Sooner or later, every public office holder and political candidate is going to run into one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations.
As a rule, it’s usually best if they do whatever unpleasant task presents itself. Take the slings and arrows, bite the bullet, grin and bear it, enter the lion’s den, apply whatever cliché you feel like. As the great campaign strategist Woody Allen (maybe, sort of) said, “90% of success is just showing up” – even when you’d rather be almost anywhere else.
Which is why we saw so much of Gov. Ron DeSantis last week. Many of his critics expressed mock surprise that he interrupted his presidential campaign and came home to deal with Hurricane Idalia. His arrival was hastened by the racist murders of three innocent people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville.
Well, what did anyone expect?
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Did anyone seriously think any governor, or any responsible leader at any level of state and local government, would phone it in when a strengthening storm is moving northward in the warm Gulf of Mexico toward Florida’s western shores? Or when a hate-filled lunatic — aptly described by DeSantis as “a deranged scumbag” – goes on a murderous rampage, does any Floridian not share the grief and horror?
Like him or not, the governor represents the state, just as the president symbolizes the country.
It’s not surprising that Democrats, and others who basically just hate the guy, accused DeSantis of phony political posturing. It would be surprising if they had not claimed his actions were just an act. DeSantis was loudly booed and jeered when he started to speak at a vigil in Jacksonville after the shooting, until City Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman graciously asked the crowd to listen politely – not to let their disdain for the governor detract from the solemnity of the occasion.
And DeSantis obviously knew this crowd was not with him. He’s the one who eliminated the Jacksonville-to-Chattahoochee congressional district, ousting former Rep. Al Lawson from Congress. The redistricting plan — specifically, whether there should be a minority-access seat in North Florida — is being contested in court now, though voting-rights groups won a round this weekend.
DeSantis is the governor who has rooted out diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs from state government, stamped out teaching of critical race theory in schools, disapproved some Advanced Placement African-American history curriculum. It is his Republican Party that gave us the Supreme Court justices who outlawed affirmative action in college admissions last summer.
So DeSantis, if he can read a room at all, knew what kind of reception he was likely to get at the vigil in front of the Dollar General store. He has obvious political skills, but empathy is not among them. He doesn’t bite his lower lip and “feel your pain” like Bill Clinton, or mingle with hurricane victims to offer condolences like Lawton Chiles.
DeSantis announced state spending of $1 million to strengthen security at Edward Waters University, where the killer had been shooed away by a security guard before the killings, plus $100,000 for a charity aiding families of victims. Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, was unimpressed.
“While DeSantis may feign concern now, his track record speaks louder than his hollow words,” the legislator said. “We need actions, not publicity stunts.”
Related, on the Deeper Dive podcast – State Rep. Angie Nixon Speaks Out After Jacksonville Hate Crime
Aside from doing the decent and necessary thing, DeSantis could reap some political advantage from being there. Not going to Jacksonville would have looked timid. Showing up and taking the taunts makes him look willing to represent all of the state, even where he’s not welcome.
President Biden did something similar in Maui. After first having “no comment” about the wildfires, many of which occurred while he was on vacation, the president flew to Hawaii and showed his concern for disaster victims. His reception was tepid, but public reaction would have been a lot worse if Biden hadn’t gone.
Social media platforms were filled with hoots about DeSantis finally coming back to Florida as Idalia approached the state, as if any governor would try to run the hurricane response from Iowa or South Carolina.
Actually, tens of thousands of state, county and city officials do the real work in any emergency, and DeSantis could have done the executive decision-making by Zoom and conference calls, but people want to see their governor sharing the experience.
So he went on TV to urge Floridians to prepare and advise of recovery logistics being put in place around the Big Bend. And if those news conferences got picked up by the networks and seen in Iowa and New Hampshire, well, as DeSantis put it, “You do what you need to do.”
Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.