(SS) Two years ago, when Ron DeSantis took the oath of office as the 46th governor of Florida, we knew little about him other than that he was an ultra-conservative congressman from Northeast Florida who had voted to shut down the government, who ran his campaign on Fox News and who President Trump liked a lot. Now as he nears the midway point of a four-year term, the whole country knows him — for all the wrong reasons.
Shortly after DeSantis raised his right hand on Jan. 8, 2019, hopes ran high. For unlike his predecessor, Rick Scott, DeSantis quickly emerged as a champion of the environment — dedicating more money to address Florida’s water woes, hiring the state’s first resilience officer and cleaning house at the South Florida Water Management District, which had become too cozy with the sugar industry.
But today, one issue overshadows everything else. For mishandling and politicizing Florida’s response to the greatest challenge of our times, the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis deserves a D-minus on his midterm report card.
Government exists to keep us safe, and on this measure, DeSantis comes up short. He has put lives in danger by downplaying public health risks, hiding information and refusing to require people to wear face masks and socially distance. Even among the 12 governors who have refused to impose statewide mask orders, DeSantis stands apart. He is the only one who forbids cities and counties from enforcing local mask orders or levying fines on businesses that pack in people.
While DeSantis emphasizes numbers that paint a rosy picture, Florida’s pandemic numbers are all going in the wrong direction. The state reports nearly 1.3 million cases and more than 21,500 deaths. The seven-day positivity case rate hovers around 10%, but it more than doubled — from 11.07% to 22.75% — between Monday and Tuesday of this week. On Dec. 30, nearly 6,300 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, a 51% increase over Nov. 30. Unlike other states, DeSantis refuses to let Florida report how many of those people are on ventilators.
And though we’ve known for months that one or more vaccines would likely receive emergency-use authorization in December, Florida’s vaccine roll-out plan has forced people to wait in hours-long lines, endlessly dial phone numbers that don’t answer and attempt to log into websites that don’t respond. Unlike the collapse of the state’s unemployment compensation website in May, DeSantis can’t blame this fiasco on his predecessor. For he’s the one who decided to ignore federal recommendations and jump people 65 and older to the head of the line without first ensuring that supplies and distribution systems would be there for them.
We give the governor his due. Besides supporting the environment, DeSantis has pushed for improvements to Florida’s grossly underfunded treatment of mental health. He eased the cost of pre-paid college tuition for about 224,000 customers. He secured full pardons for the Groveland Four, the Black men accused of raping a white woman in a 1949 case he called a miscarriage of justice. He championed a significant pay raise for teachers last year. And he forced the Legislature to legalize the smoking of medical marijuana — as an amendment approved by 72% of Florida voters had intended.
But DeSantis has ignored the voters’ will that felons who’ve served their time be allowed to vote. In a series of court challenges, he has insisted that they first pay all court costs and fees, without regard for their ability to pay. As a result, wealthy ex-felons may vote in Florida, but poor ones can’t. It doesn’t matter, as one court said, that the state can’t even tell them what they owe.
DeSantis also pushed for a divisive ban on “sanctuary cities” that refused to detain suspected undocumented immigrants. He legalized putting guns in the hands of classroom teachers, despite widespread opposition. He expanded the use of scarce tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers in an attack on public education. He foolishly endorsed three new toll roads unwanted by their communities. He made it harder for citizens to gather petitions for ballot initiatives when state legislators refuse to listen. And in a chilling assault on free speech, he signed a bill that forces citizens to pay developers’ legal fees if they’re unsuccessful in challenging proposed land-use changes.
DeSantis also shows a sloppy disregard for public records laws. Some days, his daily calendar appears after 6 p.m., listing events that have long since ended. He makes people wait months for routine public records requests and forced newspapers to sue to get the reports of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which Florida’s Sunshine Law affords no excuse to hide. And many South Florida mayors complain they can never get him on the phone.
Perhaps most consequential, DeSantis has made right-wing credentials, particularly membership in the Federalist Society, a litmus test for appointment to the Florida Supreme Court, as well as circuit and county court benches. If that doesn’t bother you, imagine if only ACLU members were considered. No group that represents a particular ideology should have a monopoly on judicial appointments.
Equally disturbing, after the presidential election, DeSantis promoted, without proof, the baseless claim that Democrats had stolen the election from President Trump and that citizens should lobby lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Michigan to overturn the election results. No other governor in America rattled the public’s faith in a democracy so shamelessly. He still has not acknowledged that Joe Biden is the president-elect.
But DeSantis’ response to the pandemic will be his legacy.
We watched in disgust as the governor, without a mask, high-fived strangers at a Trump campaign rally in October. We recall how he bought a million doses of hydroxychloroquine, the unproven treatment favored by Trump, and promoted testimonials by a doctor and patient during a media briefing. And we will never forget how he hid information about Florida’s death toll as voters made their way to the polls in November.
Cold and distant on the public stage, DeSantis has shown a lack of empathy for Floridians who’ve lost their lives to the pandemic. It’s why he’s called “DeathSantis,” “DuhSantis” and “DeSatan” on Twitter. The New Republic declared him its “Scoundrel of the Year” and said: “In any other circumstance we would call him a murderer.”