TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis has become arguably the most powerful governor in Florida’s history.
The Republican governor opened Florida’s new legislative session this week by pushing for even more control over state lawmakers and his top priorities, including cracking down on election crimes, spending $8 million to transport “unauthorized aliens” out of state and targeting “wokeness” in schools.
His move comes in the wake of November wins in Tallahassee, where DeSantis pressured lawmakers to approve bans on vaccine mandates that solidified his reputation in the state and nationally as one of the biggest foes of President Joe Biden.
With one year left in his first term in office, DeSantis’ consolidation of power has become clear: Democrats, who are in the minority, are unable to stop him. And Republicans in the Florida Legislature are enthusiastically carrying out his wishes or are unwilling to buck him.
“He’s become the 1,100-pound gorilla in state government,” said Tom Lee, a Republican and former Senate president who dealt with four different governors during the 18 years he was in the Legislature. Lee’s wife is Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a DeSantis appointee. “Gov. DeSantis is extremely popular relative to most of his predecessors. With that goes a tremendous amount of power.”
One current Republican legislator granted anonymity to speak about the governor offered a more blunt assessment: “They are not going to embarrass Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantis is essentially the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and the chief justice of the Supreme Court right now.”
DeSantis’ popularity has soared in Florida and across the country amid his resistance to Covid-related restrictions and never-ending culture wars. He’s heading into his November reelection with millions of dollars in the bank while his three Democratic challengers struggle to break out. While he downplays any national ambitions, polling has consistently shown him to lead the Republican pack if former President Donald Trump doesn’t run. And in a sign of a potential crack in his relationship with Trump, the former president this week appeared to go after DeSantis with a thinly-veiled attack on “politicians” who won’t say publicly if they’ve received a Covid booster shot, as the governor has refused to do.
The GOP governor celebrated Florida’s 2022 legislative session this week not only on a glide path to reelection, but with immense control over the new laws that will shape the state and that are popular with the conservative base. Besides elections and education, DeSantis has pressed lawmakers to approve immigration-related measures, including one blocking state contracts for private businesses that partner with the Biden administration to transport unaccompanied minors from the southern border.
Some longtime Capitol veterans and insiders say that many GOP legislators have little inclination to resist or cross DeSantis because he will cut off communication. “There are no second chances,” said one former legislator, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the governor. “It’s well known you can’t go against him. If you cross him once, you’re dead.”
That understanding underscores why it was surprising when some Republicans in the Florida House this week did question some of the governor’s budget recommendations, with the House budget chief suggesting that the DeSantis’ administration did some juggling to make it look like their spending plan was smaller than it actually was.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has publicly reveled in his pugnacious reputation.
“Florida has become the escape hatch for those chafing under authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions,” the governor said this week during his State of the State address at Florida’s capitol. “These unprecedented policies have been as ineffective as they have been destructive. They are grounded more in blind adherence to Faucian declarations than they are in the constitutional traditions.”
His State of the State address follows a blunt interview over the weekend on Fox News, where he said: “You’ve always got to be on offense.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis, when asked for comment, said the governor’s remarks on Fox News illustrated his approach to governing.
The Florida governor’s office once was considered among the weakest in the nation, hemmed in by a system imposed after the Civil War that divided power among other elected officials. But the office has changed in the last two decades due to voter-approved referendums and governors who have chosen to use their power creatively.
When DeSantis came into office in early 2019 the recently former congressman expressed a deferential attitude to GOP legislative leaders and an openness to deal-making on high priority legislation sought by legislative leaders, including a measure on toll roads and others removing regulations for new health care facilities. It was a considerable turnaround from Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who had power struggles with fellow members of the GOP in the Legislature and often found his agenda ignored.
But that began to transform during the pandemic. Lawmakers in 2020 ceded their spending authority and DeSantis spent hundreds of millions of dollars without legislative approval due to the Covid-19 emergency. The governor has since used his administration to battle with school districts over school openings and mask mandates as well as local municipalities and the federal government over vaccine requirements.
DeSantis has ignored deadlines for personnel appointments, including ones to the judiciary. He’s routinely canceled meetings of the state Cabinet — which includes three other elected officials — and brushed aside legal questions on whether he was allowed to install a new top state environmental regulator without concurrence of the Cabinet.
Last fall his administration insisted that it had the power to fine local governments that implemented vaccine mandates for government employees. But it wasn’t until November that legislators changed the law to fit the administration’s interpretation of law.
This had made DeSantis a regular target of Democrats in Florida and beyond. He is regularly skewered by liberals, who call him “DeathSantis” over his hands-off approach to the pandemic.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, said DeSantis is too popular with rank-and-file Republican voters for Republican legislators to challenge his actions.
“In addition to his veto pen, Republican lawmakers see him as appealing to their base, so if they question him they’re questioning the base which would hurt them on the campaign trail,” Eskamani said. “So not only do they consent to his extreme agenda but some try to appeal to it by filing their own bills grounded in the culture wars.”
State Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat, lamented the current imbalance of power between the Legislature and the governor, saying they are responsible for “their constituents, not the governor.”
“While Gov. DeSantis is the leader of his party, there are a number of Floridians depending on their legislators to represent their best interests, not those of the governor and his potential presidential campaign,” Diamond said.
During the Delta variant surge over the summer and early fall, DeSantis had pushed legislators to hold a special legislative session to combat the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates. The governor finally announced one on his own in late October without reaching a deal first with Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson. But GOP legislators largely fell in line with the governor and passed a comprehensive bill prohibiting vaccine requirements even though it sidestepped some sanctions that DeSantis wanted imposed on businesses that put mandates in place.
That’s the same path expected for his lengthy agenda for the 2022 session, which also includes a plan to let parents sue school districts if they use critical race theory-inspired materials as well as a plan to scrap the state’s current system of high-stakes testing in public schools.
“Republicans are doing very well and hanging together on a lot of these issues. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” said Lee. “He’s been very effective in picking issues and having his finger on the pulse on how the public reacts… When you are on the trajectory he is on right now, you are not going to have a lot of detractors in your own party.”