He has a distaste for glad-handing.He’s charmless.
One by one, media figures look through their telescope at Governor Ron DeSantis (R-Fla) and dutifully echo the judgment. But watching DeSantis work in person leaves a different impression entirely.
DeSantis is chatting with his constituents along a walking trail in his hometown when Kimberly Baldwin catches sight of him standing on a pathway in a local park and is moved to tears when DeSantis stops talking midsentence to chat with her.
“Hi, Kimberly. How are you doing?”
“Amazing, now that I’ve met you,” Baldwin says. The two talk about her return to their mutual hometown of Dunedin after living in Miami. Her father, she says, is the deputy sheriff in nearby Land O’ Lakes, and she recently decided to go back to college.
Then she timidly asks for a hug.
DeSantis doesn’t hesitate, and Baldwin lists the two things she admires most about his governing: his decision to “act with conviction” when reopening the state during the pandemic and his decisiveness in response last September to Hurricane Ian, one of the deadliest and most destructive storms to hit Florida in nearly 100 years. The encounter was one of the dozens with constituents and tourists amused to begin their Thursday morning randomly running into the governor.
At the same time, DeSantis is getting shade in his home state from the two top political powerhouses in both parties.
Twenty miles away in Tampa, Joe Biden is trying to shame him at a campaign event over health care spending. A little farther from home, former President Donald Trump is on social media lobbing insults at “Ron DeSanctimonious” and spreading unfounded insinuations about his days as a teacher.
Both men eye him as a threat to their White House ambitions. DeSantis hasn’t said he’s running, but he shared his thoughts about the former president’s antics bluntly.
“Look, I have the responsibility to govern a state, and I’ve got to focus on delivering results. I’ve also got to protect the people against Biden’s policies, and so when I’m getting in fights, I’m fighting Biden,” he began.
The governor stressed that his concern is not merely for his own prospects but for the party as a whole: “I want other Republicans to do well. I don’t want any Republican to do poorly, so I’m not in a situation where taking potshots against other Republicans is something that I think is beneficial.
“I think get it done, keep your eye on the ball, and just keep delivering results and fighting back against the Biden Administration,” he said.
It is an answer that has kept him above the fray—and left a press hungry for a fight between the two unsatisfied.
DeSantis said his constituents have mostly stopped asking if he’s going to run, as though that question has already been answered. Supporters in his home state and across the country encourage him to take the leap.
“People basically say, ‘Well, yeah, you got to do it,’ so it’s funny. It’s interesting with the whole COVID stuff. As that was happening and we got into the fall, particularly after November ’22, people just started creating this (presidential campaign-style) merchandise. I had nothing to do with any of it,” he said of the interest that bubbled up during the pandemic when he reopened Florida businesses and schools early on, as well as his opposition to mandatory vaccinations and masks.
That interest accelerated among Republican primary voters after he made history in the midterm elections when he defeated Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) by a whopping 19 percentage points, winning 62 of Florida’s 67 counties, including deep blue and highly populated Miami-Dade by 11 points.
He is a little taken aback by his growing popularity among the conservative base and how widespread it is: “It’s not just in Florida. It’s also coming from Washington state, Alabama, all over the place, and I look at that. I’m like, ‘Wow.’ They’re just responding to what I’ve done. It’s not like I’ve ever campaigned in these places. It’s pretty neat. People have been great.”
He gets out of his car and heads to his favorite hometown haunt. Flannigan’s is packed with locals and tourists who have heard through word of mouth that he’s home and might stop by to say hi to the owners. Within minutes, he is surrounded by hundreds of well-wishers.
He steps onto an elevated area to give a quick speech, then heads to his parents’ house to pick up his wife, Casey, and their three children to take in the Florida State Fair in Tampa.
“One of the things I liked about doing these fairs, especially that first year of COVID, and I’d ask, ‘Hey, can I get a couple hot dogs,’ and I’d try to pay and the vendors would say, ‘I am not taking your money. I would be out of business if it wasn’t for you,'” he said.
He said finding himself in a position to do something that saved livelihoods was meaningful for him. “I think their appreciation was born not just of the fact of what I did, but they understood that I was cutting against the grain, and no one was really standing up for them but me and I was way out on a limb,” he said. “People in Florida appreciated that because they’re like, ‘Look, we were looking at going bankrupt, and you saved the day for us,’ and so it was really genuine appreciation.”
Florida’s reopening was among the most ambitious in 2020, garnering a heap of criticism from the national press—criticism that accelerated when Florida was one of the first states to order schools to open, refusing to give in to school districts that didn’t want to resume five-day, in-person instruction by late August of that year.
Education is a very important subject to DeSantis, who earned through intellect and resolve—and baseball—his admission to Yale University, graduating magna cum laude. The growing influence of ideology over education is something DeSantis witnessed firsthand when attending Yale and Harvard Law School.
Although there was plenty of left-of-center orthodoxy in those institutions back then, DeSantis said, “Now I think it’s gotten more militant, but it’s also gotten more oppressive in terms of trying to exclude dissenting voices and actively trying to suppress dissenting voices, and that’s where we’re taking a lot of strong moves in Florida on reforming higher education.”
Late last month, DeSantis rolled out significant reforms to the state’s higher education system that included a new focus on civics, tighter scrutiny on faculty tenure, and prohibitions on so-called diversity, equity and inclusivity programs.
DeSantis said there are a number of educators at the state schools who have reached out to his office to be a part of this. “Some of these professors, they’re not all Republicans, probably most aren’t, but they realize that something’s gone terribly wrong with academia,” he said.
“The thing about it is, as a state university system, they are funded by Floridians, by taxpayers,” he said. “They don’t have the right to do whatever the heck they want to do on our dime, so we have the right and, actually, the responsibility to say, ‘What’s the purpose of higher education, what are we trying to get out of this, and what’s in the best interest of the state of Florida?’ and then put that vision into reality.”
DeSantis said too many people in academia think their purpose is to indoctrinate students with a particular worldview that would prepare them for political activism.
“We don’t believe that that’s the case. We believe it’s about rigor, we believe it’s about the pursuit of truth, and we believe it’s about giving students a foundation so they can think for themselves,” he said.
DeSantis said he expects other states to push back against the overt politicization of public academic institutions. “I think it’s going to end up really catching fire in a lot of red states because it’s one thing that a private university can do what they want, but when you’re surviving on the state dole, we have every right to say it’s going to go in the direction that we want to go,” he said.
The expectation of personal attacks gives some would-be reformers pause, he said. But “I don’t care because people attack me no matter what, so I might as well do what’s right and just let the chips fall where they may.”
He sees the ideological creep across all of the cultural curators in our country, not just in academia but also in corporations and other large institutions.
But ideological capture isn’t limited to academia and the federal bureaucracy. DeSantis said conservatives must also adjust from a world in which “business and institutions weren’t terribly political” to the current moment, “a situation where these institutions have been captured by leftist ideology,” he said.
“You have companies doing the ESG, where they’re trying to impose a leftist worldview on society through their economic power. You have K-12 schools where you have school unions, who are very partisan, trying to impose certain ideology,” DeSantis said. “So my job as governor, we are the free state of Florida, but that means I need to defend threats to freedom across the board. I can’t just say, ‘If it’s not government doing it, then why do you care?’
“I think that’s why people have been drawn to the model that we have in Florida because I think we’re much more sensitive to the threats to freedom that actually exist today in 2023 as opposed to how we would’ve perceived that in 1980 or even 1990,” he added.
Last fall, the Florida legislature introduced the Parental Rights in Education bill limiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. In a broad misreading of the bill, the press and the opposition called it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. On cue, social media went ballistic, and Disney felt the pressure.
Then things got really ugly, with DeSantis threatening to revoke the special tax status that had effectively allowed Disney to self-govern the massive resort.
“At the end of the day, you got to do what’s right. They basically had gotten anything they wanted for 60 years. . . . They threatened to sue us over the legislation, but it really exposed them for this ridiculous arrangement that they’ve enjoyed, where they had their own government and they’re able to basically just live in their own little island, do whatever they want with no oversight, so we felt that that has outlived its usefulness,” he said.
“I think most people believe it was the right thing to do. People thought because I was tangling with Disney, it was going to hurt me in the election, but in Osceola County, which is where most Disney employees live, I won for the first time as governor and (was) the first Republican who won that county in a while,” he said.
“I think we won it by 7 points. Hillary (Clinton), I think, won it by 20 points, so clearly, people responded to what we were doing,” he said
While the culture war fodder gets much of the attention, the day before our interview, DeSantis rolled out a comprehensive tax reform bill aimed directly at the middle class he grew up in—his mother was a nurse, his father installed Nielsen ratings boxes, and both hail from the Great Lakes Rust Belt.
“Inflation has been the biggest problem people try to deal with. Now that’s caused by Washington. It’s not, obviously, caused by the state of Florida,” he said.
“But we want to do what we can to mitigate it, so we did a billion in tax relief in last year’s budget. We just did the $500 billion toll relief, so if you’re a commuter, once you hit the certain number of tolls in a month, next month you get 50% rebated back to your SunPass. So that’s going to save the average commuter $500 a year and probably in Miami maybe $1,000 a year because there’s a lot of tolls, so that’s something that helps people,” he said.
“And then these other things with $25 under household items, no sales tax, the baby items, no sales tax, all these things I think just make a difference to middle-class families,” he said.
To the rest of the country, the presidential race may already be underway. But Floridians first and foremost need, and still have, a governor. DeSantis’ challenge is to continue to make sure that delicate balancing act, and not the barbs coming from his would-be rivals in both parties, commands his full attention.
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