Parkland Democrat for a top spot in his administration, Ron DeSantis continues to send signals that he will govern more to the center.
Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs.
Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs.
Published Nov. 19, 2018

Upon winning the race for Florida governor, Ron DeSantis had firmly established himself as an unyielding partisan who's an ardent defender of President Donald Trump and a relentless prosecutor of his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum.

But in the two weeks since he won on Election Day, the 40-year-old former congressman has been tinkering with his brand.

He's called for unity and even invited Gillum to "to join (him) in the days ahead in a conversation about the future of our great state." That conciliatory tone is not just strikingly different than the one DeSantis set on the campaign trail, it's also unlike his predecessor, Gov. Rick Scott, who accused liberals of trying to "steal" the election until Sen. Bill Nelson conceded Sunday.

In keeping with what seems like a shift in tone, DeSantis is considering tapping a Democratic state lawmaker from deep blue Broward County, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, to lead the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the Times/Herald has confirmed through multiple sources.

Moskowitz, who hails from Coral Springs and whose district includes Parkland, played a major role in advocating for tighter restrictions on gun rights after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last February. That makes him an unlikely appointee for DeSantis, who's said he's against any curtailment of gun rights.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that DeSantis also used intermediaries to ask Trump to tone down the rhetoric surrounding the Florida recount, after Trump tweeted that "large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere" in Florida and the election process was "infected."

Just the mere consideration of a Democrat for a top post in his administration could be a sign that DeSantis — along with Lt. Gov.-elect Jeannette Nunez, who is helping coordinate interviews for top agency positions — is more willing to reach across the aisle to Democrats than Scott was.

At the very least, it's a sign that the transition team has recognized the political reality behind DeSantis' slim margin of victory over Gillum at less than half a percentage point. Even though Florida is now more Republican-dominated than any period in recent memory, its electorate is still ideologically "purple."

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His choice for the agency heads and governor's office staff will further reveal how partisan his administration will be, but one of Moskowitz's closest colleagues in the Florida House, state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, confirmed that the Parkland Democrat is being considered. He said Moskowitz called him to tell him that he was being vetted by the transition team for the position, though cautioned he hasn't been formally offered anything.

Jones, who was an early supporter of Gillum, said he was encouraged by "the direction (DeSantis) is moving in if he wants to look at experience over politics."

"Emergency management is not a partisan issue," Jones said. "Some people will be up-in-arms if he's appointed by a Republican governor but when it's the safety of people you can set parties aside to ensure the safety of Floridians is in good hands."

The Division of Emergency Management is best known for responding to hurricanes by coordinating vast resources from the local, state and federal governments as well as nonprofits and the private sector. The much-watched governor's televised press conferences before, during and after a hurricane are often broadcast from the office's emergency operations center, making it one of the highest profile positions in state government.

Moskowitz works as a general counsel and executive vice president of a debris removal company called AshBritt Environmental, giving him experience with hurricane cleanup. Companies like AshBritt often contracted by the state to help clear roads, haul off downed trees and dispose of destroyed homes, which could be a complication if he's hired to oversee the Division of Emergency Management.

Scott has previously faced tough questions over how those companies were chosen, after CBS4 Miami reported that he ignored a previously negotiated contract with AshBritt after Hurricane Irma and hired two different companies without opening up the bidding process. His office has said contracts negotiated before a disaster are separate from those needed after an emergency, but there is a federal audit looking into the matter, according to CBS4.

Moskowitz confirmed that he had DeSantis were in contact but declined to say more.

"I received a call from the governor-elect and we talked about a myriad of things," he said. "I'm not going to discuss the particulars of that conversation."

Dave Vasquez, spokesman for the transition team, declined to comment.

Moskowitz' political career is steeped in Democratic icons, including interning for Vice President Al Gore and serving as a "elector" for Barack Obama in 2008 as part of the Electoral College process. His father, Michael, is also a longtime Democratic fundraiser.

Moskowitz was a visible supporter of Gillum during the campaign. He attended the gubernatorial candidates' final debate in Davie on Oct. 24 and argued with U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz in the post-debate "spin room," where candidates' allies speak to reporters and declare their parties' nominee the "winner." Gaetz is one of DeSantis' strongest political allies and is now playing a major role in leading the transition.

In another example, Moskowitz sent a statement highly critical of DeSantis to reporters in early September. Moskowitz, who is Jewish, was responding to a highly racist anti-Gillum robocall that went out to people in Tallahassee and was paid for by an Idaho-based neo-Nazi website.

"This is simple. Draft a press release, with your name attached to the quote instead of a spokesman that reads, 'I condemn these robocalls,'" Moskowitz's statement, directed at DeSantis, read in-part. "If you are not capable of that, then I suggest listing an in-kind contribution from the Nazi Party on your next campaign finance report."

But DeSantis has already shown a willingness to work with those who criticized him during the campaign. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who previously endorsed Adam Putnam and told reporters in July that DeSantis has "a bulldog mouth, a chihuahua a**, and he doesn't even know what the heck is going on in this state," is now a major leader in DeSantis' transition team.