Portions of the following first appeared in the Buzz political newsletter, a weekly dive into the power, politics and influence shaping Florida from Political Editor Steve Contorno and the Tampa Bay Times politics team. To subscribe and receive it in your email inbox each week, click here.
It’s good to be the governor.
Ron DeSantis, Florida’s first-year executive, surprised many with his energy out of the gate. After eight years of Rick Scott, the state’s political class wasn’t used to a governor who veered from the script and welcomed lawmakers into the conversation.
Nor was anyone prepared for DeSantis to dig in on policy. He rarely mentioned his plans for Florida on the campaign trail. He was best known as President Donald Trump’s guy.
Yet, 12 months into his first term in office, DeSantis’s strategy is working. He pushed through one of the most conservative agendas Florida has seen while still achieving high approval ratings. Republicans across the political spectrum love him. Even Democrats acknowledge he’s better than the Trump acolyte they expected.
It’s why Florida Insiders overwhelmingly said DeSantis had the best year in Florida politics.
“He has exceeded expectations for both sides of the aisle," said one Democratic insider.
The Tampa Bay Times regularly surveys the most tuned in political consultants, experts, fundraisers, lobbyists, grassroots leaders and other politicos to break down the year in politics. Of the 176 who responded, 131 said DeSantis outshone the rest of the state’s leaders -- including its two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Scott. Only a handful of Insiders even mentioned them.
What has made DeSantis so effective?
“He has found a way to stay true to his principals while finding important cultural touchstones that resonate positively with voters,” one Democrat said.
One Republican suggested DeSantis “clearly benefited from somewhat low expectations and easily exceeded those."
Another long-time Democrat said, “His ability to get along well with the Senate President and the House Speaker, without rancor or threats has made the legislative session look effective because the leaders are working together, despite their policy differences, to show that Republicans can lead the state in relative harmony unlike what Washington, D.C. is exhibiting.”
Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for DeSantis. He has clashed at times with state Republican Party leaders. A Tampa Bay Times story about his fundraising team’s plan to sell the governor’s time for campaign donations raised accusations of “pay-to-play.” And he still can’t seem to explain how he met the two Soviet-born friends of Rudy Giuliani or why they gave his campaign $50,000 and were VIPs at his inauguration.
But DeSantis has managed to do “an excellent job spinning himself away from the fray, even though he is in the center of many ongoing scandals/controversy," a Democratic Insider said.
The runner-up for best year is Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
The political newcomer shrewdly ran a campaign on marijuana and guns and was the only Democrat to win statewide. Fried is now the party’s de facto leader. How did she handle her first year in office?
“Fried deserves respect too for working well with the Republicans crowding around her and making her office more efficient,” said one Republican. Fried received the second most votes, though far fewer than DeSantis.
Fried has been selective in challenging her Republican counterparts on the Florida Cabinet, including DeSantis. Recently, she haltingly picked a fight with him. Whether she steps out more in 2020 is something to watch, one Democratic Insider said.
“She’s taken an office that many Floridians don’t even know exists (let alone fully understand what it does) and made it more engaging and dynamic,” the Insider said. “She weighs in on major issues that generally aren’t discussed (at least not publicly) by the Agriculture Commissioner, like reproductive and voting rights. I’m looking forward to see what she does next.”
Honorable mentions also receiving votes from our Florida Insiders
Attorney General Ashley Moody. She is taking a different, but still very conservative, path than her media-forward predecessor Pam Bondi.
U.S. Rep. Val Demings. One Democrat said: “She really elevated her profile during the impeachment hearings. She is starting to sound like a possible contender for statewide office.”
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. Became Tampa’s first out mayor and has quickly taken to the job.
Rich people. “As usual," one Insider said.
Worst year in Florida politics: Andrew Gillum
For one, he’s not governor. And his name was mentioned in a federal grand jury subpoena. Many Democrats in Florida politics are still wondering why his political committee had $3 million left over after the election.
“If he had spent those dollars he might be in the Governor’s Mansion now,” one Democrat wrote.
Instead, he’s using it on legal fees.
Gillum remains one of the most important faces in Democratic politics and one of its biggest stars. In June, just days after the Times reported the FBI demanded documents on him and his campaign, he packed a room at a Democratic Party retreat in Orlando. He continues to raise and donate money to groups trying to register more Democrats in 2020 and is central to the party’s recruitment efforts.
Still, about one-third of Insiders said his 2019 was the worst of any Florida politician.
Runner-up: Jimmy Patronis and Ross Spano.
Both Republicans received quite a few bipartisan votes.
Why Patronis? The state Chief Financial Officer is “too opportunistic,” one Republican said. A Democrat responded: “Did you read ANY news coverage about him? It was all about pay for play and him doing a fundraiser during a state of emergency.”
Why Spano? Well, it looks like the Republican congressman is under federal investigation.
Honorable mentions also receiving votes from our Florida Insiders
Former state Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox. He was indicted in a Tallahassee corruption probe.
Roger Stone. The long-time Trump confidante and Florida politico is headed to prison.
Sen. Rick Scott. As one Democrat panned: “Rick, um, Rick...oh, why am I drawing a blank. Oh yeah, U.S. Senator Scott trying to be relevant to Florida voters.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz. Always polarizing, Gaetz was a top choice in this category for quite a few Democratic Insiders, but several Republicans said the Trump ally had an even better year than DeSantis.
Ex-Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. The Parkland sheriff was controversial and also controversially ousted by DeSantis.
Susie Wiles. DeSantis pushed out the long-time Republican operative and his former campaign manager earlier this year. One GOP Insider trashed the move, calling it “damaging his own party.”
“DeSantis owed Wiles a debt of gratitude as no political person believes he could have won the general without her expertise. Now he has sadly put Florida in play for the Democrats with our new, needless handicap. Unnecessary, sophomoric and unexplained.”
"The 1.4 million Florida voters who are being denied their right to vote.” Will Amendment 4 be resolved in 2020?
The Times regularly surveys some of Florida’s campaign staff, party leaders, consultants, operatives, fundraisers, prognosticators and other well-known politicos. Participants can weigh-in anonymously to encourage honesty from people closely involved in the political process, but their names of participants are published. This month’s Florida Insiders are:
Erin Aebel, Tom Alte, Jason Altmire, Fernand Amandi, Gayle Andrewd, Scott Arceneaux, Donna Arduin, Dave Aronberg Aronberg, Brad Ashwell , Rick Asnani, Jon M. Ausman, Christina Barker, Michael Barnett, Scott Barnhart, Rodney Barreto, Patrick Baskette, Ashley Bauman, Geoffrey Becker, Sam Bell, Allan Bense, Wayne Bertsch, Taylor Biehl, Ron Bilbao, Barney Bishop III, Katie Bohnett, Bob Buckhorn , Alex Burgos, Christian Camara, Dean Cannon, Al Cardenas, Chip Case, Betty Castor, Mitch Ceasar, Johanna Cervone, Alan Clendenin, Brad Coker, Gus Corbella, Jon Costello, Brian Crowley, Husein Cumber, Carlos Curbelo, David Custin, Jim Davis, Richard DeNapoli, Victor DiMaio, Tony DiMatteo, Michael Dobson, Doc Dockery, John Dowless, Bob Doyle, Pete Dunbar, barry edwards, Eric Eikenberg, Mike Fasano , Peter Feaman, Mark Ferrulo, Damien Filer, Marty Fiorentino, Terry Fleming, Mark Foley, Kirk Fordham, Pamela Burch Fort, Towson Fraser, Keith Frederick, John French, Tom Gaitens, Wayne Garcia, Steve Geller, Richard Gentry, Susan Glickman, Brian Goff, Susan Goldstein, Alma Gonzalez, Cindy Graves, Shannon Gravitte, Ron Greensten, Thomas Grigsby, Joe Gruters, Mike Hamby, Marion Hammer, Marion Hammer, Chris Hand, Leslie Harris, Jack Hebert, Rich Heffley, Bill Helmich, Cynthia Henderson, Cynthia Henderson , Max Herrle, Don Hinkle, Jim Horne, Aubrey Jewett, Jeff Johnson, David Johnson, Christina Johnson, Eric Johnson , Stafford Jones, Eric Jotkoff, Fred Karlinsky, Joshua Karp, Henry Kelley, chris kise, John Konkus, Jeff Kottkamp, Stephanie Kunkel, Bill Lee, Matt Lettelleir, Jack Levine, Alan Levine, Stephanie Lewis McClung, Beth Leytham, Susan MacManus, Javier Manjarres, Roly Marante, William March, Beth Matuga, Brian May, Kim McDougal, Nancy McGowan, Clarence Mckee, Kathy Mears, David Mica, Jamie Miller, Paul Mitchell, Lucy Morgan, John Morgan, Pat Neal, Samuel Neimeiser, Meredith O’Rourke , Alex Patton, Darryl Paulson, Jorge Pedraza, Juan Peñalosa, Evelyn Perez-Verdia, Ron Pierce, JC Planas, Evan Power, Evan Power, David Ramba, George Riley, Patrick Roberts, Sarah Rumpf, April Salter, Tom Scarritt, Steve Schale, Stephen Shiver, Kyle Simon, Alex Sink, Susan Smith, Dan Smith, Eleanor Sobel, John Stemberger, Alan Stonecipher, Phillip Thompson, Cory Tilley, Greg C. Truax, Frank Tsamoutales, Jason Unger, Karen Unger, Matthew Van Name, Steven Vancore, Ashley Walker, Nancy Watkins, Screven Watson, Kevin Watson, Jonathan Webber, John Wehrung , Susie Wiles, Zachariah Zachariah, Eric Zichella, Christian Ziegler, Mark Zubaly.