DeSantis flexes executive powers while eyeing White House

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Suspending an elected Democratic prosecutor. Forbidding gender-affirming treatments for minors. Expanding the “Don’t Say Gay” law to high schools.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has exercised his executive powers to advance elements of his aggressive conservative agenda, drawing on appointees, boards and the state Constitution in a deliberate manner as he builds toward an expected presidential candidacy.

The approach displays the Republican’s willingness to leverage his office to notch political wins and punish political enemies, even as the GOP-dominated Legislature has sped his proposals through the statehouse. It also signals the meticulous style that underpins his brash public persona and offers hints about how he could govern if elected president.

For DeSantis, the unilateral moves are part of his broad mandate as the elected chief executive of Florida. He is coming off a dominant reelection victory last fall where he campaigned on a host of conservative policies that energized the state’s Republican base and helped flip reliably Democratic counties such as Miami-Dade.

“November’s election results represent a vindication of our joint efforts over these past four years. The results also vest in us the responsibility to lead and provide us the opportunity to shoot for the stars,” DeSantis told lawmakers in his annual address to begin the legislative session this year. “Boldness be our friend in this endeavor. We have a lot we need to accomplish.”

A spokesman for the governor said DeSantis compiled a full accounting of his powers after he won office so he could effectively execute his agenda and added that many of his policies have been adopted by the Legislature.

DeSantis gained a national following through his resistance to extensive coronavirus lockdowns, and has since bolstered his place as a Republican firebrand by positioning himself on the front lines of the nation’s culture wars. He’s expected to formally launch his White House bid after the state Legislature finishes its regular session in early May.

In the meantime DeSantis has been ramping up his out-of-state travel with visits to presidential battleground states. Statehouse Republicans, who have a supermajority, are already moving quickly to deliver on several of DeSantis’ conservative priorities, which will give him an additional boost before he announces his candidacy.

While DeSantis is seen as former President Donald Trump’s most formidable Republican rival, his path to the presidential nomination may not be easy. Trump maintains wide support in the Republican Party, which is largely rallying around him after he became the first former president to face criminal charges. The move by a district attorney in New York has put Republicans eyeing a challenge to Trump, including DeSantis, in the awkward position of defending him against what they argue are politically motivated charges.

Those headwinds make DeSantis’ activity in Florida all the more important as they bolster the argument by his supporters that the governor would advance the same policy agenda as Trump, but without the constant turmoil.

One of his signature policies bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade or in a manner that isn’t age appropriate, a law opponents have labeled ” Don’t Say Gay.” DeSantis did not initially push for the law but has since championed it in Florida and beyond as part of his fight against what he calls the “woke” indoctrination of children in schools.

This year, as lawmakers seem ready to expand the prohibition to the eighth grade, the DeSantis administration quietly filed an administrative proposal with state education regulators that would ban the subjects from being taught in all grades.

The measure filed by the state Education Department, which is led by a DeSantis appointee, will be considered later this month by the state Board of Education, a body appointed by the governor. It does not need legislative approval.

DeSantis has not commented on the proposal and directed questions to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., who said it was meant to clarify confusion around the existing law and reinforce that teachers should not deviate from existing curriculums.

The governor took a similar approach last year, when he and his administration’s Health Department campaigned against gender-affirming care for minors and pushed state health regulators to ban the treatments.

The prohibition, which was approved by two state boards and took effect this year, bans sex reassignment surgeries and puberty blocking therapies for minors. Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, a DeSantis appointee, has said the treatments are experimental and risky for children.

Brandon Wolf, press secretary for the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, warned of the potential for similar actions under a potential DeSantis presidency.

“The very same ways he has perverted and weaponized state agencies and state boards in Florida, you can imagine he would do the same thing on the federal level,” Wolf said. “And what makes him potentially more dangerous than Donald Trump is that DeSantis actually knows how government works.”

Jamie Miller, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, said it’s difficult to forecast what kind of president DeSantis would be but noted the governor’s Florida policies won wide support last fall.

“Our entire system is based on conducting the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority,” said Miller, noting the governor’s nearly 20 percentage point reelection win.

DeSantis’ agenda has faced few substantive obstacles in Florida. Democrats have no power at any level of state government, and his policies often withstand legal challenges when cases reach the conservative appeals courts in the region.

Still, the governor has proved willing to engage his office against any dissent, as his ongoing feud with Disney has shown.

The company drew his ire last year when it criticized the “Don’t Say Gay” law and, as punishment, DeSantis pushed lawmakers to give him control of a self-governing district Disney oversees in its theme park properties.

But before a set of new DeSantis appointees could assume control of the district, Disney’s board passed restrictive covenants that strip the incoming members of most of their powers, blunting the governor’s retaliation.

DeSantis, determined to maintain one of his key political victories, has dispatched the chief inspector general, another appointee, to investigate the Disney board’s move and has vowed to take additional revenge against the company.

One of DeSantis’ most high-profile uses of executive power came last year when he suspended Andrew Warren, an elected Democratic prosecutor in Tampa, using a provision in the state Constitution that allows a governor to remove officials for incompetence or neglect of duty.

In an executive order, DeSantis cited Warren’s signing of statements that he wouldn’t pursue criminal charges against those seeking or providing abortion or gender transition treatments as key reasons for the suspension.

“When you flagrantly violate your oath of office, when you make yourself above the law, you have violated your duty, you have neglected your duty and you are displaying a lack of competence to be able to perform those duties,” DeSantis said while announcing the suspension.

Warren immediately filed a federal lawsuit to get his job back. The judge ruled that DeSantis violated the First Amendment and the Florida Constitution by removing Warren, but that the federal courts lack the power to reinstate him. Warren is appealing the decision.

“He loves to talk about the free state of Florida, but it’s absolutely not free unless you agree with everything Ron DeSantis says,” Warren said in an interview. “He’s exploiting cracks in the system to trample on both the spirit and letter of the law to punish those who disagree with him.”

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