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Trump won Florida. These were the other big political stories of 2020

The convention that was canceled, the primary that barely registered, the downfall of a Democratic star and the rise of a deadly pandemic. These stories shaped Florida on the way to an extraordinary election.
Supporters of President Donald Trump wave signs and some wear MAGA face masks thrown to the crowd by the president at Orlando Sanford International Airport on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020 in Sanford.
Supporters of President Donald Trump wave signs and some wear MAGA face masks thrown to the crowd by the president at Orlando Sanford International Airport on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020 in Sanford. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2020

No one expected 2020 to be a quiet year in politics, but the remarkable events of the past 12 months set the stage for an extraordinary election season impossible to predict. And Florida, a diverse and divided swing state and a beacon for weird news, was always in the spotlight.

The long campaign ended with President Donald Trump winning Florida by the largest margin for a presidential candidate since George W. Bush in 2004, but losing the overall election to Joe Biden, America’s new president-elect, by the largest margin for an incumbent since Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Here are the major stories that shaped the year in politics along the way.

Trump returns to the campaign trail after recovering from COVID-19

President Donald Trump arrives and waves to his supporters at Orlando Sanford International Airport on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020 in Sanford.
President Donald Trump arrives and waves to his supporters at Orlando Sanford International Airport on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020 in Sanford. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19,” Trump tweeted on Oct. 2. By the next afternoon, Trump would be taken by helicopter to Walter Reed Medical Center for treatment. His health and his campaign faced an uncertain future.

But thanks to round-the-clock medical care and an experimental antibody cocktail largely unavailable to the public, Trump recovered. By the time he left the hospital, Trump was already plotting a return to the campaign trail and he had his sights set on Florida.

Related: Trump returns to Florida’s campaign trail: ‘I feel so powerful’

And so it came to be that on Oct. 13 — six days after walking out of Walter Reed as the world’s most famous COVID-19 patient and two weeks after hosting a super spreader event at the White House — Trump held a packed, largely maskless rally on a tarmac in Sanford. It was the first of several appearances Trump would make in the Sunshine State during a mad sprint to Election Day.

“I feel so powerful,” Trump declared to thousands of cheering supporters.

Democrats step into controversy by taking coronavirus aid

Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo speaks during the Tampa Bay Times Florida 2020 a candid conversation forum Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019 in St. Petersburg.
Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo speaks during the Tampa Bay Times Florida 2020 a candid conversation forum Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

In a bid to rescue the country’s pandemic-stricken economy, the federal government handed out $521 billion in loans and grants to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program. Businesses rushed to request a share of the aid package — and so did the Florida Democratic Party.

The request for a loan between $350,000 to $1 million immediately drew outrage from across the political spectrum when it came to light in July. Even some Democrats called on party leaders to return to the money. At first, the state party officials defended the move. But they eventually agreed to give it back and then spent the rest of the year declining to talk about it.

Related: Some Florida Democrats want state party to return federal coronavirus assistance

The episode was one of many embarrassments for the Democratic Party in 2020, culminating in losses up and down the ballot in November and calls to clean house. On Dec. 3, Terrie Rizzo announced she would not seek another term as chairwoman of the party.

Republican National Committee picks Jacksonville — then cancels convention

The VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena is pictured on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Jacksonville. The city is scheduled to host the Republican National Convention at the location.
The VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena is pictured on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Jacksonville. The city is scheduled to host the Republican National Convention at the location. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

After clashing with North Carolina leaders over coronavirus restrictions, Trump pulled the plug on two years of planning for the Republican National Convention in Charlotte. The scramble to find an alternative host city led the Republican Party to Jacksonville, where Mayor Lenny Curry promised to roll out the red carpet for Trump’s four-day party. On June 11, party officials took Curry up on his offer.

But not long after, Florida’s coronavirus outbreak metastasized. The tally of new cases jumped from 1,000 a day to more than 6,000 by the end of the month. The state’s death toll, slowly creeping up for three months, doubled in a few weeks. Curry ordered residents to wear masks and brushed off concerns from the Duval County sheriff that planning was behind schedule.

Related: Trump cancels RNC in Jacksonville: ‘The timing of the event is not right’

Ultimately, the show could not go on. On July 23, Trump made a surprise announcement from the White House briefing room: He was canceling the convention.

“The timing of the event is not right,” Trump said.

Andrew Gillum goes to rehab and then comes out

Andrew Gillum gives an interview to Tamron Hall in September 2020. The interview was excerpted on Good Morning America Sept. 10 and was set to air in full on Monday, Sept. 14.
Andrew Gillum gives an interview to Tamron Hall in September 2020. The interview was excerpted on Good Morning America Sept. 10 and was set to air in full on Monday, Sept. 14. [ Good Morning America [screen grab] ]

Early on a Friday morning in March, Miami Beach police responded to an overdose call at a hotel room in the South Beach Mondrian. There, police found Andrew Gillum, the former Democratic candidate for governor, with two other men and too inebriated to talk. According to a police report, officers found three bags of a substance they suspected was crystal meth.

Days later, Gillum checked himself into a rehab facility for alcohol abuse.

“I now need to firmly focus on myself and my family,” Gillum said. “I will be stepping down from all public facing roles for the foreseeable future.”

The incident was a low point for the once-rising Democratic star, who at the time was also the focal point of another round of federal inquiry into the former Tallahassee mayor.

Related: Andrew Gillum on that night in Miami Beach: ’I understand very well what people assume’

Six months later, though, Gillum reemerged on Tamron Hall’s talk show, where for the first time Gillum discussed in detail his run-in with law enforcement. And he addressed the rumors about his sexuality that had surfaced after the incident.

“I don’t identify as gay but I do identify as bisexual,” Gillum told Hall. “And that is something that I have never shared publicly before.”

Florida announces first two positive coronavirus cases

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, center, speaks about the confirmed a coronavirus cases in Hillsborough and Manatee Counties while State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, left, Deputy Secretary for Health Dr. Shamarial Roberson, right, along with other local and state officials who are in attendance during a press conference at the Florida Department of Health Laboratory in Tampa, Florida on March 2, 2020.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, center, speaks about the confirmed a coronavirus cases in Hillsborough and Manatee Counties while State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, left, Deputy Secretary for Health Dr. Shamarial Roberson, right, along with other local and state officials who are in attendance during a press conference at the Florida Department of Health Laboratory in Tampa, Florida on March 2, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

On March 1, a public health disaster that, at until that point seemed half a world away, arrived in Florida. A 29-year-old Hillsborough County woman and a 63-year-old Manatee County man were announced as the first known cases of coronavirus in the Sunshine State.

The ensuing months would test Ron DeSantis like no Florida governor had been before.

Related: CDC confirms Florida’s first two cases of coronavirus; more are expected

The crisis has forced DeSantis and other governors to thread the needle between public health and the livelihoods of millions of Americans. More often than not, DeSantis has chosen to err on the side of the economy, drawing criticism from Democrats and putting him at odds with public health experts and even Trump’s coronavirus task force.

As the outbreaks spread, the stock marketed plummeted. Businesses closed their doors, sending hundreds of thousands of workers to the state’s unemployment system. Once there, they discovered a broken agency with technology ill-equipped to handle the rush of Floridians needing help. Audits showed DeSantis knew about the problems, but he blamed his predecessor, now-Sen. Rick Scott, for creating a system intended to make it difficult to obtain benefits. He promised an investigation into the $40 million contract given to Deloitte Consulting to build it.

Related: Firm behind Florida unemployment mess will get $135 million state contract after all

That was six months ago.

Since then Deloitte has received an estimated $135 million contract to overhaul the state Medicaid system.

Protests break out in response to police violence

Mychael Latimer Jr., 3, stands in the intersection of N 22nd street at East Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd where the road remained closed as protesters demanded justice for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Tampa.
Mychael Latimer Jr., 3, stands in the intersection of N 22nd street at East Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd where the road remained closed as protesters demanded justice for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The May death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, sparked nationwide outrage. In Florida, peaceful demonstrations materialized in all corners of the state, continuing nightly for weeks as protesters demanded communities confront racism in the criminal justice system.

Related: 100 Days of Protest

Across the country, Democratic and Republican governors vowed Floyd’s death would not be in vain and promised changed. But there was no such reckoning in Florida, where DeSantis declined over months to address the concerns of civil rights activists. Instead, he called for a crackdown on protests and an expansion of the state’s stand your ground law in ways that troubled even law enforcement.

Related: How DeSantis wants to crack down on protests: Expand ‘stand your ground’

Meanwhile, some Democrats complained after the election that the demands of protesters, especially calls to defund the police, were used against them on the campaign trail and ultimately hurt them at the ballot box.

Joe Biden ‘wins’ Florida primary

In this June 27, 2019, file photo, Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speak at the same time during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. What might be the final showdown between the two very different Democratic candidates takes place Tuesday, March 17, 2020, during Florida's presidential primary.
In this June 27, 2019, file photo, Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speak at the same time during the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. What might be the final showdown between the two very different Democratic candidates takes place Tuesday, March 17, 2020, during Florida's presidential primary. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

The Democratic Party entered 2020 with a crowded field of presidential contenders. But by Florida’s March 17 primary, it was down to two candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Related: Joe Biden wins Florida’s Democratic presidential primary over Bernie Sanders in blowout

There would be no campaign, here, thanks to coronavirus, and Florida voters would be some of the first in the nation to test the country’s ability to hold an election in pandemic. Biden ultimately won 61 percent of the vote and all 67 Florida counties without stepping foot in the Sunshine State, a victory that pushed his delegate lead over Sanders from commanding to nearly impassable.

Sanders would hang on for another month, but after Florida, Biden began to turn his focus to his next opponent: Donald Trump.

Court ruling cements limitations on Amendment 4

Rosemary McCoy, 63, poses for a portrait at the Duval County Courthouse in Jacksonville on Saturday, October 3, 2020. After gathering signatures to get Amendment 4 on the ballot McCoy is one of 17 felons suing the state due to the clause. "If people understood the truth about what's going on then they could be free," McCoy said. "Most of us are still in bondage. We are living in captivity in 2020, and when we can't vote you are definitely in captivity because you don't have a voice, you're not saying anything so only slaves were the ones that didn't have a voice you couldn't vote so they put us back into that same type of mentality."
Rosemary McCoy, 63, poses for a portrait at the Duval County Courthouse in Jacksonville on Saturday, October 3, 2020. After gathering signatures to get Amendment 4 on the ballot McCoy is one of 17 felons suing the state due to the clause. "If people understood the truth about what's going on then they could be free," McCoy said. "Most of us are still in bondage. We are living in captivity in 2020, and when we can't vote you are definitely in captivity because you don't have a voice, you're not saying anything so only slaves were the ones that didn't have a voice you couldn't vote so they put us back into that same type of mentality." [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Ever since Amendment 4 passed in 2018, political operatives and scientists have guessed at the impact Florida felons might have at the ballot box in the 2020 election. In September, they received an answer: Very little.

In a 6-4 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit said Florida lawmakers acted within their power when they limited new voting rights only to felons who had paid off all of their court fines, fees and restitution.

Related: Florida ruled felons must pay to vote. Now, it doesn’t know how many can

The decision might be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but whatever the decision, it will be it’s too late for 2020. Hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions in Florida were ultimately sidelined in November.

Gun reforms die with a whimper in Florida Legislature

Sen. Tom Lee, R, Thonotosassa, discusses a bill involving white nationalists and white supremacists Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, during a Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.
Sen. Tom Lee, R, Thonotosassa, discusses a bill involving white nationalists and white supremacists Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, during a Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]

In the wake of back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, last year, then-Senate President Bill Galvano asked ex-state Sen. Tom Lee to come up with a bill for the 2020 legislative session that could make the state safer from gun violence and extremists. Everything was on the table, Lee said, including potential limitations on guns.

Lee ultimately settled on a proposal that would end person-to-person sales of firearms without a background check, sometimes called the “gun-show loophole.” But the idea was dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where there wasn’t an appetite to address gun laws like they had done after the Parkland shooting.

Related: Hopes dim for gun control measures in Florida Legislature

Lee’s bill died without a floor vote.

Legal troubles in Florida for top Trump advisers

Brad Parscale, former manager of President Donald Trump's reelection campaign, seen here in 2019 throwing "Make America Great Again," hats to the audience before a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Brad Parscale, former manager of President Donald Trump's reelection campaign, seen here in 2019 throwing "Make America Great Again," hats to the audience before a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. [ PAUL SANCYA | AP ]

Two of Trump’s closest advisers were arrested in 2020. And as is often the case, there’s a Florida angle to their legal troubles.

In August, Steve Bannon, one of the architects of Trump’s 2016 campaign and a senior adviser in the White House, and two Florida associates were charged with ripping off donors through “We Build The Wall,” an online fundraising scheme.

One of those associates is Brian Kolfage, of Miramar Beach, who ran the “We Build the Wall” group and is alleged to have pocketed more than $350,000 that he used to pay for home renovations, a boat, a luxury sports utility vehicle, cosmetic surgery and to pay off credit card debt and personal tax payments. The other is Andrew M. Badolato, a Sarasota-area venture capitalist long tied to Bannon.

A month later, Trump’s top digital strategist Brad Parscale was arrested outside his Fort Lauderdale home. According to a police report, Parscale, who was once Trump’s campaign manager, was involuntarily hospitalized under Florida’s Baker Act after his wife told police he was suicidal, hit a cell phone out of her hand, and loaded a handgun during an argument. Police seized 10 firearms from the property.