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In Calif. speech that draws protests, DeSantis stokes fight over pandemic

The Florida governor’s speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library served as an audition before conservatives for a Republican many expect to run for president in 2024

On March 5, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (Video: Reuters)
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SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — As he moves toward entering the 2024 presidential race, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a pilgrimage to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Sunday, where the Republican accused leaders in blue states such as California of being “lockdown politicians” and charged that the nation’s coronavirus crisis created “a great test in governing philosophies.”

Speaking to a sold-out audience, with some 1,300 tickets sold and nearly 1,100 in attendance, according to organizers, DeSantis touted how Florida has led the nation in net migration — even though that is a trend set into motion long before he became governor.

“We’ve witnessed a great American exodus from states governed by leftist politicians imposing leftist ideologies and delivering poor results. And you can see massive gains in states like Florida, who are governing according to the tried and true principles that President Reagan held dear,” DeSantis said. He said that Americans “voted with their feet” by leaving some blue states in large numbers as Florida’s population boomed.

But many experts have argued that the shift in migration patterns, particularly from states along the West Coast, has stemmed largely from the lack of affordable housing and the greater flexibility that the pandemic created for work-from-home or hybrid work arrangements. DeSantis’s remarks served as the latest example of him advancing arguments in defense of his record in Florida that sometimes mask much more complicated debates.

DeSantis’s speech — inside the museum’s cavernous glass pavilion where he stood beneath the former Air Force One plane that carried Reagan and six other presidents — was billed as to promote his new book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.” But it also served as an audition before GOP voters here for an ambitious governor many expect to enter the presidential sweepstakes. California could play a major role in selecting the nominee in the state’s unusually early presidential primary next year on March 5.

The Florida governor did not spend time mingling with members of the crowd and did not take questions from the media in California.

Noting that Florida’s traditionally low taxes and its penchant for small government has also served as a draw to the Sunshine State, DeSantis argued that the pandemic “caused people to reevaluate who is in charge of their state government more than any other event in my lifetime.”

“When common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida stood as a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom throughout the United States and indeed throughout the world,” he said. Speaking in a state where some school districts were closed longer than almost anywhere else in the nation during the pandemic, DeSantis drew applause when he said he made sure every school in his state was open in 2020 for in-person instruction.

He also boasted that Florida “empowered people to make their own choices” about vaccinations: “Nobody in the state of Florida was going to be pushed to have to choose between the job they needed and the shots they didn’t want to take,” he said to applause.

Though DeSantis once praised and promoted coronavirus vaccines, he has gradually shifted toward a more negative tone on the issue since 2021 — suggesting for example that vaccine makers should be investigated for fraud as he rejects the approach of bureaucrats who sought to enforce vaccine mandates. He has framed his own position as giving people a choice about what they wanted to do as he prepares to court the right-wing voters he will need to win the nomination.

While Simi Valley has traditionally tilted Republican, about 100 protesters gathered at the entrance to the library waving rainbow and Biden flags before the Florida governor arrived. Some chanted that DeSantis “is a fascist.” Earlier on Sunday, the Simi Valley Police Department said a sign near the entrance of the Reagan Library was vandalized with someone writing “Ron DeFascist” in black spray paint.

A representative for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the criticism he received.

He arrived for a book signing that was limited to 100 people and closed to the media. He attended a private luncheon at the library where he sat next to former California governor Pete Wilson, a Republican. And he offered waves to the crowd as he was briskly escorted to and from the stage with his wife and two of his children while attendees were asked to stay in their seats.

Later on Sunday, he was slated to speak at a dinner attended by about 900 people to raise money for the Republican Party of Orange County. That event was also closed to the media, even though it has been open to reporters in prior years.

Several audience members here at the Reagan Library said they had come to get a closer look at DeSantis as they await his decision on 2024, trying to game out the nominee who they say would have the best chance of beating President Biden. Polls show DeSantis is the most formidable opponent in the Republican primary to former president Donald Trump, who is waging his third straight presidential bid. DeSantis has not announced whether he will run for president.

Amber Ellingson, a 46-year-old teacher, said she had driven with her family from Orange County to see DeSantis in person — and that he had swayed her with the forward-looking nature of his remarks, even though her family considers themselves “huge Trump supporters.”

“I think we need fresh. I think we need to get away from kind of what was going on in the past two, four years,” she said, alluding to Trump’s obsession with the 2020 election and divisions that arose from the attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6, 2021. “I love [DeSantis’s] boldness. I love how he calls it as it is.”

As a teacher, she said she admired DeSantis’s approach to education issues, particularly his approach to keeping schools open during the pandemic. She pointed to the struggles so many younger students are having because they have fallen far behind after an extended period of remote learning.

“The kids that were in kindergarten, first and second grade … those kids are so behind and I don’t truly know if they’ll ever catch up,” she said.

Gary Paul, a 56-year-old Republican from Simi Valley who was wearing a “Ron DeSantis 2024” T-shirt, said he believes the difference between Trump and DeSantis is “competence.”

“He’s described as Trump with a brain — same style of politics, same policies — but he’s not going to shoot himself in the foot every day like Trump did,” Paul said. He predicted DeSantis would have to walk a fine line in the months ahead “between not insulting Trump and his voters and not taking the bait” from the former president.

Lynn Bokamper, a 65-year-old Republican who had driven from Riverside to see DeSantis, said she was still making up her mind among the potential 2024 candidates, and she hopes to find someone who could quell some of the divisiveness that has festered over the past few years. Trump, she said, “was a great president … but the friction that he causes has divided the country, unfortunately.”

“The perfect world would be somebody else, like Nikki Haley,” she said, referring to the former ambassador to the United Nations, who is running for president.

Outside the venue, demonstrators from several Democratic groups protested DeSantis’s push to remove certain books from school libraries as well as the law he supported limiting LGBTQ discussion in schools.

“Your book should be banned,” one protester’s sign said. “Go back to FL DeSatan.” Other signs decried DeSantis’s policies as racist, sexist and anti-science.

“His agenda is not welcome here,” said John Lapper, a member of both the Simi Valley Democratic Club and Indivisible Simi Valley, who helped organize the protest. “In all my years, I’ve not seen a more deplorable agenda against so many things that we stand for.”

“That divisiveness is not what the country needs,” Lapper added. “We need a functional Congress. We need people to come together. And DeSantis is just — he’s anti- a lot of things — but he’s also not the person to bring us together.”