When Ron DeSantis crawled rather than swept into the Florida governor’s office to become #46 last fall by a threadbare margin of 32,000 votes, he bore all the signs of a Donald Trump acolyte laced with rightwing Republican notions on the economy and business (lower taxes, deregulate), education (privatize), immigration (build the wall, no sanctuary cities), health care and abortion (no Affordable Care Act or Medicaid plus) and the environment (deregulate, drill, frack).
Just one week before the election, on Halloween, he had joined President Trump at a noisy chest-thumping rally in Fort Myers, where he was energetically applauded and promoted by the president — something that not only scared the Democrats but may have pushed DeSantis across the finish line in first place, allowing him to defeat Democrat Andrew Gillum by less than 1 percent of the vote.
For five previous years as a U.S. congressman from Florida’s 6th District near Jacksonville and Daytona Beach, DeSantis voted against nearly every proposed bill aimed at protecting or regulating the use of public land and water in the United States. In most cases those votes against environmental protection amounted to votes for corporate interests in mining, oil production or other uses.
But since Jan. 6, the day DeSantis was sworn into office in Tallahassee, Democrats and a rising tide of activists who identify not with a party but with a single issue — saving Florida’s degraded water systems and environment — have been seemingly stunned by a man transformed, and by a style of leadership so radically different than his predecessor’s and so decisive that celebrations have broken out like little bonfires across the state.
“There’s a dramatic difference from previous governors through the last eight years, or perhaps even 12 years,” noted Peter Bergerson, a professor of political science at Florida Gulf Coast University.
“I think he clearly represents a different world view, a different philosophy of government. He sees completely different roles of government — he’s less ideological for sure — and he recognizes the winds of political change.”
Winds that have blown in the water issue and placed it front and center for many Floridians.
In short order, Gov. DeSantis announced he would push for billions of dollars to save the Everglades by changing the water systems in and around Lake Okeechobee and the southern peninsula. He fired the South Florida Water Management District board, the biggest in the state — later he would begin replacing the governing board of the St. Johns River Water Management District — and he appointed new governing board members without political allegiances to agriculture and the sugar industry, among other actions.
Describing his own eight weeks of effort since Jan. 6 in his March 3 State of the State address, the governor cited “expediting key projects, establishing a blue-green algae task force, appointing a Chief Science Officer to better harness scientific data and research, (and requisitioning) $2.5 billion over the next four years for water and Everglades restoration.
“Given the persistent water problems we’ve seen over the last several years, now is the time to be bold,” he said.
So far, officials at U.S. Sugar Corp., which has vast holdings around Lake Okeechobee — where water advocates have long insisted water, not sugar cane, should be stored, cleaned and released southward to Florida Bay — did not respond to a request for comment on the governor’s first eight weeks in office.
Gov. DeSantis and his staff did not respond to questions and an interview request from Florida Weekly by email (four times) or telephone (five times) over the course of nine days. Receptionists in the governor’s office said the emails had been received.
Capt. Daniel Andrews, a Gulf Coast fishing guide turned water advocate who was invited by the governor to the State of the State and the Governor’s Ball afterward (he’s also the executive director of the nonprofit and increasingly visible Captains for Clean Water), doesn’t expect Gov. DeSantis to have an easy time signing off on his water promises.
“I don’t think it’s a question of whether he’s willing to get it done,” Capt. Andrews said. “The question is: Are legislators going to do the right thing? As far as the governor’s actions on water, he has broad support on both sides of the aisle. Voters are happy with the vision he set forward.
“But it’s going to be a challenge to get the legislature on board, because there are special interests. We’re hearing some hemming and hawing.”
Appeal to the conservative base
Gov. DeSantis pleased his conservative base, too, noted William March, a longtime political commentator for the Tampa Bay Times who watched the State of the State address and offered live commentary from WUSF public radio in Tampa.
As the governor arrived to speak last week, flowers adorned the desks of nearby congressional leaders. His wife, Casey, a former television show host in Jacksonville, appeared in the gallery wearing a singularly vivid blue dress, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“He’s had a wonderful honeymoon,” Mr. March said on air the night of the governor’s speech. “He’s pleased Democrats with a number of moves, (with his) environmental packaging, the pardoning of the Groveland Four. He’s appointed Democrats (to some government positions), and he’s pleased his base by appointing some very conservative justices to the (Florida) Supreme Court.”
Four young black men in Lake County, one a minor, became known as the Groveland Four after being accused of raping a young white woman in July 1949. Ultimately they were either hunted down and killed, shot and killed by a sheriff while in custody, or in one case imprisoned for almost 20 years then released, dying the next year (1969). They never received a fair trial, courts later concluded. Although the terrible injustice had been locally and regionally acknowledged in 2016, Gov. DeSantis wasted no time in pardoning them, posthumously.
But the honeymoon period, with its unexpected bipartisan support for the governor, could be waning.
“It’s going to be tough to find areas beyond (water policy),” Mr. March said. “He’s strongly in favor of expanding the state voucher program, and he’s appointed justices to the court more likely to allow that. On school security, he wants to arm teachers. These are things the Democrats are not in favor of. State lawmakers across the aisle are not seeing eye-to-eye (on education, gun control or abortion, which Gov. DeSantis has made a prominent social issue).”
Gov. DeSantis became the first in the state’s modern history to enter office without the energetic support of Big Sugar. At 40, a graduate of Dunedin Public High School, Yale University and Harvard Law School and a former Naval officer who served as a military lawyer, the governor’s popularity has risen from under 50 percent to more than 60 percent in the polls, in just eight weeks.
Is he a contemporary political version of Associate Justice Hugo Black, the longest serving member of the United States Supreme Court (1937-1971) who came from Alabama, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth, but became known for his enduring legacy as a great Civil Rights advocate through the midsection of the 20th century? Has he changed political stripes?
This week Florida Weekly asked that whimsical question, taking a look at Florida’s new governor through the eyes of environmentalists, politicians, professors, longtime political commentators and others with a stake in the future and a willingness to advocate or at least closely observe, now.
On the environmental issues alone, Lucy Morgan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Bay Times who has known every Florida governor since the late 1960s, said she had “low expectations” for DeSantis, “given his past record on environmental issues and his close association with Donald Trump.”
Ms. Morgan’s view changed.
“I guess I should say that his initial actions on the environment offer hope for improving protections in Florida. I am particularly pleased to see someone — anyone — do something to undo the damage caused by former Gov. Rick Scott. The moves DeSantis has made against the work of the South Florida Water Management District are a big part of what desperately needed to change.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s an environmental hero, necessarily.
“I’m not sure I’d award him Hugo Black status, because we have yet to see how much backbone he has over time and (under) pressure from sugar lobbyists and others who would denigrate our environment to make more money,” said Ms. Morgan, who now writes occasional commentary for the Florida Phoenix.
“Ask me again in three years what I think.”
At a Gulf Coast fundraising event for Captains for Clean Water earlier this month, 450 people gathered at the onetime winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, which was choked by dangerous blue-green algae through 2018.
Among them were Republican politicians of every stripe, from mayors and city council members to county commissioners, state congressional leaders and U.S. Congressman Brian Mast, hailing from Florida’s 18th congressional district, which stretches from Jupiter and Port St. Lucie on the Indian River Lagoon west to Lake Okeechobee.
Congressman Mast rallied the crowd, inviting them all to be “captains” or leaders in the bipartisan fight for clean water.
“Florida probably won’t have another opportunity like this for at least the next decade,” he later told Florida Weekly.
Right now three crucial events are occurring simultaneously, he said: “The Army Corps of Engineers is (re)writing the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual that is the most important document when it comes to toxic discharges; Gov. DeSantis is leading the charge at the state level with a bold vision to fix our water quality; and I’m leading the charge at the federal level to get infrastructure projects built, making public health a priority for the Army Corps and stopping the pollution at the source.
“We must continue advocating for zero discharges to the St. Lucie and only the dry season flows to the Caloosahatchee that it needs to be healthy — not a drop more. Together, I’m confident we can make historic progress to protect public health and our environment. But we absolutely need to work together.”
For Gov. DeSantis, clean water and a thriving environment mean money and massive growth — 15 million more people in the next couple of decades, demographers say.
Critics say that’s a contradiction in terms. But some passionate advocates of careful, regulated growth management insist that not only can it be done, it must be done because little other choice exists.
“In 2011, the governor and Legislature gutted the state growth management act and state and regional oversight of growth and development fell way off at that point,” said Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida. “So we would like to see that reinstated at both the state and regional level. It would take the creation of a land-planning agency at the state level,” to start with.
But the new governor hasn’t gotten that far in his thinking, apparently. Instead he has a different message:
“My message is come to Florida. We will maintain a healthy economic environment. We’re committed to modernizing our infrastructure.”
That’s billions of dollars in commitment.
Below, politicians, professors, longtime political commentators and others weigh in on Gov. DeSantis.
¦ Chauncey Goss, Sanibel city councilman and a new governing board member of the South Florida Water Management District: “The awakening of 2016 — that year, this stopped being a bipartisan issue. It’s OK if you’re a Republican and you’re for the environment, because you’re also for the economy. Candidate DeSantis was smart enough to see that. He’s politically astute.
“Coming down here and going out on the boat — Captains for Clean Water took him out (and some others) — he got to see the devastating effects to the environment and the health impacts by living it. That had an impact.
“He’s come out of the gates running fast on this issue. I went to Tallahassee to his inaugural address and he hit all the high notes. He sees the correlation: You can’t have a healthy Florida if you don’t have healthy water. Florida can’t live to its potential if we have a resource that is floundering. From a straight economic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense.
“Other people have said they understood that but walked away. Now comes the hard part — we can always say what we want to do, and the governor has had a bit of a honeymoon period.
“Now, he has to work with legislature.”
¦ Joanne Davis, former spokeswoman for 1000 Friends of Florida, now a landscape designer in Palm Beach County: “It’s all great so far. I thought he was going to be an utter failure but he’s shown some courage standing up to everything one would expect of a Republican.
“I used to work with Republicans and Democrats all the time. Things have gotten so far out of balance it’s really refreshing to see someone buck the status quo.
And everybody loves clean water.
“I think he can do some, maybe not all of what he proposes. He’s on the right track. He’s showing leadership — showing that you can have an opinion that meets everyone’s hopes.
“Don’t get me started on (former Gov. Rick) Scott. I don’t think he served Florida very well. There was a reason they called him ‘Red-tide Rick.’ He didn’t like the Everglades. He came down here and smelled it and went back to Tallahassee and nothing got done.”
¦ Capt. Daniel Andrews, executive director, Captains for Clean Water: “Getting a reservoir built south of Lake Okeechobee, significantly increasing funding going to restoration, and better managing water resources throughout the state, so we have a sustainable environment — that’s what we have to do.
“I don’t see water as a Democrat or Republican issue. Our last governor was not good on water issues, but Gov. DeSantis has made it his priority. It’s a wake-up call to all Republicans and Democrats in Tallahassee.
“This is a partnership. The federal government is going to fund projects they believe in and see will make a difference. They want to see leadership on the state’s part, and I think Congressman (Brian) Mast has had some frustrations — how special interests have meddled in the formation of our water policy.
“As a funder, you’re not going to be that passionate about funding if you think special interests have been in there. There are so many other projects in this country that have need of special funds.
“But Congressman (Francis) Rooney and Congressman Mast (sound) very supportive of the governor’s initiative, recognizing it will be an uphill battle. They’re the two members of Congress most affected by this problem. They can take the message to Washington.”
¦ Paul Owens, president, 1000 Friends of Florida: “I can’t help but have a positive reaction to environmental protection returning to its rightful place as a bipartisan priority in Florida.
“Changing the boards of water management districts: It’s important to have people in place who share your commitment.
That’s the significance of the new appointments.
“For the last eight years the water management districts have not shown a lot of initiative on water quality issues, particularly as we reached a crisis in 2018. So, $2.5 billion over four years is $625 million per year, which is exactly what he’s proposed in his budget, And the executive order coming two days after his inauguration had enormous symbolic value.
“But all a governor can do is make a proposal. It’s up to the Legislature to follow through. I think he’s going to get some pushback from (the) Legislature … so it will require a lot of follow through from the governor.
“We laid out six issues to tackle Florida’s environmental challenges in an August report, and three of them were water: safeguarding the supply, promoting conservation of water and restoring water quality. We talked about sufficient funding, appointing effective leaders (and) a commitment to enforcing laws already established.
“The others include conserving natural lands (by) taking environmentally fragile land off the table so development is directed elsewhere; managing growth — and it would be nice to hear more from the governor and legislative leaders about this.
“And the sixth priority: addressing climate change and community resilience … We are ground zero for climate change here in Florida. We really need to incorporate that into our planning for the future. The governor has talked about sea level rise and community resilience, but those principles aren’t mentioned in his executive order, and there is no explicit mention of climate change.”
¦ Peter Bergerson, professor of political science, Florida Gulf Coast University: “Gov. DeSantis wants to hold the conservative base as closely as he can. That conservative base often centers around social issues like abortion, a free market less regulated, a very cautious approach to education.
“He is now opposed to the core curriculum. Those three issues appeal to part of the conservative base.
“What everyone is talking about is his issue on water and the environment — that’s the headline he wants. And he doesn’t want the focus to be on the other issues appealing to a conservative rural base. So he wants to expand the base but hold on to the Tea Party voters.
“What role will Trump play? That’s hard to say. (DeSantis) more than tipped his hat to Trump during the primary, he hugged him like a twin brother. I don’t see him playing publically a close role to Trump. But when Trump unveils his infrastructure plan, Republican governors will want a piece of that pie. Some of the major projects are going to require federal funding. If the majority leader in Florida wants highways in rural areas, or to repair northwest Florida … that’s going to need federal funding. The Everglades will need federal funding.
“So, I’d be surprised if he gave to Trump the bear hug Gov. (Charlie) Crist once gave to (President) Obama. Because Trump’s popularity is 50-50 at best in Florida. (DeSantis) doesn’t want to deal in the independent voter. That voter will determine his future success as well as Trump’s, so for sure Gov. De- Santis will not be playing with his children again and building a Lego ‘wall.’”
¦ Rob Moher, president and CEO, Conservancy of Southwest Florida: “I’d give him an ‘A’ for his first eight weeks — he’s toured the state and objectively assessed risks to human health and the environment, and the anger, frustration and angst of everyday Floridians.
“I believe there’s a genuineness to his commitment. A, he acknowledged a problem; B, he’s interested in results; and C, he’s prepared to look at science, not just certain advisors who might be less objective.
“The water is a unifier issue — it hurts Republicans and Democrats the same way. You literally have chambers of commerce along the coasts screaming for action. We definitely needed leadership. And the key leader is the governor of Florida. If the governor’s not on board we see what happens from the previous administration — things goes to hell in a hand-basket.
“Trump wants to open all the natural areas to fracking, and yeah, DeSantis isn’t having it. That’s encouraging.”
¦ Jason Pim, small business owner, Calusa Waterkeeper ranger and commodore of the Caloosahatchee Marching & Chowder Society sailing club on the Caloosahatchee River: “Gov. DeSantis has come out strong on water quality, so it’s left some environmentalists asking, ‘Who is this guy?’
“The goalposts he put in place are ambitious. Now it’s up to our state Legislature to fund these initiatives, drive the ball down the field and start kicking it through the uprights. Let’s be honest; we’re not even thinking of touchdowns yet.
“What would be a touchdown? The repeal of a 2016 state water bill that gave polluters, which is all of us, 20 more years to come into compliance with nutrient loading limits. BMAPs (Basin Management Action Plans) and TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) are intimidating terms, but all of us in Florida should start to learn more about them. They’re the ways we measure storm run-off into our waterways and manage nutrient pollution — the fuel for harmful algal blooms.
“In short, Florida’s Basin Management Action Plan program is simply not working … If Florida can’t start enforcing better pollution regulations and manage growth responsibly, none of the great people the governor has appointed to the water management boards and new task forces are going to have much of a shot at improving the situation.
“Our governor has proven he’s serious. Now it’s time for our legislature to prove they’re also up to the task. We’ll probably hear a lot about septic tanks and plastic straws during this legislative session. But until we address the elephant in the room — BMAPs, which look at all sources of run-off pollution — I’m not sure much will change with our water quality.” ¦