As campaign grinds on, Ron DeSantis doesn't play up his 'quintessential Italian American success story'

As the descendant of Italian immigrants, the Florida governor hasn't invoked his own ready-made American-dream narrative.

Florida Gov. and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis (left) sits with Fox News host Jesse Watters at Grimaldi's Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria on 6th Avenue in Manhattan, June 29, 2023.

Florida Gov. and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis (left) sits with Fox News host Jesse Watters at Grimaldi's Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria on 6th Avenue in Manhattan, June 29, 2023. Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

If elected president, Ron DeSantis would represent a demographic first in American history: The Florida governor would be the first person of Italian descent to occupy the Oval Office. But he’s also a “paisan” who doesn’t talk much, if at all, about being Italian.

Unlike President Joe Biden, who regularly touts his Irish Catholic heritage, or Barack Obama, who embraced his monumental role as the first African American president, DeSantis has never made his heritage a major part of his political identity. Over two statewide campaigns and his first national campaign, the governor has not discussed his family’s roots in much depth.

The 44-year-old has not attempted to win over voters with that narrative, unlike how cracking the glass ceiling shaped Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House in 2016. And while several towns in Italy have sought to claim him, DeSantis has not invoked his ready-made American-dream narrative as the descendant of immigrants who left Italy in search of a safer and more prosperous life in America.

But in a Republican presidential field that has been called the party’s most diverse ever, census demographics are likely to be raised as issues – in both the primaries and the general election. Beyond DeSantis, the field includes two Black candidates and two of Indian descent, one a woman and one in his 30s, plus two candidates in their 70s, and a second Italian American. 

Republicans have already put age prominently into the conversation, for instance. Biden, 80, is the oldest American to ever serve as president and will turn 82 soon after the 2024 election. Biden’s rival and Republican frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, will be 78 on Election Day. Either would be the oldest-elected president in American history.

It’s not as if DeSantis isn’t talking about immigration. In fact, he’s an immigration hardliner who recently floated ending birthright citizenship. He just doesn’t talk about his family’s own immigrant past.

Why not? As of Monday, a campaign spokesperson has not responded to a request for comment. 

Could it be a political calculation? Or perhaps DeSantis’ Italian heritage is not integral to his personal identity.

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It might feel strange to discuss DeSantis as having any level of diversity. The second-term Florida governor and 2024 presidential candidate is a straight white male with two Ivy-League degrees. In many ways, he checks the same boxes as almost every other president in American history.

Another thing he shares with every president before him is an immigrant history. Since the U.S. has never before had a Native American president, everyone’s family came from somewhere else.

And yet, no one of his ethnicity has ever taken up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. DeSantis’ ancestors came to the U.S. in the heart of what’s known as the “Great Arrival,” a period at the turn of the 20th century that saw millions of Italian immigrants making their way to American shores. 

Genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who was previously the chief family historian at Ancestry.com and has consulted with the FBI and on more than 20 television shows, tracked his family’s lineage, publishing her findings in a blog post on Medium in 2018.

His maternal great-great grandmother, Luigia, journeyed from the province Avellino in the southern Italian region of Campania through Ellis Island in 1917, as Europe fell into war, according to Smolenyak. Eight months pregnant, Luigia traveled with her two teenage daughters. Her son arrived in 1913, while her husband came over the previous decade. The family reunited in Pennsylvania.

DeSantis’ parents met in Ohio, and by 1978, his branch of the family settled in Florida. He was born in Jacksonville and raised on the Gulf Coast, in Dunedin. He attended Yale as an undergraduate and Harvard for law school, graduating from both with honors. He later married his wife, Casey, who herself has Sicilian heritage.

DeSantis’ immigrant path is a storybook tale, said Robert Allegrini, president of the National Italian American Foundation. A third-generation American, DeSantis reached the pinnacle of American higher education, joined the military, was elected governor of the third-most populous state and is now a national political figure.

“His is the quintessential Italian American success story,” Allegrini said. “It is what all of us aspire to and many of us achieve, and why we are an enriching component to the country.”

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Trump, who leads DeSantis by a wide margin in Republican primary polling, this spring floated a new nickname for the Florida governor: Meatball Ron.

It’s not clear what exactly Trump meant by that insult. Was it a reference to DeSantis’ Italian heritage? But the former president later said (perhaps tongue in cheek) that it would be “totally inappropriate” and swore off the nickname. And besides publicly indulging in pizza several times, DeSantis has done little to call attention to his family’s past.

Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor emeritus of government and longtime Florida political expert, isn’t surprised and doesn’t expect him to. “I don’t see that as a winning strategy,” Paulson said.

Italians are a small slice of the general population, he said, and while DeSantis could energize Italian American voters, he runs the risk of alienating non-Italians. About 16 million of the roughly 332 million Americans reported Italian ancestry in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau – or about 4.8 percent. 

“The more you stress a particular ethnic heritage, the more likely you’re going to lose support among the electorate,” Paulson said. “And there aren't many people who would say ‘I’m going to vote for DeSantis because he’s Italian American.’ ”

Matthew Isbell, a Tallahassee-based Democratic voting data consultant, said ethnic politics plays better on a local scale. For example, Venezuelan- or Cuban-descendent candidates running for local office in Miami-Dade or Broward counties could attempt to distinguish themselves through their heritage.

It’s harder on a national scale, Isbell explained, especially because the candidates – at least the front-runners – are known entities, likely to attract or repel voters for their politics or personalities. Further, many right-leaning voters in heavy Italian American areas, such as the New York-New Jersey area, are heavily in Trump’s camp.

“Do I just assume that because he's Italian American that DeSantis just flips those areas and takes them from Trump?” Isbell said. “I don’t assume that at all.”

Former U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato, a New York Republican who supports DeSantis, said he backs the governor – “I think Trump did a good job but his time is over” – not for his Italian American roots “but because I think he’s very bright, very capable, and he has an opportunity now to run and be one of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination.” In particular, D’Amato said he supports DeSantis and Florida Republicans passing anti-trans legislation affecting schools.

Back in 1980, D’Amato said, he passively rode the New York Italian wave into office. The Long Island politician pulled off a political upset and vaulted himself to statewide office, the first Italian American to do so in New York. He didn’t explicitly campaign on his heritage (though he did regularly bring his Italian mother out on the campaign trail), he said, but received a lot of support from the community, particularly the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, which held events in its lodges across the state.

“They were an essential element in winning the nomination in the primary and winning a tough campaign,” the former senator told City & State. “It played a significant role in my getting the opportunity to run and eventually winning.”

That said, D’Amato ran only in New York, which has the largest population of Italian Americans. “The Italian American heritage does not play that important a role in the national election,” he said. DeSantis is “going to be judged on what he did in his state, and how he’s viewed, and how he’s articulated the policies.”

Melissa Stone, a Florida-based GOP political strategist, said DeSantis doesn’t need to tell the story of his immigrant roots, because he already speaks the language of immigrants and projects their values. “I don’t know what opportunity he would be missing, especially because he is talking about freedom, he is talking about opportunity, he is using his experience,” said Stone, who does not work for the DeSantis campaign (the governor appointed her to the Florida Commission on the Status of Women in 2022, according to her company’s website). 

Stone, who was communications director and later chief of staff to then-Gov. Rick Scott, added that polling shows Republican voters believe the economy, education and the country as a whole are on the wrong track. “What do I think they want to hear? They want to hear who’s going to turn it around,” she said. “They’re looking for energy, passion, zeal.” 

But it’s exactly because of those shared values that Allegrini, the head of the National Italian American Foundation, argues DeSantis should be leveraging his heritage more directly. “Because Italians are, No. 1, family people with strong family values, and that corresponds to his values,” he said. “And they are wonderful entrepreneurs, and he has made his business-friendly approach” a central part of his campaign.

Other high-profile statewide officials, most prominently Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, embrace their heritage and even make it a part of their political persona, with Passidomo having hosted “Italian dinner”-themed fundraisers.

“So (DeSantis) speaking about his Italian heritage, his hardworking ancestors, would be a plus in his campaign, and he should not shy away from them,” Allegrini added. 

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Having a president descended from Italian immigrants would be an enormous source of ethnic pride for Italian Americans, Allegrini said, an achievement that would cut across political ideology. Geraldine Ferraro came closest in 1984 when she ran as the Democratic vice presidential nominee on Walter Mondale’s ticket. Former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani also ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

This year, Italians have a double shot: former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose mother has Sicilian roots, is also running in the GOP presidential primary — and also trails Trump significantly. But it’s less clear what an Italian American president would mean for the rest of the country, and the world, compared to electing the first Black president, or one day cracking the gender barrier.

Until the mid 20th century, the presidency was the domain of WASPs, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, was the first president to break through that barrier in 1960. Kennedy’s election was the culmination of ethnic mixing that followed World War II, explained Alvin Tillery, a political science professor at Northwestern University who specializes in race, ethnicity, and politics. 

Before the war, the country was more segregated, as racial and ethnic groups huddled closely together. But while serving overseas, America’s troops made friends with one another across European ethnic divides. When they returned and sought to buy homes in the suburbs with G.I. Bill funding, they moved near one another, mixing neighborhoods and blood lines and deemphasizing European ethnic factionalism, Tillery said.

They developed ethnic “sides” of their families, according to the professor. “Those ethnic differences become submerged and people just become white, essentially,” he said. How historically significant would it be to elect a new white ethnicity? Biden, only the nation’s second Irish Catholic president, was elected without much regard for his heritage. “It’s a great question,” Tillery said. “And it’s one we’ve been debating in academia for 30 years.”

D’Amato said it’s not as important as it was when he first ran for office. “I think we’re living in a different time…. I think the Italian American community rallied behind me and I think (for New York Gov. Mario) Cuomo because there was a feeling that we should be given an opportunity,” he said. “Italian Americans have become an integral part of our community life and there is not that great feeling that we are being held back.”

The possible removal of historic weight from the election of an Italian American president could work for the Florida governor, according to Allegrini. In the past, an Italian candidate might have to overcome stereotypes about mob connections. Unlike Kennedy, who famously declared on the campaign trail that he was “not the Catholic candidate for president,” DeSantis doesn’t need to distance himself from his heritage.

“I think we are well beyond, at this point, the unfortunate associations of the past,” Allegrini said.

Tillery added that the significance of an Italian American president may differ based on generation and location, which could give DeSantis an opportunity to tout his heritage down the road. When he travels to states with larger Italian populations, he could rail against the removal of Christopher Columbus statues and the rebranding of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day – issues that could slot right into DeSantis’ culture war politics.

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In her blog post, Smolenyak compared DeSantis’ ancestors’ immigration story to that of contemporary immigrants: Luigia and her family almost weren’t allowed into the country. 

The U.S. passed the Immigration Act of 1917, which limited immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, while Luigia and her daughters were on their ship. They arrived into port before the implementation of the new rules, which imposed a literacy requirement, and when the deportation rate was about 2%, Smolenyak wrote.

At the time of the 2018 blog post, DeSantis was in the midst of his first bid for governor and supported Trump’s border wall effort. DeSantis has only hardened his immigration stance since, using state funding to shuttle migrants to liberal places like California, New York, and Martha’s Vineyard. And this month DeSantis promised to end birthright U.S. citizenship.

Allegrini said he sees no contradiction in DeSantis’ immigrant background and his aggressive immigration stance. “I don't see it as anti-immigrant,” he said. “I see it as anti-illegal immigrant.” And D’Amato, the grandchild of Italian immigrants, echoed that sentiment. “I think we have to take a hardline stance and make sure it’s legal immigration,” he said. “And not illegal.”

Many migrants today are “legal” in the sense they arrive at the border to seek asylum, a legitimate pathway to citizenship. After presenting themselves to government officials, those eligible have permission to remain in the country while their asylum cases wind their way through court. But the asylum pathway has been stretched beyond capacity as migrants surge the southern border.

Other migrants still cross the border illegally between checkpoints and without presenting themselves to agents. The Florida-funded flights from Texas to places like Martha’s Vineyard included people seeking asylum.

Tillery sees it differently. “That’s where the politics of whiteness are clearly intertwined with being Italian American,” he said. “DeSantis does not relate to a Mexican immigrant because he doesn’t see them as the same.”

Stone said DeSantis’ strategists aren’t discussing navigating any contradiction on immigration, focusing instead on other issues. She said if she were advising the governor, she would tell him to talk even more about the border: “There’s only a contradiction to reporters and pundits. The average voter understands there’s a difference.”

Yet Paulson said DeSantis’ identity as an immigration hardliner could be one of the reasons he has not put his own immigration story front and center in his public life. “People would see the inconsistencies,” he said.

Voters will soon have the opportunity to weigh in. The Iowa caucuses are six months away.

Josh Solomon is a veteran journalist with nearly a decade of experience covering local & state politics and the criminal justice system. His past newspaper experience includes the Tampa Bay Times and The Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.). 

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