DeSantis’ political fortunes a focus of Manatee vaccine event, texts show

Text messages between a Manatee County commissioner and a developer show that DeSantis’ office asked county officials to bypass its regular selection process in favor of a handpicked list.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks the media at a coronavirus vaccination site at Lakewood Ranch Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Bradenton, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks the media at a coronavirus vaccination site at Lakewood Ranch Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Bradenton, Fla. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published March 9, 2021|Updated March 9, 2021

Organizers of the three-day vaccine distribution event last month in Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County were focused on more than shots, text messages between them and the governor’s office show.

They were also keenly aware of the political optics of bringing Gov. Ron DeSantis into town to promote vaccines in their Republican-rich neighborhood. Rather than rely on a random selection of vaccine-eligible residents, the governor’s staff wanted them to create a list of who would get a vaccine.

“Gov said he might show up,’' wrote Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen in a text message Feb. 9 to Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. “Should try to see if that would help him get exposure here.”

Manatee Commissioner Vanessa Baugh listens as Gov. Ron DeSantis hosts a press conference at the Lakewood Ranch pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site aimed at inoculating more senior citizens. DeSantis faced criticism over the site, which stands to vaccinate some of Manatee’s wealthiest residents.
Manatee Commissioner Vanessa Baugh listens as Gov. Ron DeSantis hosts a press conference at the Lakewood Ranch pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site aimed at inoculating more senior citizens. DeSantis faced criticism over the site, which stands to vaccinate some of Manatee’s wealthiest residents. [ TIFFANY TOMPKINS | Bradenton Herald ]

“Excellent point. After all, 22 is right around the corner,’' Baugh responded, referring to the 2022 race for governor.

Jensen had just finished a call with DeSantis and another Lakewood Ranch Developer and Republican donor, Pat Neal, about hosting the event and what followed was carefully-choreographed, records obtained by the Bradenton Herald show.

Related: Well-off Manatee residents get special vaccine access, courtesy of DeSantis

An advance team from the governor’s office visited the site. A list of select members from two select zip codes was compiled to be eligible for the vaccinations, including Baugh herself. And a made-for-TV appearance in which the governor said he “wanted to get the numbers up for seniors.”

At a news conference in Lehigh Acres on Tuesday, DeSantis was asked about how Baugh and Jensen “were texting about how it might benefit you politically.” He did not address the text messages, but said: “It’s a mistake to try to demonize certain seniors.”

“I think there’s some elements of, particularly the partisan corporate media, who doesn’t want people vaccinated who disagree with them politically,’' DeSantis said. “That’s insane.”

He said the site was part of a bigger effort to get vaccination rates up in Manatee County. “That’s what it was about. When you have counties that are lagging behind, we want to try to be able to bring extra vaccine there.”

Vaccine event sparks investigations

The vaccine event has since spawned community anger and a criminal and ethics investigation.

“I am outraged at the economic prejudice in selecting who is eligible to receive Covid vaccines at the Sports Complex in Lakewood Ranch,’' wrote Mary Gibbons, a Manatee County resident in an email to Baugh when the news of the exclusive event broke on Feb. 16.

Gibbons had hoped to get vaccinations for herself and her husband, but she doesn’t live in one of the two select zip codes so was not eligible for the special treatment. “It is illegal to buy your spot on an organ donor list but the Lakewood Ranch community is ‘buying’ their spot on the vaccine list,’' Gibbons said

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Baugh, the commission chair, is now under investigation by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office following a complaint alleging that she misused her public position when she created a VIP list of names. The list included herself and Jensen.

Related: DeSantis threatens to divert vaccines from Manatee after backlash on access

She is also facing an ethics complaint that alleged she misused her position to organize the exclusive event and create the VIP list.

Baugh and her fellow commissioners had voted unanimously in January to make the standby pool random, in order to make the system more equitable. The county’s IT department created a database that randomly selected who would be eligible for appointments. DeSantis praised the rollout in January.

Baugh bypassed vaccine standby pool

But text messages indicate neither Baugh nor the governor’s office suggested relying on the random pool to pick who would get the vaccine at the Lakewood Ranch event and instead the governor’s staff asked Jensen to create a list and be in charge of making the appointments.

“Amazing. They want me to maintain a list. They can’t. Screw this,’' Jensen wrote to Baugh in a text message on Feb. 9, shortly after a conversation with Courtney Coppola, the chief of staff for the Florida Department of Health.

“Let me see what I can do,’' Baugh responded. Jensen then gave her Coppola’s cell phone number and added: “Said if can get past the list thing they would probably give shots over 2 days.”

Emails show that Baugh directed the county’s public safety director and staff to pull only those residents who had listed their zip codes as 34202 and 34211 when they registered. Both zip codes are in Baugh’s district.

Meanwhile, Jensen sent an email to Coppola to emphasize he didn’t have the capacity to create a list as he had been asked to do.

“While we can easily get the word out, I have no infrastructure or staff to field all the calls necessary to assemble and maintain a list of candidates for the vaccine,” he wrote. “I am copying Commissioner Baugh in the hope that she might be able to think creatively to find a solution.”

Neither the Florida Department of Health, the Florida Division of Emergency Management or the governor’s office would explain why they asked Jensen and Baugh to create a list of vaccine recipients, instead of relying on the county’s random vaccine standby pool.

They also would not answer why the 3,000 extra vaccines were not added to the county’s allotment.

“The goal is to vaccinate as many seniors as possible, as efficiently as possible, and working with senior living communities is a common sense approach, both administratively and logistically,’' said Meredith Beatrice, the governor’s spokesperson.

Baugh defended her selection of the two zip codes at a county commission meeting, saying they “really encompass lots of southeast area of Manatee County, which is what the governor wanted to do.”

“People need to look at the statistics,’' she said. “There have been other clinics and many people out east haven’t received the vaccines and are underserved. I see it as a win-win. This is not a negative situation.”

DeSantis, who has not announced his re-election bid, has kept a tight control on vaccine distribution, frequently appearing in specially-selected communities with welcome audiences of cheering supporters. Since December, when vaccines started arriving in Florida, the governor has used his political committee to raise $3.9 million, including $2.7 million in the month of February alone.

Among the heavy donors in the past was Neal, another Lakewood Ranch developer, who gave the governor $125,000 in 2018-19. In 2018, DeSantis overwhelmingly won Manatee County against his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, getting 57 percent of the vote.

But DeSantis’ handling of vaccinations has also drawn criticism that he has been playing favorites as communities of wealthy donors have been among the lists of recipients of some of the earliest vaccine clinics.

‘This can be huge for him’

DeSantis has denied that he has given anyone special treatment but the governor’s office has refused to release complete details of its vaccine distribution records and the criteria it uses to decide which communities will get them when.

“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said when he questioned about it.

But the text messages between Baugh and the governor’s staff show that the governor’s office was calling most of the shots.

“[Gov] chief of staff Adrian was also involved,” Jensen wrote to Baugh at the end of the day on Feb. 9, referencing DeSantis’ deputy chief of staff, Adrian Lukis. Baugh had just confirmed that they had agreed to “handle the list” of the vaccine recipients.

“I’ll call the governors office in the morning and try to get it all put together and I’ll let you know how it goes,’' she added.

But the location and its political importance was also on their minds.

Referring to the sports complex at Lakewood Ranch, Baugh said: “It looks like Premier is the best.”

Jensen agreed: “Yup and he is better known on east side. Premiere could have a nice setup for him.’'

“Absolutely,” Baugh responded. “We will make a very big deal about having it at Premier. This can be huge for him.”

By Friday, Feb. 12, details had not been finalized with the governor’s staff and, text messages show, Baugh and Jensen were getting impatient.

“I am calling Gov this morning to see what is going on,’' Baugh told Jensen. In an email later that morning, Coppola confirmed the event would begin the next Wednesday.

As if to underscore that the event was being funded by taxpayers, not them, Baugh told Jensen: “It will be handled by National Guard for [second day and] they will bring in nurses to give vaccine. We are close.”

Bradenton Herald staff writer Ryan Callihan and Tampa Bay Times staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this story.

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