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DeSantis faithful question his Pasco School Board endorsement

They prefer a candidate who they suggest more closely adheres to the governor’s education agenda.
Gov. DeSantis speaks during the Moms for Liberty National Summit on Friday, July 15, 2022 in Tampa.
Gov. DeSantis speaks during the Moms for Liberty National Summit on Friday, July 15, 2022 in Tampa. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
Published Jul. 19|Updated Jul. 19

TAMPA — A half dozen Pasco County residents inched forward in the security line Friday to hear Gov. Ron DeSantis rouse the faithful attending the first annual Moms for Liberty national summit.

“We’re here to protest DeSantis,” said Cathy Julian, a leader of the conservative Pasco Watch group, that lately has involved itself heavily in local school district issues.

She was only half kidding.

Julian and the others avidly back the governor’s education agenda, including his push to limit instruction on gender issues and to make it easier to challenge and remove library books. But they did not appreciate his foray into Pasco board politics.

A day earlier, DeSantis announced his endorsement of 16 school board candidates across Florida. These candidates, he declared, are pro-parent and will “combat the woke agenda from infiltrating public schools.”

Al  Hernandez
Al Hernandez

At the top of the list was Al Hernandez, a regional Humana executive, for Pasco District 1.

He’s the candidate who’s backed by the Republican establishment, including state Reps. Blaise Ingoglia and Randy Maggard, and big business, including several prominent developers. He touts the fact that he has connections in state government, and that both DeSantis and Rick Scott appointed him to the Pasco-Hernando State College Board of Trustees.

“I’m proud that Gov. DeSantis supports our campaign for Pasco County School Board,” Hernandez said via email late Monday. “Our campaign message of parental control over their child’s education, school safety, and a quality education for all students resonates with all Floridians, including the governor. The voters I talk to support me for the same reasons Gov. DeSantis does.”

The Pasco Watch folks attending the Moms for Liberty event to hear DeSantis beat the drum for his agenda prefer a candidate who they believe is more in line with that agenda. They like Steve Meisman, a local aircraft parts manufacturer, who introduces himself by declaring his pronoun to be “man” and says his goal on the board would be to eliminate “woke crap” from the classrooms.

Steve Meisman is a 2022 candidate for the District 1 School Board race in Pasco County. Meisman is the owner of Aircraft Tooling and Design.
Steve Meisman is a 2022 candidate for the District 1 School Board race in Pasco County. Meisman is the owner of Aircraft Tooling and Design. [ Courtesy of Steve Meisman ]

Where Meisman speaks forcefully on these topics, Hernandez comes across as more measured in his thoughts and approach. He agrees, for instance, that “indoctrination” has no place in classrooms, but clarifies that it’s not prevalent in the way others suggest.

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Hernandez calls for nuanced approaches to budget-cutting, while Meisman declares it can’t be hard to find 10% waste.

In some ways, these residents consider DeSantis’ endorsement a misstep into local politics he doesn’t fully understand. Julian noted the brewing controversy over Hernandez’s residency, and whether he legally qualified for the ballot, as a red flag that should have steered the governor away.

“It makes me know that DeSantis made a decision based on inaccurate information,” Julian said.

James Washington is a 2022 candidate for the District 1 seat on the  Pasco County School Board. Washington is a graduation enhancement teacher at Pasco High.
James Washington is a 2022 candidate for the District 1 seat on the Pasco County School Board. Washington is a graduation enhancement teacher at Pasco High. [ Courtesy of James Washington ]

Meisman, too, had concerns about the endorsement. He argued it violates the tradition of not endorsing candidates in primary elections. The nonpartisan race features two outspoken Republicans, as well as a third hopeful, teacher James Washington, who opposes the DeSantis agenda.

Meisman raised a more basic question, too: “How can the governor endorse Al without ever speaking with me?”

This isn’t the first time DeSantis has attempted to influence campaigns without full regard to the party and its supporters. Earlier this summer, he weighed in on a handful of state Senate races, advocating for candidates he saw as more loyal to him despite endorsements of others by Senate leaders.

A spokesperson for the DeSantis campaign said she had no additional information about the Pasco endorsement, except to point out that candidates filled out a survey indicating their support for the DeSantis agenda.

At the end of the day, Julian and the others sounded willing to forgive the governor.

“I’m still a DeSantis supporter. DeSantis is a rock star,” Julian said, noting they did not protest him or ever really plan to.

But the situation did leave them with one key takeaway: It’s better to know your candidates and what they stand for, than to take someone else’s word.

“I think it shows how unimportant endorsements are,” Julian said.

• • •

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