By Paul Blythe
The first week of March is always crazy time in Florida -- as sure as the pollen season is to make your eyes water and set off involuntary outbursts of loud noise. Only it’s not the pollen season, it’s something worse: The start of the legislative season.
And this 2023 season is not only crazier but more dangerous for democracy than any I’ve seen in 40 years of observing the Florida Legislature.
Crazier, because Florida Republicans are set to push, and probably pass -- at least according to multiple media accounts -- the most conservative legislative agenda in the nation.
More dangerous because Florida has never seen one-party control quite like the Republicans have now. Sure, Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion and one or both chambers of the Legislature for much of the 20th century, but they never marched in lockstep the way Republicans do now behind Gov. Ron DeSantis.
And America has not seen a politician quite as skilled as DeSantis in the McCarthyesque practices of making accusations of subversion in an attention-grabbing manner, well, since U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy himself was perfecting the techniques of political repression and fear-baiting to persecute the left.
What DeSantis demands, Florida’s MAGA Republican lawmakers deliver into law. Or, to phrase it more accurately, what DeSantis demonizes, Florida lawmakers outlaw.
Because DeSantis and the Florida MAGA Republican agenda does nothing for the real needs of Florida’s citizens or the future of the state. It includes nothing to cut the cost of home insurance in Florida or, for that matter, the cost of electricity or even eggs. It does nothing to help alleviate the shortage of affordable housing or to improve the test scores of K-12 students. Nothing to clean our water or help preserve a livable climate.
Instead, at DeSantis’ urging, Republican lawmakers have filed a slate of bills meant to tear down ideas and people that don’t fit DeSantis’ limited, xenophobic concept of America. In the annual 60-day legislative session that starts today, Tuesday, March 7, there are legislative proposals attacking drag shows, treatments for transgender children, diversity and equity programs at public universities, gender studies majors, professor tenure, teachers unions, in-state college tuition for undocumented residents known as Dreamers, investments that prioritize long-term environmental and social sustainability, and, of course, the free and independent news media and unfettered freedom of speech.
One of the anti-media bills would make it easier for public figures and officials to sue the media for libel. The anti-freedom of speech bill would require bloggers who write about elected state officials, including the governor, to register with the state government. Both are clearly unconstitutional, but that's not stopping Republicans from passing them and making the true friends of liberty fight them in court.
Other proposals are purely for DeSantis’ benefit, such as increasing his power to control the hiring of professors on every public college campus through his political appointees or even to put him in charge of picking the Florida High School Athletics Association board, which apparently has not been able to satisfy him of late on the issue of requiring female student athletes to provide schools with information about their menstrual histories.
There also is talk of amending Florida’s “resign to run” law so DeSantis could launch a bid for president without stepping down as Florida governor. An exemption to Florida’s long-standing “resign to run” law was created in 2008 for state officials running for federal office, so that then-Gov. Charlie Crist could run for vice president if offered the position by Republican candidate John McCain. Then, in 2018, the law was amended to eliminate the federal office exemption. Some say there still might be a loophole under the current law for DeSantis to remain as governor while running as president, but most believe a bill to restore the federal office exemption would be the safest bet for his presidential aspirations.
What all of these bills from Banana Republicans (as U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., recently called Republicans on the U.S. House floor) is that they will keep DeSantis at the forefront of the culture war that he has so far manipulated magnificently to raise his notoriety and now hopes to ride to the White House.
Welcome to Bizzaro World, where Florida is a real-life version of a DC Comics’ world where everything is the opposite of a kind, decent, democratic society.
Republicans are in such control of Florida’s state government that the editorial boards of some of Florida’s major newspapers don’t hold out much hope for slowing DeSantis down.
“As another regular session is about to get underway, Florida’s future as a democracy depends on whether more of its (the Legislature’s) members can be touched by the better angels of our history. But the trend lines are not encouraging,” the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel wrote Feb. 28.
A day earlier, the Miami Herald wrote, “DeSantis and the Republican Party aren’t hiding their agenda to transform school boards from local nonpartisan bodies into an arm of partisan politics. Opposition has all but been neutered as the Democratic Party has pretty much given up on Florida.”
But we of the Florida Democratic Party haven’t given up. We can’t. Not with the state’s future as a democracy at stake.
Now is the time for us Democrats to rise up and raise our voices, to make phone calls, and to write letters and emails, letting our state representatives, Democratic and Republican, know that we oppose the one-party thought control of Ron DeSantis and warning the rest of the nation that he is a danger to democracy who must be stopped by any legal means available.