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How Ron DeSantis found a home in Florida’s swamp

How Ron DeSantis found a home in Florida’s swamp

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Ron DeSantis promised to drain the swamp in Tallahassee. Instead, over more than four years as governor, he has reconfigured the swamp to suit his political needs and shielded it from Florida’s famous sunshine.

In anticipation of his 2024 presidential bid, he pushed the Legislature to change Florida’s resign-to-run law. He revised state policy so he could transfer $80 million in campaign cash to a federal political committee. And just after his official announcement last month, his administration pressured state legislators and lobbyists to aid his presidential campaign while they awaited his decisions on pet projects in the budget.

His use of state power to aid his presidential ambitions hasn’t come as a surprise to Florida political insiders who have watched him use the tools of governance to advance his agenda and ideology.

“He reshaped the swamp in his image,” said David Jolly, a former Republican who served in Congress with DeSantis and hails from the same part of the state.

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Now, as DeSantis campaigns for the presidency, he’s renewing his vow to drain a swamp — this time in Washington — and is trying to convince conservative voters that he is better suited than former President Donald Trump to shrink government and make it more accountable to the public.

“I can tell you, Washington, D.C., isn’t producing much other than mountains of debt and loads of hot air,” DeSantis said at a campaign stop in Laconia, New Hampshire, last week. “These elites, they don’t want to enact an agenda to represent our interests. They want to enact an agenda that is imposed from on high.”

Implicit in his assessment is the notion that Trump didn’t do much to permanently change Washington’s culture. DeSantis is betting that Republican voters will see his sweeping changes to nearly all of Florida’s institutions as evidence that he is a better choice than Trump to retrofit the federal government.

In a 2018 campaign mailer sent to Floridians that featured a picture of him and Trump giving the thumbs up sign, he made a very specific promise: He would “drain the swamp.”

The onetime allies — Trump’s endorsement was key to DeSantis’ victory in the 2018 primary for governor — are now archenemies, with Trump leading by wide margins in national polling and DeSantis running a clear second.

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The support DeSantis is getting from top Republican donors and pillars of the conservative establishment, including the anti-tax Club for Growth, has opened him up to criticism from Trump’s camp that he is indebted to elites. In March, for example, Donald Trump Jr. called DeSantis a “puppet of the swamp.”

While DeSantis hasn’t been as aggressive attacking Trump, he has notably said Republicans need to “end the culture of losing.” That’s a not-so-veiled shot at Trump for GOP disappointments in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections, the latter of which included the defeats of several of Trump’s hand-picked Senate candidates.

As a back-bench congressman from 2013 until he resigned in 2018, DeSantis had little legislative success. In his best-selling book, “The Courage to Be Free,” he cast himself as a reformer beset by institutional inertia and the media in the Washington “swamp.”

“The media treats reformers, especially those on the right, with hostility, usually targeting them with hit pieces,” he wrote, eliding the possibility that colleagues simply didn’t agree with his legislative proposals in Congress. But as governor of Florida, he had much more power to act unilaterally and to pressure Republican legislators to advance his agenda.

Now, as DeSantis vows to clean up Washington if he’s elected president, his claim to be a reformer is getting fresh scrutiny. A flurry of recent laws, administrative actions and political maneuvers serves his White House ambitions, with a less direct benefit for fellow Floridians, according to political insiders in the state.

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That raises questions about whether he truly made good on a vow that is central to his argument for why he should win the Republican nomination and the presidency.

Reform record in Congress

DeSantis’ three terms in Congress were defined by moves like helping found the Freedom Caucus, which advocated for small government, and sponsoring the “Drain the Swamp Act” to toughen lobbying bans for former members.

DeSantis has long cast himself in the role of reformer, but in the past the desired changes were geared toward limiting government authority. 

In Washington, he introduced several dead-on-arrival constitutional amendments to curb lawmakers’ benefits, including one that would have forced members of Congress to apply all laws to themselves.

Regardless of the reason, his efforts to amend the Constitution failed — as did almost all of the measures he wrote to alter the law. In the one case of partial success, he drafted an amendment to prevent the IRS from holding conferences. The House adopted the amendment, but it was watered down in negotiations with the Senate, and the tax-collection agency kept its power to convene officials.

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Boosting his presidential bid

Just before DeSantis officially launched his presidential campaign, the Republican-dominated Legislature rewrote Florida’s resign-to-run law, ensuring he didn’t have to step down as governor to run for president. It also rolled back transparency laws, so the public can no longer track his use of state planes or see who attended meetings in the Governor’s Mansion — which in recent weeks has become a venue for DeSantis to court political donors.

Since DeSantis launched his presidential bid last month, state employees have pressured lobbyists to donate to it and leaned on legislators — awaiting his final say on their budget priorities — to endorse him.

DeSantis’ political operation also transferred more than $80 million to a super PAC backing his presidential campaign after his administration changed long-standing guidelines that said such transfers weren’t allowed.

Jolly, who has since left the Republican Party, pointed in particular to the DeSantis team’s pushing for endorsements and contributions while the state budget sat under his line-item veto pen.

“What screams swamp more than that?” Jolly asked. “You send me your money and you send me your endorsements and I’ll give you state money in return.”

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Punishing political foes

DeSantis’ use of state government extends far beyond making changes that directly benefit his political fortunes. He has also increasingly wielded his power to achieve policy ends — and punish his political foes.

At times, that has come through the government’s regulation of private businesses and the free market in ways that have made some other Republicans uneasy.

The clearest example is DeSantis’ fight with Disney, which drew his ire when it released a statement in March 2022 opposing legislation to ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identify in classrooms up until third grade. The DeSantis-friendly Legislature then removed Disney’s long-standing ability to self-govern and installed a DeSantis-appointed board over a special district that operates a significant chunk of the company’s Florida operations.

The move received some pushback for violating Republican Party principles against government interference in the free market, but DeSantis argued the use of the state was warranted.

“Does an absence of government necessarily mean free market?” DeSantis asked in an interview last month with The American Conservative. “I would say, sometimes, absence of government could just devolve into corporatism, and I think too many people on the right have basically been corporatists over the years.”

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DeSantis’ office responded to a request for comment for this article by sending a link to the interview. Press secretary Jeremy Redfern said it explained “his philosophy on conservative governance.”

Rewiring institutions

DeSantis hasn’t only rewired state institutions; in some cases, he has expanded the scope and the power of the government he leads.

At his urging, legislators also funded a program that led to Florida’s paying to fly 50 asylum-seekers, most of them Venezuelan, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. After a lawsuit challenged the legality of the program, DeSantis pushed legislators to change the law during a special legislative session.

He also attracted national attention when his election investigation office arrested 20 people with former felony convictions who illegally voted in the 2020 election. They were arrested even though state officials had told them they could vote. Despite the criticism, legislators increased the office’s budget.

DeSantis also suspended Tampa-area State Attorney Andrew Warren, a Democrat, in large part because he said he wouldn’t prosecute cases under a 15-week abortion ban DeSantis signed last year. A federal judge later said the move was unconstitutional but upheld the suspension.

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“He is an authoritarian, right-wing populist who bullies and punishes local government, private businesses and individuals whenever they displease him,” said Mac Stipanovich, who worked in Republican politics in the state for decades but is now an avowed Never Trumper and harsh critic of DeSantis. “He wars against an independent press because they are an impediment to him being able to work his will unchecked. He is suborning the judiciary with blatantly ideological appointees. And he has so cowed the Legislature that the Russian Duma acts with greater independence.

“If Donald Trump is an American Mussolini with all of his anti-democratic bluster, then DeSantis is a Florida Franco,” he added. “Calculation, colorless, humorless, brutal and equally anti-democratic.”

Acting without the Legislature’s input

Some of DeSantis’ most controversial reforms were executed unilaterally without input from legislators. He has increasingly used the historically low-key administrative rulemaking process to make changes connected to high-profile political issues that have stoked intense support from his backers and vocal pushback from opponents. 

His administration’s medical regulatory boards have signed off on rule changes banning gender-affirming care for minors, which legislators months later codified in state law. On Tuesday, a judge issued a preliminary injunction temporarily blocking parts of the DeSantis-signed gender-affirming care law.

The state Education Department, whose leader DeSantis appoints, also signed off on expanding the state’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law, which bans discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation in classrooms, and a rule requiring schools to publish lists of books that have gotten public objection. It is part of a policy push that critics have described as a functional “book ban,” even as the DeSantis administration has said its intention is to keep inappropriate books out of the hands of children.

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DeSantis’ most consistent focus has been on upending the state’s education system. He has gotten legislators to pass measures to ban spending taxpayer dollars on most diversity programs at state universities and colleges, a move that prompted the NAACP to issue a travel advisory for the state.

In a rare move for any governor, DeSantis helped elect nearly two dozen local school board members. After they were elected, they quickly moved to oust superintendents seen as unfavorable to his agenda. He also removed top leaders from New College, a small liberal arts college, and replaced them with political supporters in an open effort to make the school more conservative.

Published: 2023-06-07 23:45:12

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