TALLAHASSEE — As Florida’s state lawmakers pass the halfway point of the 60-day legislative session, it’s easy to think Gov. Ron DeSantis has faded into the background. The Legislature is making headlines grinding out bills and budgets, yet DeSantis is operating far from the public spotlight, in some cases avoiding questions from reporters.
But a closer look reveals his fingerprints on an array of issues, where he's either nudging bills along or ushering in their early demise.
It appears his office undercut efforts to fix a ballot measure intended to allow felons to register to vote. He’s again asking for increased money for Everglades restoration, pushing a bill to increase the fines for dumping waste into waterways and providing the biggest push for a major teacher pay raise, to the praise of moderates and Democrats alike.
But perhaps no issue best illustrates the influence of DeSantis than the fight over a bill requiring employers to check the immigration status of new hires via an online system called E-Verify. Versions of this legislation have been filed time and time again, but they’ve never succeeded.
The reason: big businesses, especially those in agriculture, construction and tourism. These industries contribute big dollars to campaign coffers. They have little interest in requiring E-Verify because they rely so heavily on cheaper labor that’s undocumented.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, is sponsoring this year’s E-Verify legislation, which has been the subject of backroom negotiations between top Republicans and the drama has sometimes spilled into public view. On Tuesday, in response to pressure from behind the scenes, Lee amended the bill by providing employers an alternative to E-Verify, even though he said it would “gut” his own bill. He declined to say who asked him to file it.
Yet the fight over E-Verify continues on this year mostly because of DeSantis, who made its passage a 2018 campaign pledge that he re-emphasized during a speech to lawmakers earlier this year to kick off session. He vows it would put Florida workers first.
On Sunday, speaking to WFTV outside of the Daytona 500, DeSantis added additional pressure, saying: “I can tell you this, for Republicans, I would not want to be a Republican office-holder running in a Republican primary who voted against doing something on this.”
Paul DiMare, CEO of DiMare Fresh, a major farming business that grows tomatoes and other produce in Hillsborough County and Homestead as well as in other states, said the fact an E-Verify bill is moving in the Legislature shows DeSantis’ clout. A staunch opponent of the proposal, DiMare said E-Verify would “destroy” Florida’s agriculture, tourism and construction industries, especially when low unemployment has already caused labor shortages.
When DeSantis was still campaigning for governor, DiMare spoke with him about E-Verify, he said.
“He called me personally, I told him, ‘Congressman DeSantis ... I’m going to help you but I’m totally against what you’re trying to do with E-Verify,’” DiMare recalled, saying that DeSantis emphasized the popular support for the measure. “I argued with him for half an hour.”
Campaign finance records show that DiMare’s companies donated $35,000 to DeSantis’ campaign in the fall of 2018.
• • •
The DeSantis effect has also been felt with Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to most felons. After a judge criticized the Legislature for making a “mess” of the amendment last year, Republican lawmakers said they would look at making fixes.
But that plan to revisit the issue clashed with the hard-line stance of DeSantis’ lawyers, who argued in federal court in January that they didn’t have to make any changes to help felons who couldn’t afford to settle their legal costs be able to vote.
Just days later, lawmakers said they would not be taking up any changes to the amendment, choosing instead to let the court process play out.
DeSantis has also been using his sway to advance issues that appeal beyond his Republican base. Increased environmental funding and a major teacher pay raise are initiatives he’s championed and continues to monitor.
When it comes to teacher pay, DeSantis' proposal for a minimum salary of $47,500 has had a major impact. Despite years of insisting that teacher salaries should only be set by local school districts, lawmakers are moving forward with bills that would restructure the way the state doles out money to districts to require raises for certain educators.
Democrats like Sen. Bill Montford of Tallahassee have praised the shift. Bills to create a minimum teacher salary have been filed for years by Democrats, but were often ignored.
Montford said on the Senate floor before a vote on the budget that if someone had told him that the Legislature would’ve been granting raises to teachers this year, “I would not have believed it.”
The fact that these issues appeal to voters across the political spectrum is further evidence that DeSantis is promoting an image as a political pragmatist, said Screven Watson, a lobbyist and Democratic consultant.
“If you’re inside that room and your poll numbers are very high ... you’re going to keep doing what brought you to that dance, except there is one looming factor: November 2020 with the president,” Watson said. “Throwing out E-Verify ... is doing enough to show your red meat Republican issues, meanwhile you’re pushing things that are middle-ground that will have some shelf life.”
• • •
In Tallahassee, DeSantis hasn’t answered questions from reporters in about a month.
Although he’s made appearances in the Capitol in recent weeks — at a news conference outside the Senate Chamber to tout his administration’s work on disaster relief and at a Cabinet meeting — he ducked reporters both times, leaving through side doors without taking questions.
When asked why he’s shunned questions, spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré called DeSantis “easily the most accessible governor in modern history” and emphasized the announcements he makes around the state which the “Tallahassee press is invited to attend.”
But even at a news conference at PortMiami on Friday, DeSantis didn’t answer a question about the E-Verify bill as he headed for the car shuttling him from the event.
It’s an unusual silence from a governor who had only grown more comfortable interacting with reporters since his 2018 election. Almost from Day 1 in his job, DeSantis had exhibited a relaxed manner in answering unscripted questions that contrasted with the rigidity of his predecessor, now-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
While his interactions with the media are at a low ebb, his daily calendars show frequent one-on-one meetings with lawmakers. These meetings take place behind closed doors, in his office on the first floor of the Capitol building, down the marble hallway lined with portraits of past governors.
Lawmakers say he’s impressed them with his knowledge of their home districts and personal lives, as he builds goodwill by talking with them about shared goals.
Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami, who met with DeSantis last week, said they discussed their mutual priorities. “He asked me about my baby boy that was born on Tuesday and he has one (coming) in March, so we were exchanging stories," he added.
Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, met with DeSantis earlier this month and said he was “amazed” at how knowledgeable DeSantis seemed about “black issues” that affect the Haitian-American residents of his district.
"It's rare that I sit down with a politician who is not from my community who is able to tell me the things that he did," Jacquet said.
These relationships will likely serve DeSantis well in the weeks to come if he needs to twist arms. The second half of the session typically has a breakneck pace of deal-making and major votes.
Yet Jacksonville-based GOP political consultant Bert Ralston cautioned against reading too much into the movements of the Legislature so far, because session can become even less predictable in the hectic final weeks.
It's true the E-Verify bill is moving in the Senate so far, for example, but it hasn't been heard in the House.
Speaker José Oliva has expressed skepticism, saying the House is still debating whether immigration enforcement “should be the function of businesses.” And it actually appears that the Trump administration is backing off on its stance on mandatory E-Verify, with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, expected to roll out a plan that proposes to make it only optional for private business.
One pending loss for DeSantis is the Senate’s unwillingness to confirm his pick to lead a powerful group of judges.
“He seems to have a bit of a low profile this session but ... I suspect you will see him engaging a bit more in (the second half) pushing his priorities, especially if he comes upon any resistance,” Ralston said.
"Ask the San Francisco 49ers how they were feeling at halftime."
Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Lawrence Mower and Miami Herald reporter Doug Hanks contributed to this report. Information from the News Service of Florida was also included.