Gov. Ron DeSantis spent the first 13 minutes of a news conference in Fort Pierce Tuesday bashing Biden administration policies and praising his own before getting to the ostensible official point of the visit: announcing a $2.7 million grant to fix downtown infrastructure.
The governor was about 20 minutes into a second appearance that day in Live Oak in North Florida before announcing a $1.9 million grant to finance improvements to an industrial park. Again, he delivered essentially a campaign stump speech comparing his record to Biden on issues including COVID safeguards, immigration policy, student loan forgiveness, and inflation.
To paraphrase Capt. Louis Renault, it’s perhaps too much to declare oneself shocked, shocked, to find that politics are going on in here.
But in balancing legitimate policy announcements and electioneering, “He’s clearly over the line,” Mac Stipanovich, former GOP strategist turned independent Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis critic, said in a telephone interview.
Stipanovich, who came to Tallahassee as top adviser when Republican Gov. Bob Martinez took office in 1987, acknowledged that past governors scheduled news conferences in the “hope to get some benefit” politically. DeSantis goes beyond that, he added.
“These performances — not press conferences because quite frequently they exclude members of the press that they don’t want to talk to or be questioned by or don’t take questions — these performances are primarily political and policy is just incidental,” Stipanovich said.
DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin called such criticism “off-base. The governor’s press conferences are always for official state purposes – announcing programs, initiatives, or state actions that affect Floridians.”
“It wouldn’t be right to only interact with Floridians residing in or traveling to Tallahassee, just as it wouldn’t be appropriate to make himself available to only the Tallahassee media market,” Griffin said by email.
“Florida is more than 800 miles long, from Pensacola to Key West, and almost 400 miles wide from Jacksonville to Pensacola. Thus, travel, including travel by state aircraft, is a necessary function of the office. The governor has visited all 67 counties since his inauguration in 2019 to interact with as many Floridians as possible,” he added.
The people’s business
For the record, DeSantis, who’s running for reelection against Democratic congressman Charlie Crist, did perform the people’s business on Tuesday, distributing money from the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, an initiative of the governor’s that promotes investments in infrastructure and job training. Communities and businesses can compete for these grants. He even handed out oversized checks (noting the real money transfer would come later).
DeSantis cast the grants within the context of a major theme of his administration, promoting apprenticeships and other alternatives to “brick and ivy” college educations, which he argues can lead to well-paid jobs without the need to amass student debt.
“We’re proud to have been able to, you know, have an active agenda in Florida which we have strong support across the state for on all our initiatives,” DeSantis noted in Fort Pierce, in St. Lucie County on the Atlantic coast.
p“The governor also frequently takes Q&A from local media in the various markets he visits across Florida. If the media raise a political question, the governor is at liberty to answer. He is also at liberty to comment on any topic that affects Florida, which may include political topics,” Griffin said in his email.
“But there is a vast difference between commenting on political topics … and campaigning for office.”
Whatever the governor is doing seems to be working. In a recent Florida Chamber of Commerce poll, 54 percent of the likely voters surveyed approved of the job DeSantis is doing, including 88 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of registered independents.
At the same time, the governor packs these events with supporters who cheer him plus local officials and administration figures who lavish him with praise.
He loves to mock elites, sneering Tuesday at academic programs in “zombie studies,” as he did on Tuesday. (Actually, these represent serious academic inquiries.) He consistently blames Joe Biden for illegal immigration and drug smuggling over the southern border, even though immigration policy has vexed presidents for generations.
As Stipanovich pointed out: “It’s been a mess for decades and it’s been a problem for more than a half century. Eisenhower had problems with illegal immigration on the southern border. This is not news, but what it is is something on which he can capitalize by stoking outrage and fear among the Republican base.”
In a press release Tuesday, the Florida Democratic Party accused DeSantis of ducking big issues including abortion and skyrocketing housing and insurance costs. The party suggested someone ask the governor whether he agrees with the judge who denied an abortion to a 16-year-old orphan or whether he supports a total ban on the procedure, for example.
The Democrats also noted that DeSantis finances his grants using federal COVID stimulus money forwarded by the Biden administration but never mentions its source. Some $10 billion in the current year state budget came from the feds.
“It’s disappointing but not surprising to see Gov. DeSantis hold a press conference taking credit for infrastructure funding passed by President Biden and Democrats,” party spokesman Travis Reuther said in a written statement.
“After all, this isn’t the first time DeSantis has tried to take credit for Democrats’ accomplishments. While DeSantis focuses on furthering his political career and punishing people who disagree with him, President Biden and Democrats are delivering on an economic agenda that creates jobs and lowers costs for Floridians.”
–Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix