“I have never spoken to Ron DeSantis,” said Kriseman (D), who has been mayor since 2014. “He’s never called me, and the times I have tried to reach out to him and talk to him, whether by phone or when I was in Tallahassee, I have never been granted permission or an opportunity for an audience with him.”
Kriseman’s distance from Florida’s chief executive — a concern echoed by other mayors and county officials — highlights the tensions that have polarized the Sunshine State throughout DeSantis’s tenure as he has steadily expanded the powers of his office while using it to blunt that of local officials.
The problem now, some say, is that his focus on concentrating control in the executive mansion is hurting their efforts to combat the biggest health crisis the state has faced in generations.
With hospital beds filling because of an unrelenting and record-breaking surge in coronavirus cases, DeSantis has been locked in an increasingly bitter feud with the leaders of some of the state’s largest cities and counties over how to respond to the pandemic.
The discord between the governor and some local officials is such that one mayor — a Republican — has even started referring to DeSantis as a “dictator.”
DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw pushed back against the governor’s critics, saying it was “ridiculous for anyone to call Governor DeSantis a dictator.”
“Since when do dictators prioritize individual rights over the unchecked expansion of government power?” Pushaw said, adding that DeSantis has the right to use “executive power” if “local officials overstep and infringe on individual rights.”
Much of the recent hostility has centered on efforts by DeSantis, a possible GOP candidate for president in 2024, to prevent local governments from implementing coronavirus restrictions, including mask and vaccination mandates and occupancy limits. Some school officials are openly defying his ban on mask mandates; DeSantis has responded by threatening to withhold their salaries.
To Kriseman and other local leaders, DeSantis’s efforts to block them from deciding how to protect their residents during the pandemic is just the latest insult in a historically bad 2½-year relationship with Tallahassee.
Even before the pandemic, local officials say, DeSantis and his allies in the Republican-controlled legislature had worked to gut powers that cities and towns had been granted under home rule.
Although the trend of lawmakers in Tallahassee overriding local authority began long before DeSantis took office in 2019, the governor has overseen a rapid expansion of those “preemption laws,” including barring cities from regulating firearms, blocking them from requiring more affordable housing, and overriding local ordinances on tree removal and proposed bans on sunscreens and lotions to protect ocean coral.
Between 2017 and 2019, Florida legislators proposed 119 bills to preempt local authority, according to Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan research group.
Some of the bills were priorities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank that uses state legislatures to try to shift national discourse and policies to the right.
DeSantis has at times pushed back against some of the proposals, including vetoing a 2019 bill that would have prevented local governments from banning plastic straws.
But Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis (D) said DeSantis and the legislature have consistently “gone out of their way to tie the hands of local officials.”
“Florida is a big state, and each corner of the state has its own challenges, so it’s hard for a one-size-fits-all approach,” Trantalis said.
While many of DeSantis’s earliest battles involved fights with mostly Democratic mayors and relatively liberal urban voters, the latest disputes over how to respond to the delta variant and resurgence of coronavirus cases has unnerved even some GOP elected leaders.
Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who represents a heavily Republican community in Miami-Dade County, said he now views DeSantis’s actions as an affront to the bedrock Republican tenet of home rule.
Hernandez (R), who has been critical of DeSantis’s approach to the pandemic for months, said he wants to impose a mask mandate for his community but is being blocked by DeSantis’s executive orders prohibiting local officials from doing so.
“He’s a dictator,” Hernandez said. “It’s a shame because we’re paying the price.”
Looking to 2022
Yet DeSantis remains popular with many Republican activists in the state. Many credit him for being a decisive, consistent leader, and they expect his leadership during the pandemic to galvanize GOP voters to the polls next year, when he is expected to seek reelection.
Cindy Spray, a veteran Republican activist in Manatee County, said she encounters people every day who praise DeSantis for “pushing back against fear” while protecting “freedoms that many states have not had in a long time.”
“We just want to live our lives, and we want to do our jobs, and do our normal routine with children in sports, and soon high school sports,” said Spray, a member of the Republican State Central Committee. “Most people I talk to support [DeSantis] 100 percent, and know we need to fight for him, as much as he is fighting for our state.”
Ahead of next year’s elections, Florida GOP strategists note there are now just 63,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, compared to Democrats’ 500,000-voter advantage a decade ago. Although about a quarter of voters are not affiliated with either party, Republicans say that means DeSantis can afford to spend more energy wooing his political base than past GOP governors.
Some GOP strategists believe even key segments of the state’s Democratic base, such as African Americans and younger voters who work in the restaurant and tourism industries, credit DeSantis for pushing back against mask and occupancy mandates that have been embraced by other states.
“I know among the Hispanic population, they are very much against mandates,” said Nelson Diaz, a Cuban American and former chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party. “Most of their families came seeking freedom, and to have the government tell them that they have to cover their face, it’s sort of a slap in the face of freedom.”
Republican strategists also said that DeSantis’s ability to connect with working-class Floridians — a skill they say Democrats underestimated during the 2018 governor’s race — also helps insulate him from backlash over his coronavirus response.
Last week, as Florida hospitals were sending out dire messages about their ICU capacity, DeSantis bounced around the state handing out $1,000 checks to police officers, firefighters, EMTs and teachers.
DeSantis proposed the checks — which will be issued to 177,000 educators and 193,000 first responders — as part of the 2021-2022 budget.
“We want to do something to say thank you,” DeSantis said Tuesday in Surfside, as he stood and personally handed checks to about 50 members of the Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue team who had responded to the Champlain Towers South condo collapse. “We want to show Florida stands with you and appreciates what you are doing.”
And as DeSantis and his aides seek to manage Florida’s coronavirus surge, they also have stepped up their attacks on Democratic politicians who they believe are overreacting to the virus.
Instead of DeSantis being a “dictator,” Pushaw said, the true “tyrannical edicts” are coming from “certain governors and local officials in other states” who have issued covid restrictions that have kept children out of school and forced some businesses to close.
“That is truly dictatorial behavior,” Pushaw said. “Rules for thee, but not for me.”
Political observers say DeSantis’s growing conflicts with local leaders still pose some political risks, especially if Florida’s struggle against the virus drags into next year.
“The safer policy approach, and the safer political approach, would have been for him to defer to home rule and to allow counties and local school boards and local governments to make decisions based on the circumstances in those counties,” said Richard A. Mullaney, director of the Public Policy Institute at Jacksonville University.
Brad Coker, managing director and chief executive of Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy, said it may be months before anyone can judge the real political fallout of DeSantis’s actions. DeSantis, Coker said, appears to be betting the surge in new coronavirus cases will be relatively short-lived, as was the case last year when he moved to reopen schools and end restrictions on businesses.
“The one thing DeSantis is known for is his consistency, and people appreciate that, so if he works through this and the virus does not get ahead of him, he can say, ‘Look, I have been consistent,’ and voters are going to give him credit for that,” said Coker, who lives outside Jacksonville.
“But 15 months from now, if the virus is still raging, and there are three more variants, and the vaccines don’t work, people are going to be frustrated with him,” Coker said.
Not taking the 'safer' approach
Some local officials, however, say DeSantis’s approach is threatening the health of their constituents, while poisoning relationships between the state and municipal governments.
Kriseman notes that in Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, the coronavirus testing positivity rate has soared to a record 19.2 percent. Kriseman fears DeSantis is more interested in appealing to Republican primary voters around the country than he is working with local officials to protect Floridians.
“I can’t mandate masks. I can’t mandate social distancing. I can’t mandate vaccinations,” Kriseman said. “All I can do is encourage people to do the right thing, and that is about it.”
In addition to his policy choices, local government leaders say they are frustrated by DeSantis’s insular leadership style, which they call a sharp departure from previous governors.
Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings, who also served as chief of police in Orlando, said he’s never seen such poor communication between a Florida governor and local elected officials.
“I have been in public service for 40 years, and this governor is just different,” said Demings (D), who also served as county sheriff. “His predecessors were much more adept at wanting to work across political lines and really believed they had to put the interests of all Floridians at the forefront. But this governor seems to make his decisions based on the opinions of his party and his base . . . and his political ambition.”
Kriseman agreed, recounting the phone calls he used to receive from the previous governor, Sen. Rick Scott (R).
“I had [Scott’s] cellphone, and if there was a hurricane coming, he would call me and say, ‘You have my cellphone, let me know if you need anything,’ ” Kriseman said. “That has never happened with Ron DeSantis.”
Yet Florida political observers note the mayors themselves have not always been as forceful as they could be in directly challenging DeSantis’s policies or actions.
In a state with 10 media markets, Coker noted that historically it’s been difficult for a mayor or county official to effectively take on a governor. Most voters in Jacksonville, for example, cannot identify the mayor of Miami or Tampa, he said.
“It’s not like New York, where you if you live in New York [state], you know who the mayor of New York” is, Coker said. “Or you know who the mayor of Baltimore is if you live in Maryland.”
Besides their low profile statewide, Hernandez, the mayor of Hialeah, said the mayors themselves haven’t shown much interest in trying to brand themselves into unified opposition against DeSantis.
“I think that local leaders are to blame for that because they haven’t shown their teeth,” Hernandez said. “And sometimes in politics, it’s better to be feared than to be loved.”
But several Florida mayors said challenging or defying a Florida governor is not as easy as it sounds, considering that state law gives the governor power to remove local elected officials from office.
The statute states that the governor “may suspend from office any elected or appointed municipal official for malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, habitual drunkenness, incompetence or permanent inability to perform official duties.”
In 2019, DeSantis used those powers to suspend and ultimately remove from office Broward County’s elected sheriff, Scott Israel, over allegations he mismanaged the response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Israel, a Democrat, appealed the decision, which was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court.
“This is not just like Donald Trump [fighting] with a senator or a governor or a mayor by doing battles in the press,” said Trantalis, the Fort Lauderdale mayor. “In Florida, [DeSantis] has the actual authority to suspend you if he feels I have violated law, and his executive orders carry the weight of law.”
Some are fighting DeSantis’s orders in court. Last week, a federal judge sided with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in rejecting a DeSantis executive order barring cruise lines from requiring that guests be vaccinated.
Trantalis, an attorney, said he believes the judge’s ruling also opens the door for Fort Lauderdale to consider establishing vaccine mandates in other settings as well.
Demings said he also expects more Florida school districts will be looking to strengthen their rules for wearing masks in the classroom, believing that parents will back them.
Several school districts have already adopted mask requirements, in defiance of the order, although most include a provision allowing parents to opt out of the policy. Demings noted that just 4 percent of parents in Orange County have requested that their child be able to attend school without a mask.
Still, local officials believe their battles with DeSantis — and his Republican allies in Tallahassee — will continue for as long as he is governor. Many Republicans agree, saying they strongly back DeSantis’s efforts to make statewide policy through executive order, even if it at times runs counter to the GOP core philosophy of “local control.”
“I am a proponent of local control, until the locals get out of control,” said state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. (R), who represents Miami-Dade County and referred to local governments as an “appendage of the state.”
And with lawmakers such as DeSantis and Diaz ultimately in charge of how much money flows to Florida cities, Kriseman said Floridians probably won’t see many mayors getting into a “full-blown fight” with the governor.
“They feel beaten up over the last few years, and it ain’t getting better,” Kriseman said. “It’s getting worse.”