‘Make America Florida’: DeSantis goes national with eye toward White House

Gov. Ron DeSantis had come to Pensacola to deliver a message to President Joe Biden.

He stood at a lectern with a sign that proclaimed “Secure our border. Secure our states.” Then he unleashed as the cameras rolled.

A nightmarish situation had developed at the Mexican border with “caravans,” unchecked meth flooding into the country, and “criminal illegal aliens” threatening Floridians, DeSantis said. While he offered few concrete specifics, DeSantis said he would dispatch Florida police officers to Arizona and Texas to help fix the problem.

The political message beamed out not just to Florida but nationwide: DeSantis, the heir apparent to former President Donald Trump, was doing the job Biden wouldn’t do.

It was one of the recent signs that DeSantis is gearing up not just for his reelection campaign next year but for a possible run for the White House in 2024. While DeSantis insists he is focused on serving as governor, four people who have worked closely with him said they are convinced he has his sights on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“He is planning on running for president,” one ex-staffer said. “I can guarantee you that.”

As the presidential buzz mounts for DeSantis, the South Florida Sun Sentinel talked to former staffers, lobbyists, political operatives, GOP politicians and others who’ve seen the governor beyond his public persona. Several spoke anonymously because they say commenting negatively about the governor would hurt their careers.

DeSantis’ press secretary said the governor was unavailable for an interview with the Sun Sentinel. The governor has been thrust further into the national spotlight with the collapse of the oceanfront condo tower in Surfside. He’s been meeting with rescue workers and families and directing the state’s response.

For months, DeSantis has been the public face of Florida’s pandemic. Only 42 years old, his list of achievements is long — Yale grad, Harvard law degree, Navy veteran, U.S. congressman and governor of the third most-populous state in the country.

He’s the youngest governor presently serving in the United States and the youngest elected in Florida in more than a century.

His supporters see him as the leader of the “free state of Florida,” a firebrand taking on a federal government “nanny state” who won’t back down from a fight. DeSantis sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over COVID-19 restrictions on the cruise ship industry, ultimately prevailing in federal court.

Political foes view him as a Trump sycophant with authoritarian tendencies who bungled the COVID-19 pandemic. Enemies on social media have saddled him with the moniker “DeathSantis” and painted him as a panderer fixated on currying favor with the Trump faithful.

In conservative circles, DeSantis has succeeded in building a brand that has placed him at the front of GOP presidential hopefuls. Enter DeSantis’ name in Amazon’s search bar, and DeSantis 2024 caps, shirts, flags and magnets pop up.

“Ron DeSantis has got as good of a political mind as anybody I have seen in 30 years of politics in Florida,” said Brian Ballard, a top GOP lobbyist in Florida who is close to Trump. “His potential is unlimited.”

Trump lifted DeSantis’ political profile, but the former president and Palm Beach resident also could serve as an obstacle if he decides to run again in 2024. Although speculation has focused on a possible Trump-DeSantis showdown, Ballard said he thinks Trump will remain the most powerful politician in the GOP even with DeSantis’ rising-star power among conservatives.

“If President Trump runs for the nomination, he’ll be the nominee,” Ballard said. “I don’t know of a serious political thinker on the Republican side who will question that.”

Trump has taken credit for DeSantis’ rapid rise, and he said in an interview he would consider DeSantis for vice president if he decides to run again.

“He’s a friend of mine,” Trump told Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network in April. “I endorsed Ron, and after I endorsed him, he took off like a rocket ship. He’s done a great job as governor.”

Behind the scenes, DeSantis has left former co-workers both amazed by his intelligence and put off by his social detachment and shrewd political opportunism.

DeSantis has been viewed as a Trump apprentice, but former staffers described key differences between the two. For one, DeSantis has said he doesn’t tweet, instead delegating that task to his staff.

Unlike Trump, DeSantis is a voracious reader. As COVID-19 swept through the state, DeSantis devoured articles in medical journals. Those who have worked with him said he can wade through mountains of information, even to the point of being able to reference specific footnotes. One person described his recall as “computerlike.”

A banner supporting the idea of a 2024 Republican ticket featuring former President Donald Trump and, for vice president, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, outside a May rally in West Palm Beach at which DeSantis signed a law making it harder for some people to vote. (Anthony Man/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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David Clark, a former deputy chief of staff, recalled how DeSantis managed to soak up all the minutiae before a briefing on collective bargaining agreements, a wonky and complex topic.

“He is probably one of the smartest people I have ever met in my entire life,” said Clark, who served as a deputy chief of staff from September 2019 to August 2020. “If he reads something or he hears something, he can repeat it verbatim.”

DeSantis also can also come across as cold and detached with little loyalty or investment in those who work for him, two people who worked with the governor said.

He often skips routine social pleasantries, and he can be paranoid that others — even those on his own staff — are out to get him, they said.

“He doesn’t care to have friends,” a former campaign consultant said. “It’s not that he can’t make friends. It’s that he’s not interested in having friends. I think he’s almost sociopathic. It’s just not there. It doesn’t do anything for him. Friends are friends of convenience. Advisers are advisers of convenience.”

He tends to blame others for mistakes, rather than take ownership, they said.

When his Twitter account called voting a “privilege” rather than a right, DeSantis publicly blamed his staffers. He also blamed his staff for omitting a reference to the LGBTQ community in a June 2019 proclamation honoring the victims of the mass shooting that killed 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

His closest political confidant is Casey DeSantis, the former television host he married in 2010. Only two people have stayed on DeSantis’ payroll throughout his political rise. Drew Meiner serves as the governor’s appointments director, and Katherine Anne Russo, who is DeSantis’ federal liaison in Washington, D.C.

One former Tallahassee official who saw DeSantis in action summed him up this way: “He is someone with the highest of IQs but the lowest of EQs. He is not a feel-your-pain politician.”

It wasn’t long ago that hardly anybody knew DeSantis’ name.

A 2015 poll found that 87% of Florida voters had never heard of DeSantis, even though he had served three years in the U.S. House of Representatives. At that time, more people knew Alan Grayson, a former Democratic congressman from the Orlando area. Now DeSantis has become a Florida fixture, and his prominence continues to grow nationally.

For conservatives, DeSantis is playing foil to Biden, turning Florida into an “oasis of freedom” that resisted prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns. DeSantis started his tenure as governor pushing policies, such as boosting teacher pay and increasing environmental funding, that generated bipartisan praise.

But as of late, DeSantis has riled Democrats with a platform chock full of Trump grievances and culture war topics dominating conservative media nationwide.

He’s embraced proposals to ban transgender female athletes, outlaw so-called sanctuary cities that protect undocumented immigrants, fine Twitter up to $250,000 a day for “deplatforming” statewide candidates, harshen penalties for rioting, impose new restrictions on mail voting, prohibit vaccine passports, and forbid the teaching of critical race theory, a field of study that focuses on systemic racism.

(One of his proposals that was to become law on July 1 — the “Big Tech” social media law — has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge and cannot be enforced.)

Tapping into another hot-button issue, DeSantis dispatched 50 state law enforcement personnel to the Mexican border. Democrats called it a political stunt, but DeSantis said he was answering a call for help from the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona.

Critics say DeSantis is inventing problems to solve in order to benefit himself politically. No sanctuary cities existed in Florida. Critical race theory isn’t part of Florida’s public school curriculum. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed Florida’s presidential election ran smoothly in 2020. Supporters of the transgender athlete ban didn’t cite one example of competitive issues in Florida.

Many of DeSantis’ priorities are being challenged in court, with opponents maintaining DeSantis has overstepped his authority.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo voiced his frustration with DeSantis’ preoccupation with national issues during the final days of the legislative session in April. Exasperated by hours of debate, Pizzo, a Democrat from the Miami area, lamented that the Legislature was spending so much time on national issues popular with Trump’s base.

“We are at the point right now where I am just writing notes down for a speech that is going to be given in Iowa in a couple of years,” he told his colleagues on the Senate floor in the final days of the legislative session as they prepared to pass a measure aimed at punishing Big Tech.

The Legislature should be tackling state issues, such as ensuring unemployed Floridians get the help they need, he said. Although the Legislature provided more than $90 million to modernize the state’s troubled unemployment website, users continue to face glitches. The Legislature declined to increase the state’s $275 maximum weekly unemployment benefit, which is among the lowest in the country.

DeSantis won’t publicly admit his presidential ambitions, but his supporters already are building momentum for a White House campaign. Part of the appeal for them is that he is carrying on Trump’s legacy.

In April, a Make America Florida super political action committee formed. The group isn’t affiliated with any particular candidate, but its mission is to promote DeSantis’ policies on a national stage.

“Every day I get phone calls from people outside of Florida who love what he has done,” said Evan Power, the group’s spokesman and a top-ranking member of the Republican Party of Florida. “Here in Florida at the grassroots level I have never seen a more popular governor who is talked about as much as Gov. DeSantis.”

DeSantis is also raising a ton of cash to boost his reelection campaign. His political committee hauled in more than $21 million in April and May, a hefty sum so far in advance of the election, according to campaign finance records.

DeSantis has been expanding his national donor network, holding fundraisers in Las Vegas, Southern California and Texas. He served as the headline speaker for a Republican Lincoln Day dinner in Pittsburgh, helping to build his name recognition in a crucial battleground state.

DeSantis staked his political career on being the anti-lockdown leader during the pandemic.

DeSantis passed on a statewide mask mandate, and he skipped wearing one at Trump rallies and other events during the 2020 campaign. He’s promoted scientific dissenters and turned Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s leading experts on infectious diseases, into a political punching bag.

More than a year into the pandemic, DeSantis has declared victory. Florida’s COVID-19 death rate is no worse than the national average, despite the open-everything mentality of its governor.

Public health experts say such state-by-state comparisons are complex. But DeSantis has seized on the stat to make the political argument that he prevented Florida’s hospitals from being overwhelmed and kept nursing home residents safe, while saving Florida’s businesses and protecting jobs.

DeSantis never appeared to doubt the approach he took on COVID-19, said Nick Primrose, a former deputy general counsel who left the governor’s office in August 2020.

“There were a lot of decisions that he really took time to contemplate, and it goes back to having all the information at his fingertips, being able to digest it,” he said. “I never personally saw a decision during my time throughout the COVID response that was a knee-jerk decision. They were well thought-out. They were deliberated.”

Another ex-staffer said DeSantis never seemed fazed by the drumbeat of media coverage that his hands-off approach could lead to more deaths in Florida. DeSantis had seen the data and was convinced he was right, he said.

“When he sets a course, I have yet to see him take a step back from it,” the ex-staffer said. “He has a bit of riverboat gambler in him. He’s going to roll the dice.”

His Democratic opponents, though, say lives could have been saved if DeSantis had simply taken the lead on social distancing and mask wearing. Although DeSantis has promoted the COVID-19 vaccine, he got his shot privately. His staff declined to release a photo.

“I wonder how many of the over 37,000 of my fellow Floridians who are now deceased would not be if the governor actually had a plan of how to deal with COVID, if he actually would have advanced the notion of wearing a mask and social distancing,” Charlie Crist, a Democratic candidate for governor, said after a campaign event in West Palm Beach. “Just common sense things he wouldn’t do.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, another Democrat campaigning to be governor, attributed DeSantis’ stance on COVID-19 to “blind allegiance to an insurrectionist.”

She issued another shot on Twitter at DeSantis’ White House ambitions after he dispatched Florida police to the Mexico border: “Florida’s current governor just makes controversies up to get on Fox News.”

In an interview with CNN, Fried said DeSantis’ access to a national audience is her biggest weakness as a candidate.

“Ron is already stepping on our backs to get to the presidency in 2024,” she said. “While he is getting all this national media, national attention about taking the Trump platform to Washington, D.C., the people of our state deserve better than somebody who is already looking to run for president and not serve the full four years of governor of our state.”

In Florida man style, DeSantis is remembered as arriving to Yale University’s campus in cut-off denim shorts.

Born in Jacksonville and raised in Dunedin, DeSantis’ mother was a nurse and his father installed Nielsen rating boxes on televisions.

DeSantis made a mark early through baseball. In 1991, he helped to carry his team to the Little League World Series.

His excellence on the baseball diamond and in the classroom got him into Yale University, where he majored in history. He finished his career at Yale University with 3.75 grade-point average, according to a 2001 article in the St. Petersburg Times.

“I wasn’t someone destined to go to the Ivy League,” DeSantis said at a 2014 dinner honoring him as the Yale Baseball Man of the Year.

During his senior year, his baseball teammates voted him captain. He led the team in batting that season with a .336 average and recorded only one error.

With blue-collar roots and conservative ideals, DeSantis didn’t fit the stereotype of an Ivy League student, said Helen Ferre, who served as his communications director. As a young man, he dreamed of playing in the major leagues. That didn’t pan out, but the lessons he learned in athletics stayed with him.

“Sports opened the door for him and really molded who he is on many levels,” Ferre said. “It provided discipline and structure.”

DeSantis continued building his resume with a degree from Harvard Law School. He earned a commission as a Navy JAG officer, serving as a legal adviser to a Navy SEAL commander in Iraq. He also served at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Daniel Bean, a Jacksonville attorney, served as DeSantis’ commanding officer during DeSantis’ time in the Navy reserves. During the week, DeSantis helped out with court-martial cases and other legal matters during the weekend in the reserves.

Bean said he was struck both by DeSantis’ intelligence and athletic ability. On the golf course, DeSantis could hit a golf ball hundreds of yards in a straight line, and he was equally impressive in the office, Bean said. DeSantis remains an avid golfer. He recently posted a video of his 3-year-old son showing off his golf swing.

“I think he has a photographic memory,” Bean said. “He is amazing with his ability to recall things and be accurate with citations.”

DeSantis’ wife, Casey, told a Jacksonville television station she met her husband on the driving range in Jacksonville. The couple married in 2010 and have three young children. Their oldest, Madison, was born in 2016, followed by their son, Mason, two years later. In March 2020, Casey DeSantis gave birth to their youngest child, Mamie.

Compared with other prominent elected officials, DeSantis has a modest net worth of $348,832, according to his most recent financial disclosure filing. In comparison, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott’s fortune has been estimated to be in excess of $250 million, making him the richest member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In 2012, DeSantis rode the tea party wave into Congress, winning a House seat representing Daytona Beach and Northeast Florida. DeSantis had authored a book called “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama.”

The book — a counterpoint to former President Barack Obama’s memoir “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” — expressed DeSantis’ view that Obama’s policy agenda had departed from the nation’s founding principles.

As a young congressman, DeSantis slept in his office, a member of the so-called couch caucus of lawmakers who lived in their offices free of charge instead of springing for an apartment. He developed a reputation as a Capitol Hill loner who was known to walk through the halls wearing earbuds.

Tom Rooney, a former Republican representative who served with DeSantis, said DeSantis’ reputation as being aloof and detached stemmed from his dedication.

“Ron was pretty focused and disciplined with regard to wanting to move to higher office,” Rooney said. “When I say disciplined, you didn’t see Ron out socializing much. Ron would sit near us, but he was working the phones. When we were talking about where to go to dinner, Ron was working on bigger and better things.”

Rooney got to know DeSantis playing on the Republican congressional baseball team. He described the team as a ragtag group of “washed-up ex-high school baseball players.”

But DeSantis was on another level, Rooney said. DeSantis crushed the ball over the fence during batting practice, and his teammates went wild. When he threw the ball for an out, it was a “perfect strike,” Rooney recalled.

DeSantis narrowly escaped a gunman who opened fire at a team practice in June 2017. DeSantis and Rooney had left the practice just a few moments before the gunman wounded four people, including U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise.

“We both had guardian angels on our shoulder,” Rooney said.

DeSantis started running for U.S. Senate in 2015 and then backed out when U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio announced he would run for reelection.

DeSantis then set his sights on the 2018 governor’s race. He entered the race as a serious underdog to GOP establishment favorite, Adam Putnam, who was Florida’s agriculture commissioner.

Dave Vasquez, who served as DeSantis’ spokesman, joined the campaign early. He said he was struck by DeSantis’ life story, particularly his service in the military in Iraq.

“For me, it was his credentials, I really believe and still believe he was the right candidate at the right time,” he said. “Thinking back to the early days of reading his bio, I thought, ‘He comes from a blue-collar family in Pinellas County, same as mine.’”

Trump’s endorsement propelled DeSantis from a little-known congressman to the nomination. DeSantis capitalized on Trump’s support, running an ad during the primary showing him reading Trump’s book “Art of the Deal” to his small children and building a wall out of toy bricks.

In the general election, DeSantis faced a formidable challenge from Andrew Gillum. DeSantis won by a slim 32,400-vote margin. Scandal has since derailed Gillum’s political career. Police found Gillum incapacitated in March 2020 at a Miami Beach hotel with two men. Drugs were found in the room, but Gillum denied using illegal substances.