The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeSantis takes aim at federal government as he is sworn in to second term

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks to the crowd after being sworn in for his second term during an inauguration ceremony Tuesday in Tallahassee. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis cast himself as the leader of a thriving state that is ready to serve as an antidote to what he deemed the “floundering federal establishment” in Washington as he was sworn in Tuesday for a second term in office.

DeSantis, 44, took the oath of office shortly before noon on the steps of Florida’s Capitol as his wife and three children looked on. In a feisty speech that followed, he described Florida as the “promised land of sanity” compared with Democratic-run cities and states since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

DeSantis (R), who is widely considered a potential candidate for president next year, then turned his attention to the federal government, although he never mentioned President Biden by name.

“The federal government has gone on an inflationary spending binge that has left our nation weaker and our citizens poorer,” DeSantis said. “It has enacted pandemic restrictions and mandates based more on ideology and politics than on sound science, and this has eroded freedom and stunted commerce.”

DeSantis’s speech was part of two days of inaugural events in Tallahassee based on the theme of the “Free State of Florida.”

In a sign that Democrats in Washington see DeSantis as a potential rival to Biden next year, the Democratic National Committee took aim at the governor even before he finished his remarks. The DNC specifically mentioned the law signed by DeSantis last year that banned abortion in the state after 15 weeks in a pregnancy.

DeSantis’s “inauguration theme today is the ‘The Free State of Florida,’” the DNC wrote on Twitter. “Interesting choice coming from a governor who signed an extreme abortion ban that’s already forced teenage girls to leave the state to get care.”

In his speech, DeSantis did not mention abortion or propose any specific policies that he plans to pursue during his second term. He instead mostly spoke in broad platitudes, saying he will enact “more family-friendly policies to make it easier to raise children” while keeping Florida “a law-and-order state.” He also repeated earlier vows to “never surrender to the woke mob.”

DeSantis’s strident tone stood in contrast to his first inaugural address, in which he stressed relatively unifying themes such as protecting the state’s waterways. Four years ago, he shied away from uttering words such as “woke.” Now he routinely mentions the word as he positions himself as a leader against supposed political correctness.

The governor begins his second term as the state’s most powerful leader in at least a generation. He was reelected in a landslide that swept GOP supermajorities into the Florida Legislature, bucking nationwide trends in which Democrats performed better than expected in the November elections.

Republicans will control 85 of the 120 seats in the Florida House and 28 of the 40 seats in the state Senate, giving DeSantis a broad mandate to continue pursuing his agenda.

DeSantis’s electoral success came after a four-year term in which he positioned himself as a skeptic of policies to control the pandemic and a leading figure in the nation’s divisive cultural battles.

When the coronavirus began sweeping across the nation in early 2020, DeSantis initially embraced the closing of schools and businesses to control its spread. But he quickly pivoted away from that approach, enacting policies that prohibited local governments from imposing restrictions on commerce, and banning schools from requiring students to wear facial coverings in classrooms.

Meanwhile, despite governing early on as a relative moderate, DeSantis plunged Florida into the center of the nationwide debate over how matters involving race, sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed in classrooms and workplace settings.

The governor tried to ban corporations from hosting certain workplace diversity trainings. That effort is being challenged in court.

DeSantis also signed into law a controversial measure that regulates how schools discuss matters involving sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom. That measure, which critics called the “don’t say gay” bill, set the stage for DeSantis’s high-profile tussle with the state’s most prominent employer, the Walt Disney Co.

Still, despite all the controversy, DeSantis helped engineer the stunning ascent of the Florida Republican Party.

Four years ago, when DeSantis was elected by just 32,000 votes, Florida Democrats had an advantage of nearly 300,000 registered voters over the GOP. Today, Florida Republicans hold a 356,000-voter advantage over Democrats.

Christian Ziegler, the vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said the state’s dramatic lurch to the right gives DeSantis a “massive mandate” to govern as he sees fit during his second term.

“I think all of the other elected officials are going to follow his lead, and he is going to set the tone,” said Ziegler, who is the front-runner to become the next state party chairman. “I think the voters sent a clear message that they have not had enough of the DeSantis agenda, and they want more.”

State Rep. Randy Fine, a conservative Republican from Brevard County, predicted that DeSantis would remain “very confident in his beliefs [and] unapologetic in advocating for them.”

“What you see is what you get,” Fine said. “That is what voters wanted in 2018, and that’s why they reelected him.”

Florida Democrats and liberal activists are bracing for an especially contentious period. They fear that DeSantis will use the upcoming legislative session, which starts in March, to push a conservative agenda to appeal to GOP voters nationally.

In recent weeks, DeSantis has signaled that he is likely to sign legislation that allows gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit. The governor has also been strategizing with conservative activists and school board members over how to implement further restrictions on what can be taught in public schools.

“Ron DeSantis has always morphed himself to the political moment. He’s poised to do that again as he uses this inauguration to catapult himself into the presidential campaign,” said Anders Croy, the communications director at Florida Watch, a liberal nonprofit organization.

Croy noted that DeSantis decried “tribalism” in politics in his 2019 speech but went on to push divisive policies as the chatter about a possible presidential campaign intensified. The governor’s second term will be defined by his broader ambitions, Croy said.

“When he first ran for governor, he ran as a disciple of President Trump,” Croy added. “Right now, he is trying to get to the right of the former president as he positions himself for higher office.”

The brewing split between DeSantis and former president Donald Trump’s political operations was also apparent at the inauguration.

Four years ago, several members of Trump’s White House staff helped organize DeSantis’s inauguration and went on to take jobs with the governor’s administration. This year, the only obvious link to Trump world is the lobbyist Brian Ballard, who served on both of DeSantis’s inauguration committees.

DeSantis’s two-day inauguration will conclude with a ball Tuesday night.

According to an invitation obtained by Florida Politics, a news website, the Florida Republican Party asked donors to pay as much as $1 million to help sponsor the inauguration. Those who contributed that amount received 10 VIP tickets to the swearing-in ceremony, the inaugural ball and an intimate candlelight dinner with DeSantis that was held Monday night.

Inaugural VIP packages were also offered at the $25,000 and $50,000 level.

The Florida Republican Party does not have to reveal information on recent donations, including those made toward the inauguration, until Jan. 12.

Loading...