Bill Cotterell: Florida has never had a governor like Ron DeSantis

The state's chief executive has built his unprecedented dominance of state government by catering to his growing conservative base.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition annual meeting at the Venetian in Las Vegas, Nov. 19, 2022.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition annual meeting at the Venetian in Las Vegas, Nov. 19, 2022. Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Like him or not, Gov. Ron DeSantis heads into his second term as the most significant governor of Florida since Gov. LeRoy Collins had greatness thrust upon him nearly 70 years ago.

And, coincidentally, the motivation of both men is public education — the most expensive and important thing that state government does. But while Collins is honored for going against the public will in the mid-1950s, DeSantis has built his unprecedented dominance of state government by catering to the whims and worries of a growing conservative base.

Collins was elected governor just after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Although he promised to use “all legal means” to maintain the segregated Old South he’d grown up in, Collins made the fateful decision that Florida would not join the backlash of “massive resistance” that other southern states mounted against integration. 

When legislators passed a law allowing schools to close if ordered to integrate, Collins vetoed it. When they passed an “interposition resolution” — purporting to nullify the Supreme Court ruling in Florida — he wrote on its cover sheet that history should note he lacked legal authority to veto a resolution, but would if he could.

DeSantis is no Collins, but his leadership is just as decisive, in substance if not in style.

In his first term, won by less than a percentage point, the Republican governed with the flashy showmanship of a Claude Kirk and the PR skills of a Jeb Bush. He picked fights with Disney, stripping the entertainment behemoth of its unique governing status, forced the Legislature to draw congressional districts his way, championed COVID vaccines under Donald Trump and then created a statewide grand jury to investigate them under Joe Biden — whom he sneeringly calls “Brandon” at campaign rallies.

He’s chartered airplanes for midnight flights of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, suspended a duly elected state attorney for pledging not to enforce new abortion restrictions DeSantis signed into law, and picked highly visible fights over female-impersonator drag shows, transgender athletes in women’s sports, “woke” teachings and business practices, and the handling of sexual topics in the earliest elementary grades.

And that’s just part of what DeSantis has done to antagonize the Left and cultivate the Right. Of course, several of his initiatives have gotten him sued, but his conservative base clearly loves him. He was re-elected by an unprecedented margin of nearly 20 points on Nov. 8, carrying 62 of Florida’s 67 counties, and voters gave his party supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Democrats bitterly accused DeSantis of censoring curriculum, bullying teachers and school superintendents over masks and vaccinations, and using helpless refugees as pawns. But the election results — and polls showing DeSantis leading Trump for the GOP presidential nomination — indicate how little voters are listening to the minority party.

And oh, by the way, the Republican Party of Florida became the statewide leader in voter registration in DeSantis’ first term. The GOP advantage has been growing, month by month.

The governor grabbed headlines — and considerable air time with fawning Fox News hosts — with those midnight flights of migrants to Massachusetts, the Disney contretemps and his re-election romp. But his biggest political impact, his long-term legacy, was in county school board races across the state.

DeSantis took the unprecedented step of endorsing candidates in 30 school board races, and most of his candidates won. At a post-election gathering, he said he hopes to flip more school board seats in 2024.

And there’s a constitutional amendment planned for the 2023 legislative session to make school board races partisan. There will also be a “constitutional carry” bill that would let gun owners tote concealed weapons without getting the state permit currently required. And maybe further abortion restrictions, like lowering the new 15-week limit to 12, or whenever a fetal heartbeat is detected.

In short, he’s positioned to reshape Florida’s political climate more than any governor since LeRoy Collins changed Florida from a rural tourist spot to the diverse society it is. In doing so, he can position himself as the smiling new face of a Republican Party growing weary of Donald Trump. 

Bill Cotterell is a retired Florida Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He writes a weekly column for City and State. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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