Small-Government Conservative Or Authoritarian — Will The Real Ron DeSantis Please Stand Up?

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida governor vetoed a bill that would have blocked cities and counties from banning plastic straws, arguing that it was an overreach and that citizens bothered by such bans could instead vote out the local officials implementing them.

A Florida governor also got so irritated by a private company’s criticism of him that he rammed through laws specifically to punish the company and said that perhaps, now, it would behave more in accordance with his wishes.

As it happens, the two examples describe the same governor — Ron DeSantis, separated in time by just three years and nine months. So as national attention focuses on the 44-year-old as he prepares a likely run for the GOP presidential nomination, a major question presents itself: Which one is he?

“I don’t know if anyone knows who the real Ron DeSantis is,” said Jennifer Horn, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee. “The Republican Party has become very authoritarian. … He is feeding the beast. He is intentionally becoming what the party base wants.”

While the laws punishing The Walt Disney Co. for criticizing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill are probably the best-known examples of DeSantis’ use of state power to impose his will and hurt his perceived enemies, they are hardly the only ones. DeSantis has suspended Tampa’s elected prosecutor for declaring that he would not go after people under a new abortion law. He attacked the state’s public liberal arts college as part of his war on “woke” and replaced its board, which then installed a DeSantis ally as president. He has pushed legislation consolidating his control over Florida’s executive branch by stripping some power from members of the elected Cabinet.

And this year, he is behind a measure that would make it easier for him and other elected officials to sue news organizations for publishing stories they don’t like. It would, among other things, afford plaintiffs the presumption that anonymous sources are simply fabricated.

“I don’t recognize why people don’t realize how dangerous this is, one man deciding what’s OK,” said a former GOP lawmaker who, like most Republicans who agreed to be interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because of DeSantis’ history of vindictiveness. “He’s willing to punish anybody.”

DeSantis’ staff did not respond to HuffPost queries for this story.

A former senior official in Donald Trump’s White House, though, said DeSantis’ approach seems designed to win over Trump supporters — and that it appears to be working.

“He’s picking fights in Florida. He’s picking fights with the right people. DeSantis can run on the record he’s generating as we speak,” the former official said on condition of anonymity. “DeSantis knows how to go about winning over Trump voters, and he’s doing it.”

From Small Government To The Nanny State

Unlike the previous three governors of Florida, DeSantis was born in the state, in Jacksonville, before his family moved to Dunedin on the Gulf of Mexico side of Tampa Bay.

He became a local celebrity at age 12, when his team went to the Little League World Series in 1991. That baseball talent wound up taking him to Yale University on a full scholarship. After a year teaching high school history in Georgia, he went back to New England, this time at Harvard Law School, from where he entered the Navy as a judge advocate general officer.

After serving in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a yearlong deployment to Iraq, he joined the U.S. attorney’s office in Orlando as a federal prosecutor before running for an open congressional seat in his northeastern Florida hometown in 2012.

It was during this period that DeSantis penned his first book, “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers” — a rebuke to then-President Barack Obama, whose memoir “Dreams From My Father” had come out 16 years earlier and whose election had sparked the Tea Party movement.

DeSantis criticized Obama for pushing a “transformational” agenda and relying on executive authority to do. He argued for a return to “Madisonian” democracy and “limited government.”

Eight years later, following three terms in the U.S. Congress and a successful run for governor, that philosophy appeared intact when a bill arrived on his desk that would have prohibited local bans on plastic straws — at the time an active front in the culture wars.

To the shock of many Floridians of both parties, DeSantis killed it. In his May 10, 2019, veto message, DeSantis said that local government straw bans were not in any way hurting the state. “The State should simply allow local communities to address this issue through the political process,” he wrote. “Citizens who oppose plastic straw ordinances can seek recourse by electing people who share their views.”

That first year in office, in fact, surprised many who assumed he would govern in the model of the man whose endorsement won DeSantis the GOP nomination a year earlier: Trump.

DeSantis moderated both his tone and his policies. He backed a pardon for the Groveland Four, the African American men who in 1949 were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman and whose families have been seeking to clear their names ever since. He followed through on a commitment to increase funding to restore the Everglades.

A year in, though, came COVID-19, and with the coronavirus came a snap back to his old, Republican primary campaign persona. As Trump began to downplay the disease, so did DeSantis, and he — using the exact opposite justification as he had with the plastic straw bans — fought cities and counties that were trying to impose restrictions on indoor businesses to slow down transmission.

Then, when COVID-19 vaccines first became available, DeSantis aggressively pushed them, setting up immunization clinics around the state and making numerous personal visits. But as anti-vaccine voices began dominating the Trump voter base, DeSantis backed off his efforts, largely shutting down the newly created vaccination infrastructure as the shots became generally available to more age groups.

Horn, the New Hampshire conservative, said she watched him carefully in 2020 and saw a clear evolution as the year progressed. “That was a very transformational year for him,” she said.

On Feb. 27, 2023, exactly 1,389 days after his plastic straw veto, DeSantis signed a bill giving him the authority to hand-pick the board overseeing Disney’s taxing district. He told his audience that the company had lost its way in recent years. “I think that all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate,” he said.

In his new book, “The Courage To Be Free,” DeSantis brags about conspiring with Republican legislative leaders to sneak the Disney bill through quickly, before the company could react.

The evolution from limited-government conservative to the-government-will-tell-you-what-kind-of-movies-to-make populist was complete.

“Did the base follow DeSantis, or did DeSantis follow the base?” Horn said. “I would suggest it’s the latter.”

Trump Without The fatigue

Governing philosophy aside, there are real-world consequences for Floridians who cross DeSantis and face his wrath.

The Walt Disney Co. must now deal with a politically hostile board in charge of a taxing district governing Disney’s — and pretty much only Disney’s — land in central Florida. The suspended Hillsborough County prosecutor, Andrew Warren, is in the middle of litigation to get back the job that even a federal judge has said DeSantis had no just cause to take from him.

Disney, of course, can turn to its many lawyers and lobbyists in its battles with DeSantis, and Warren has the connections to pursue his challenge, as well. But DeSantis has also upended the lives of people without the wherewithal to stand up for themselves.

Last year, his “election integrity” squad arrested 20 former felons, most of them Black, on suspicion of illegally voting — even though local and state elections officials had approved their voter registrations.

He also made false offers of housing and jobs to trick Venezuelan asylum-seekers in Texas into traveling to Martha’s Vineyard, using Florida taxpayer money to charter their planes. And he alerted Fox News so it could exclusively film their arrival at the Massachusetts vacation spot.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them. And the governor has shown who he is,” said Warren. “He’s focused on being a carnival barker willing to break the law to promote his political agenda.”

“All of DeSantis’ victims are collateral damage in his culture war offensives,” added Mac Stipanovich, once the chief of staff to former GOP Gov. Bob Martinez. “Their lives are radically altered for the worse because he has chosen them as extras in one performance or another, but that has no more impact on him than a BB bouncing off a boxcar. … He cares only about the ephemeral applause from the right-wing peanut gallery and nothing about the lasting hardship that results.”

DeSantis, meanwhile, has ramped up an unofficial presidential campaign that began last summer when he toured the country in support of Republican candidates.

In Arizona on Aug. 15, DeSantis spoke mainly about himself and his Florida record, rather than the GOP candidates running for statewide office there. “What we did in Florida was we really led the nation,” he said about his pandemic response.

“Hello, western Pennsylvania,” he said four days later to a crowd in Pittsburgh before giving a speech that was far more about his own background and accomplishments than the virtues of Doug Mastriano, the gubernatorial nominee there.

This month, DeSantis has done fundraising events for local parties in Texas, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California and county committees in Iowa. All are technically part of a tour following the release of his new book, with attendees receiving copies as a gift for their donation to the hosting group. This has provided intense news coverage of a still-unannounced presidential campaign while bringing in substantial personal income that, one top state Republican said, DeSantis has never made before despite his Ivy League law degree.

“People don’t realize. He wants the money and needs the money,” the supporter said on condition of anonymity. “He can do it in a way that advances his campaign without campaigning.”

According to his latest available financial disclosure filed with the state ethics commission, DeSantis at the end of 2021 had a net worth of $318,987 with an income of $134,181 from his salary as governor.

Regardless of his approach and timing strategy, the things DeSantis is doing are definitely working, said the former Trump White House official, adding that there is clear “Trump fatigue” among Republicans generally. “This far out from ’24, he’s very well positioned. It all comes down to how he comes across in the big game,” the former official said.

Horn, who worked to defeat the coup-attempting former president, said that at this point, DeSantis has not descended to Trump’s level. “He hasn’t led a deadly insurrection against the government,” she said. “So, so far, he’s better than Trump.”