TALLAHASSEE — It took just 15 days for Florida’s legislature to approve Gov. Ron DeSantis’s proposal to enact a legal overhaul that makes it harder for crime and personal injury victims to sue for damages.
Not long after, the Republican governor signed into law another signature priority — expanding school choice, through a voucher program allowing all Florida K-12 students to use taxpayer money to attend private schools.
And as the Sunshine State’s legislative session passes the halfway point, lawmakers are moving quickly to pass a slate of other bills backed by DeSantis, including banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy and broadening the death penalty by eliminating the requirement for a unanimous verdict.
The likely 2024 presidential contender has struggled on the national stage over how to engage former president Donald Trump and has dropped in recent polls. But in Florida, DeSantis is rapidly advancing a legislative agenda that capitalizes on a Republican supermajority to cement some of his most controversial proposals into law and remake the state to his vision. It’s an agenda he contends is rooted in “freedom” — but also involves tighter government control over some fundamental aspects of life.
During his four years in office, DeSantis has become the most powerful Florida governor in at least a generation. He galvanized the state’s shift to the right and won reelection by 19 percentage points — a victory that expanded the ranks of his allies in the legislature, allowing him to pass bills with little to no meaningful opposition. But he has also amassed power by crossing the traditional boundaries of gubernatorial control and intimidating opponents into silence.
DeSantis has wielded his power over both small school boards and such major entities as Disney by backing or naming candidates to usually nonpartisan boards that now operate under his mandate. He has used his executive power to push for the expansion of a law prohibiting discussion of gender and sexual orientation in class. And he has harnessed the power of the state to target foes — going after the Special Olympics, the Tampa Bay Rays and an elected state attorney after each crossed his agenda.
As the focus turns to the 2024 race, DeSantis’s allies and foes are looking at the current legislative session as a lens into how he governs and what type of leader he might be at a national level — where he would face far more hurdles with a divided Congress. Some are drawing parallels to Trump, not just in his penchant for using the powers of his office to pursue political enemies but also for fraying the institutional norms of the nation’s democracy.
“The man is an instinctive authoritarian and practicing bully,” said Mac Stipanovich, who spent three decades as a GOP consultant and lobbyist in Tallahassee but left the party in 2019 during Trump’s presidency. “And he is sufficiently popular with the Republican Party primary base that you cross him at your own considerable risk.”
DeSantis’s supporters push back on the idea that he is all-commanding, contending that his majority backing in the legislature and reelection victory give him such a broad mandate that no strong-arming is needed. A spokesman for the governor noted that the session is only 60 days long and that “everything has to get done within that window.”
“The people of Florida overwhelmingly reelected Governor DeSantis to deliver his agenda,” Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’s press secretary, said in an email. “And they provided a supermajority within the Florida legislature to facilitate this.”
A rapid rise to power
After being elected in 2018, DeSantis initially took a moderate stance on issues such as improving water quality and embracing a limited medical marijuana program. The Yale and Harvard grad, who previously served in Congress, also tried to assuage some of Florida’s partisan and cultural tensions, accepting an invitation from gay rights supporters to visit the memorial to the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Then came the pandemic. At first, he supported restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But in the late spring of 2020, DeSantis gambled on a different approach.
His decision to reopen commerce and schools fueled high-profile clashes with local government officials, scorn from federal health officials and mockery from late-night television hosts. But DeSantis’s actions energized GOP voters in Florida, and the governor noticed.
“He figured out faster than most people that being against covid restrictions was really, really good politics,” said Joshua Karp, a strategist who worked on former Democratic congressman Charlie Crist’s campaign against DeSantis last year. “He started rolling back restrictions really fast, and it snowballed. He got a ton of praise for it but also criticism.”
Karp added: “And Ron DeSantis’s reaction to criticism has always been to snap back.”
From there, DeSantis’s turn further to the right sped up. He signed into law sweeping legislation cracking down on protests in the wake of demonstrations that began after George Floyd’s killing, restricted discussions of LGBTQ content in elementary school, and enacted a law that limits how race and history are taught in classrooms.
The governor’s behavior toward perceived political opponents also became more confrontational. Last year, DeSantis lashed out at Disney after former CEO Bob Chapek objected to the Parental Rights in Education Law, which critics called the “don’t say gay” legislation. The governor then pushed through a change in state law eliminating a special taxing district Disney had relied on for more than a half-century to build and operate its Central Florida theme parks.
The news stunned Florida Republicans and veteran political observers, who saw it as an unusual display of anti-business government overreach by a conservative politician. Disney CEO Bob Iger called DeSantis’s actions “not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida.”
DeSantis’s ire has not been limited to Disney.
In June, he vetoed $35 million in state spending for a youth sports complex the Tampa Bay Rays had hoped to use as a spring training facility. At the time, the governor was upset with the team’s announcement that it was donating $50,000 to a gun-control organization in response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Tex.
Also that month, he threatened to fine the Special Olympics $27.5 million if the organization enforced a coronavirus vaccine rule for its Special Olympics USA Games event in Orlando. The organization quickly reversed the rule.
In August, after a cursory investigation meant to “root out” progressive prosecutors, DeSantis suspended twice-elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren. A federal district judge later ruled DeSantis had violated Warren’s First Amendment rights and the Florida Constitution.
As DeSantis’s tactics against his opponents have become sharper, critics say fewer people have been willing to challenge him.
They point to college presidents voluntarily caving to the governor’s demands to stop funding diversity programs — even before a law demanding such has been passed — and a similar willingness among fellow Republicans to give DeSantis a wide berth.
“It used to be, if you were a mayor, you could criticize the governor, and there might be a public argument for a day or two, and then you move on,” said Stipanovich, the former GOP consultant. “Today, if you criticize the governor, he goes after you. He recruits someone to run against you. He and his minions pound you on social media. He comes to your jurisdiction and dog cusses you, and unless you have a pretty stiff spine … it’s just easier to be quiet.”
In going after Warren, DeSantis held an hour-long news conference alongside local law enforcement and other officials to assail the prosecutor as a “woke” attorney who was part of a “pathogen” spreading in U.S. cities. He replaced Warren with Susan Lopez, a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative group that advocates an “originalist interpretation” of the Constitution.
Local Democratic officials push back against suggestions that they have given up on challenging DeSantis. But Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D), who frequently sparred with the governor over his handling of the pandemic, acknowledged the state’s political environment has changed.
“As they say, elections have consequences,” she said. “There is a majority of the legislature that is supportive of the governor’s agenda.”
‘One guy running the show’
His overwhelming reelection victory didn’t just secure another four years in office. It also helped usher in GOP supermajorities in the legislature. Republicans now hold 28 out of 40 state Senate seats and 84 out of 120 House seats.
In 2018, DeSantis was elected by just 32,000 votes. He won by 1.5 million votes in November.
Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said DeSantis has a “clear mandate” from right-leaning voters who have rallied behind his “aggressive stance during covid and on cultural issues.”
“There was a red tsunami in Florida,” said Ziegler, adding GOP legislators want to “be rowing with the wave, and the current, and not against it.”
Political analysts say DeSantis also has the advantage of coming into office at a time when other statewide elected officers have less power.
After Reconstruction and into the 1960s, Florida governors shared statewide authority with six elected Cabinet officers. That made the position one of the “weakest governorships in the country,” said Peter M. Dunbar, a former Republican state representative.
In 1992, Florida voters approved term limits, barring state legislators from serving more than eight consecutive years in the House or the Senate. That means new members usually rotate into the roles of speaker of the House and Senate president every two years, stopping legislative leaders from consolidating power as they used to. Six years later, voters also agreed to reduce the number of elected Cabinet positions from six to three.
This year, both Kathleen Passidomo, the Senate president, and House Speaker Paul Renner (R) started their leadership positions in January. Both have largely avoided publicly challenging the governor’s priorities.
The governor, House speaker and Senate president “still do horse trade,” said John Hallman, legislative director of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, a conservative advocacy group. “But there really is just one guy running the show between them.”
J. Robert McClure III, president of the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, said DeSantis is “cementing” Florida as the epicenter of conservative policies. He believes DeSantis has been especially effective because he meticulously studies and understands the issues. He is known to read briefing papers and tinker with policy drafts well into the evening.
“He is incredibly smart. He works very, very hard, and he is a great strategist,” McClure said.
Dunbar said DeSantis isn’t the type of governor who roams the halls of the Capitol twisting arms to make sure his agenda is enacted. Instead, DeSantis mostly prefers to be out of Tallahassee traveling the state touting his initiatives and soaking up media exposure.
“He’s relatively new to the Tallahassee environment, and he doesn’t have a big background with all of those people,” said Dunbar, referring to lobbyists. “He would rather begin with his own initiatives, or his own thoughts on things.”
DeSantis outlined his approach in his new autobiography, “The Courage to Be Free.”
“When working with legislative bodies, there are times for the executive to drop the hammer and take an adversarial approach,” he wrote. “But by and large, the smarter approach is to get legislators invested in the success of the agenda. The key is to get legislators to see that supporting the agenda is in their best interests.”
A bubble with no dissent
But many Democrats believe DeSantis’s power is anchored in a more cutthroat characteristic. They say he stifles and steamrolls critics while also operating in a bubble devoid of dissent.
Over the past four years, DeSantis and his staff have been known to eject dissenters from his public appearances and sideline or even bar the media from events billed as news conferences. At one point during the pandemic, he publicly berated students to take off their masks as they served as his human backdrop.
Thomas Kennedy, a member of the Democratic National Committee, discovered through an information request in 2021 that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, an agency that DeSantis oversees, created a dossier on him. At the time, he had developed a reputation for interrupting DeSantis during news conferences.
“I uncovered this 89-page dossier that talks about my political activities, and it has a lot of my associates … my social media posts, and emails showing they are tracking my whereabouts,” said Kennedy, who has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the governor.
Cecile Scoon, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, noted that a new state regulation this year requires groups that want to hold rallies or events at the Capitol to find a state agency or lawmaker to sponsor the activity and show it aligns “with the state agency missions.”
In February, the organization changed its traditional lobby day to a small gathering out of sight of lawmakers after deciding not to go through the new process.
“It looks and sounds like a lot of other places that are authoritarian and taking away people’s rights,” she said.
Griffin, DeSantis’s press secretary, dismissed a request for comment on criticisms that the governor has amassed his power in part through aggressive strategies against opponents. He also noted there are “hundreds of hours” of video showing DeSantis meeting with lawmakers, stakeholders and everyday Floridians over a range of policy proposals.
The governor’s wish list
The rapid approval of DeSantis’s push to place new restrictions on lawsuits against insurance companies showcases just how quickly DeSantis and his legislative allies are moving — and how hard it has been for opponents to challenge their plans.
On Feb. 14, DeSantis, joined by Passidomo and Renner, announced plans to change the state’s reputation as being lawsuit-friendly, a priority of conservatives, who believe it drives up the cost of doing business and benefited Democratic-leaning trial lawyers.
A bill was introduced a day later, a near-verbatim version of the governor’s wish list.
The bill eliminates one-way attorneys fees that could make it harder for someone to sue well-financed insurance companies, shortens the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit from four to two years and gives business owners additional protections to escape liability should a crime be committed on their properties.
A coalition of crime victims, motorcyclists and trial lawyers descended on the Capitol to try to press for changes to the legislation, arguing it was too heavily weighted toward the wishes of the state’s powerful insurance lobby. Critics also argued it was an attempt by DeSantis, who lobbied skeptical GOP legislators to support it, to burnish his ties with Republican donors nationally.
Despite the far-reaching consequences for the state’s legal environment, the proposal passed the House just 10 days after the legislature’s session began. The bill was then quickly approved by the Senate. DeSantis signed the bill into law the next day.
Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, rejects the idea that DeSantis rushed the tort reform proposal through the legislature. He said DeSantis and legislative leaders have been talking about their plans for three years.
Passidomo, the Senate president, also pushed back at suggestions that the legislature is subservient to the governor. She noted the Senate has amended certain bills, including softening some of the language in a bill to regulate diversity and inclusion programs on college campuses. Legislators are also weighing changes to bills mirroring DeSantis’s request to make it easier to sue journalists and crack down on undocumented immigrants.
“If I have an issue with something, I tell him,” she said.
But advocates caught up on the wrong side of DeSantis’s policy priorities increasingly feel powerless. They fear it could take years to fully unwind the consequences of the legislation speeding through the state legislature.
“In years past, there is no chance it would have flown through like this,” said Curry Pajcic, president of the Florida Justice Association, a group that represents trial lawyers. “But power is intoxicating.”