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How an unpredictable Ron DeSantis is advancing Florida conservatism

In his first legislative session as Florida’s leader, DeSantis defied easy political categorization. Lawmakers describe an ideological and assertive governor who nevertheless rolled with the give-and-take of lawmaking.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leaves a K-9 bill signing in the Capitol courtyard, Wednesday, May 1, 2019 during the last week of the 2019 Florida legislative session. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leaves a K-9 bill signing in the Capitol courtyard, Wednesday, May 1, 2019 during the last week of the 2019 Florida legislative session. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 17
Updated May 17

TALLAHASSEE — One of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top campaign promises was in jeopardy as Florida lawmakers worked deep into the night in late April. The state House and Senate had spent hours debating a bill to ban so-called “sanctuary cities,” but struggled to reach a deal as the 60-day legislative session waned.

So DeSantis did something lawmakers had not seen from a governor in a long time: He started whipping votes.

DeSantis beckoned a swing vote on the bill, Sen. Tom Lee, into his office. Lee walked in ready to list his concerns and was immediately disarmed by the governor’s treatment of him as an equal.

“It (was) a conversation,” said Lee, R-Thonotosassa. “Not a set of instructions.”

The next day he voted for the bill.

In his first legislative session as Florida’s leader, DeSantis defied easy political categorization. Lawmakers describe an ideological and assertive governor who nevertheless rolled with the give-and-take of lawmaking. Whether he’s intervening behind-the-scenes or making a public push for his priorities, much of it is still advancing hard-right President Donald Trump populism.

He’s developed relationships in a city that barely knew him six months ago, recruited an administration full of legislative veterans and proved far more attuned to policy details than anyone expected. He delivered one of the most consequential conservative agendas since Gov. Jeb Bush by employing a mostly respectful approach to the Republican legislative leadership.

“He’s one of the most collaborative governors with the Legislature that I’ve ever seen,” said Brian Ballard, a powerful Tallahassee and Washington lobbyist who chaired DeSantis’ inaugural committee. “He’s building an enormous amount of capital.”

No stranger to legislative politics after nearly five years in Congress, DeSantis isn’t sticking to one playbook. He plays hardball at times. He demanded lawmakers allow smokable medical marijuana. He surprised the state with his first veto: a bill that prohibited cities from banning plastic drinking straws.

MORE ON DESANTIS: Where did this Ron DeSantis come from? Florida’s governor surprises everyone but himself.

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“Whether purposefully or not, he’s not letting people figure him out. No one knows what his next move is,” said Screven Watson, a lobbyist and Democratic strategist. “Guess what? That makes him powerful.”

By the time DeSantis made his push for more controversial bills, he was already earning accolades from some Democrats and former rivals. His popularity soared in polls.

It all made Maria Rodriguez’s job that much harder. For years, the executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition had been lobbying against “sanctuary city” ban bills, which would require local and state officials to help enforce federal immigration laws. They never passed before. But this year?

Lawmakers felt the pressure of DeSantis in their votes, she said. In committee meeting after meeting, opponents of the bill easily outnumbered supporters.

“It didn’t seem to matter what the people wanted,” Rodriguez said. “It only mattered what the governor wanted.”

DeSantis also pushed another highly controversial bill across the finish line — though it didn’t bear his fingerprints. A bill which would make it tougher to get constitutional amendments approved by voters seemed dead after the Senate had failed to take it up.

But on May 3, the last full day of the session, the House amended it onto a totally different bill, and it passed both chambers in short order — all courtesy of pressure by DeSantis.

“Last year, we had so many amendments that I think we need reform,” DeSantis told reporters after the session ended. “Whether this is enough, I don’t know...We’ve let too much policy go into the Constitution.”

It was a blow to progressives and Democrats who have used referendums to circumvent their lack of power in Tallahassee.

“The governor is a political animal,” said John Morgan, an Orlando millionaire who has pushed progressive causes onto the ballot like medical marijuana and hopes, in 2020, to have similar success with a higher minimum wage. “I’m disappointed because to me, it goes against democracy.”

•••

Tallahassee had grown accustomed to a CEO governor.

For eight years, Rick Scott, a former hospital executive, treated lawmakers like employees. His agenda ruled the day. If they ran afoul of him, his veto pen was waiting.

One example: In 2015, Scott and the Senate engaged in a bitter standoff over health care for working class Floridians. The stalemate dragged the session into two months of overtime. But in a secret signing, he cut $460 million from the budget, including many senators’ top priorities. Lawmakers were furious, but what could they do about it?

While Scott’s mindset was, “‘I’m the leader of the state and people in the Senate and the House should go along with me,’” Ballard said, “Gov. DeSantis really has seen the Legislature as a partner and not just giving them his time.”

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That cohesion between the executive branch and those who control the legislative branch has made life in the minority even more difficult for Democrats, said Sen. Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, a former leader of the minority party. Republicans, he said, have a greater “sense of purpose” under DeSantis.

“It’s very different dealing with the Republicans when they have such open communication with the governor,” Braynon said. “It was normally a place where we (Democrats) could find a wedge when it came to dealing with the governor’s issues.”

With DeSantis and legislative Republicans in sync, policies once considered too extreme got passed. Private school vouchers got a fresh injection of public money. Teachers will now be allowed to carry guns. Universities must give space for controversial speakers.

Left to Right: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis talks with Rep. Dr. James Bush, D- Miami as Rep. Shevrin Jones, D- West Park, Attorney General Ashley Moody looks on at Sine Die at the Capitol, Saturday, May 4, 2019. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

“Some of (DeSantis’) priorities have been some of the most firebrand, political hot-button issues we’ve had to deal with,” Branyon said. “Some of them have been floating around the Legislature for years and have never gotten past one or two committees and now we’re passing them. That’s a direct result of the governor.”

DeSantis’ staff worked closely with Republican Sen. Joe Gruters to help craft a “sanctuary city” ban that the governor could sign.

“It’s not something everyone wants to do because of potential backlash,” said Gruters, also the head of the Florida GOP. “It’s his willingness to be out in front on this issue that’s opened up some doors.”

SANCTUARY CITIES: Ban on ‘sanctuary cities’ to become Florida law after anguished debate

DeSantis shored up relationships with lawmakers and others in the Tallahassee establishment by inviting small groups of people over for dinner at the Governor’s Mansion or the occasional golf outing.

Meanwhile, DeSantis continued to brandish relationships with the national conservative movement that established his brand. One evening in early March, bombastic right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh paid a visit to the Governor’s Mansion, where he sat for a Q-and-A by the fireplace during a cocktail party with lawmakers, lobbyists and campaign donors.

Still, as DeSantis publicly wielded his influence to pressure the House or Senate to change course in the final weeks of the legislative session, there were cracks in the united front.

One appeared in DeSantis’ support for the state’s tourism program, Visit Florida. House Speaker José Oliva wanted it gone, citing past scandals (including one involving a secret contract with the rapper Pitbull). Oliva said recently that he reluctantly kept the program alive for one more year — only because DeSantis wanted it.

Asked if he was “okay” with that, Oliva replied: “‘Okay’ is a strong word.”

DeSantis has also clashed with Senate President Bill Galvano who never fully embraced the governor’s plan to allow the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. Still, the Senate passed it anyway, meaning the bill is on its way to the governor’s desk.

Tensions also flared when it came to former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who was suspended because of how his office responded to the Parkland shooting. The state Supreme Court gave DeSantis the all-clear to fire Israel on April 23 but Galvano declined to hold a hearing during session, insisting there wasn’t enough time before lawmakers wrapped up their work. DeSantis threatened to drag senators back to Tallahassee for a special session if they didn’t move on it.

Galvano bristled at those comments and asserted DeSantis didn’t have the authority. DeSantis pressed harder.

“I think a lot of voters will wonder why you guys (senators) have been up here for how many months, and you haven’t done anything on this issue?” DeSantis said after a news conference last month. “When they say they can’t get things done, that’s a way to just put it off. You can get it done if you want to.”

•••

DeSantis’ deviation from what many expected to be a “Trump Jr.” administration has left some unexpected impressions.

The Everglades Trust made headlines during DeSantis’ campaign when the environmental group endorsed him because of his willingness to criticize Big Sugar, a powerful special interest group that has diluted Florida’s waterways.

The environment, DeSantis declared, would be the top priority. Kimberly Mitchell, the executive director of the Everglades Trust, said he has delivered.

“I hate to be gushy about a politician because I see the good, the bad and the ugly but this is about as genuine as it gets,” she said.

In a profound break from Scott, who often clashed with scientists, DeSantis hired a chief science officer to address big-picture issues like sea level rise. He requested more than $700 million to spend on Everglades restoration, land preservation and addressing blue-green algae and red tide. The Legislature delivered on most of those fronts, a victory DeSantis has touted nearly every time he’s been in front of a microphone.

Other conservation groups say DeSantis’ record on the environment is now mixed after he signed a massive toll road expansion, one of Galvano’s top priorities. The Sierra Club called the bill a “declaration of war on Florida’s environment," warning it will lead to more sprawl and the destruction of sensitive lands. Environmentalists across the state have held rallies for his veto, but on Friday DeSantis instead sided with Republican big guns such as a former House speaker and the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

“I think we need new roads in Florida to get around,” DeSantis said.

MORE: Is Ron DeSantis Florida’s environmental governor?

Meanwhile, some social conservatives are feeling left behind as DeSantis blazes his new political path without following the lead of Georgia or Alabama outlawing most or all abortions.

With a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court solidified, Republican-controlled legislatures in other states saw 2019 as the year to put Roe vs. Wade to the test. Not Florida.

Here, lawmakers punted on the abortion debate, declining to take up a “heartbeat bill” that would have banned abortion after as early as six weeks, or as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected. Another bill requiring teens get parental consent before an abortion couldn’t pass the Senate.

During the Republican primary for the governor’s race, DeSantis pledged to sign a “heartbeat bill” if it crossed his desk. But it hasn’t been a topic he’s placed atop his priority list.

ABORTION: Those on Florida’s front lines in the abortion battle know change is coming

John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said he’s still waiting to see if DeSantis will risk political capital on his causes like he did for the environment, medical marijuana and the ban on “sanctuary cities.”

“(U.S. Rep.) Matt Gaetz is influencing the governor. That’s not a good situation for social conservatives and we’re really concerned about that,” Stemberger said of the Panhandle Republican who is one of DeSantis’ top advisers. “Our issues are going to be a test for this governor.”

Donald Trump greet Ron DeSantis during a rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

The vetoes and bill signings in the coming weeks will reveal more about Florida’s 40-year-old governor. Then looms the 2020 election, when roles will be reversed and DeSantis will be called to lend his popularity to President Donald Trump during his reelection campaign.

Watson, the Democratic strategist, said that could be another political hurdle.

“Nobody expected (DeSantis) to be sitting over there on Adams Street in the Governor’s Mansion and there he sits,” he said. But, “it doesn’t get any easier.”

“He’s going to have to be on that stage with Trump and wear some of the stuff Trump is going to say or do over the next year and half,” Watson added. “We’re going to see if this story he’s trying to tell — that’s his own — is going to work.”

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