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Florida's New Governor Redefines What It Means To Be A Trump Republican

In Florida, two months into the job, Florida's new governor is showing what it means to be a Trump conservative, Florida-style.

Ron DeSantis was elected governor after narrowly defeating Tallahassee's Democratic mayor Andrew Gillum. It was a hard fought contest that went to a recount. But as he took office, DeSantis said he planned to be the governor for all Floridians, including those who didn't vote for him. "If someone is on the other side of a political issue from me," DeSantis told reporters, "It doesn't mean you're not somebody I want to work with. It doesn't mean you're not somebody who's a good Floridian. "

When he entered the race last year, DeSantis wasn't well-known statewide. A congressman from the Daytona area, he went on to win the primary and the general election in large part because of President Trump. The President endorsed DeSantis and campaigned for him. Capitalizing on that, DeSantis ran an ad in which he used cardboard bricks to help his toddler daughter "build the wall" and read to his infant son from Trump's The Art of the Deal.

In his first weeks, DeSantis made clear that he'll be a different governor from his Republican predecessor, Rick Scott, who's now serving in the U.S. Senate. He cancelled the appointments of more than 200 people named to boards and commissions by Scott in his closing days as governor. He named a Democrat to lead the state's emergency management agency, a critical position in a hurricane-prone state.

DeSantis asked the legislature to change the law to allow the smoking of medical marijuana, something his predecessor opposed. And he won applause from African-Americans when he voted to pardon four black men falsely accused of raping a white woman nearly 70 years ago.

In Florida, the environment trumps politics

But DeSantis' greatest departure from Scott is on the environment. The new governor shook up the boards of regulatory agencies and pledged big increases in spending to safeguard water quality. At a news conference in Stuart, Fla., a community that's been plagued by algae blooms, DeSantis said, "People of all political persuasions understand the importance of our water resources to Florida's beauty, our way of life, but also to our economic future."

DeSantis has taken other actions that have cheered environmental groups. He says he'll appoint a chief science officer and create an "Office of Resilience" to help Florida prepare for sea level rise.

Julie Wraithmell, the head of Audubon Florida, says DeSantis marks a return to an old tradition in Florida politics: recognizing that protecting the environment is a non-partisan issue. "Conservation has been a green issue in Florida, not so much a blue or a red one," Wraithmell says. Echoing DeSantis, she says, "We recognize that ecology is the basis of our economy."

School vouchers and sanctuary cities

This week, governing begins to get real for DeSantis when the legislature convenes for its annual session in which it will approve the state's budget. Members have already expressed skepticism of some of his spending proposals, including the several hundred million dollars he wants for water resource projects. But Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, like DeSantis a Republican, says the new Governor is already taking a much more "collaborative" approach than his predecessor in his dealings with the legislature. "It's certainly a different style of relationship between the two branches," Galvano says. "And I'm really looking forward to our work together."

Democrats in the legislature are less enthused. The minority leader in the state senate, Audrey Gibson, has been critical of the lack of diversity in DeSantis' administration. That issue became most stark for her when the Governor did not appoint an African-American to the state Supreme Court, leaving the court without a black justice for the first time in more than three decades. "Our state is very diverse," Gibson said. "And that is not reflected on the court. And that to me is a justice problem."

In recent weeks, DeSantis has taken a series of actions that have dismayed Florida Democrats but are more consistent with his record as a conservative congressman and Trump supporter. He's supporting a bill banning so-called "sanctuary cities," communities that don't cooperate with federal immigration authorities by holding inmates for possible deportation. In a state where one out of five residents is an immigrant, Gibson sees only one explanation for DeSantis' support of the policy. "Trump," she says, "and DeSantis' connection."

Recently, DeSantis unveiled another big proposal that appeals to conservatives and especially proponents of school choice. He announced a dramatic expansion of school voucher programs in Florida. It would make tuition funds available to an additional 14,000 students, and would increase that funding every year going forward. At a privately-run religious school in Orlando, DeSantis said it was part of his vision for reshaping education in the Sunshine State. "In Florida," he said, "public education is going to have a meaning that is directed by the parents, where the parents are the drivers, where they know what's best for their kids."

It's a controversial proposal opposed by the teacher's union and, if it makes it through the legislature, it's likely to face a court challenge. Unlike the current voucher programs, which rely on corporate tax credits, this new one would draw on state tax dollars. Fedrick Ingram, the President of the Florida Education Association says, "That means that people who are paying their taxes here are supporting families that want to possibly take their children to a private school. And that's not fair to the taxpayers here in the state of Florida."

On Tuesday in Tallahassee, DeSantis will have an opportunity to discuss his vision as Florida Governor when he delivers his first State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Greg Allen
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.