Sun Sentinel. January 7, 2023.
Editorial: ‘Friends’ make DeSantis a big-money powerhouse
“Friends of Ron DeSantis” is a symbol of the distortion done to democracy by cynical Supreme Court decisions that allow money to outshout free speech, and by politicians who make it much worse.
Since creating a political committee by that name in 2018, Florida’s governor has raked in $214 million in cash and in-kind contributions. After two successful races for governor, $62 million remains unspent to jump start his unannounced run for president. Nearly $900,000 arrived after he was re-elected in November.
Five years ago, DeSantis was an obscure congressman who had just snagged an endorsement from then-President Donald Trump. No politicians other than self-funded billionaires have raised so much so quickly as DeSantis has.
The donors to his loosely regulated soft-money machine are a nationwide list of thousands of the very wealthy and unwealthy, the powerful and the voiceless, who have given as little as $1 and as much as $10 million at a time.
The larger donors represent all facets of the American oligarchy. Some run companies that have lucrative state contracts. Others serve on state boards DeSantis appoints. Many small donors, motivated by his conservative, firebrand-style politics, appear to be making automatic recurring contributions.
Like many other operations of its kind, “Friends” launders money to and from other committees, notably the Republican Party of Florida. That makes it impossible for the public to trace whose money paid for what, including the lavish inauguration held this week in Tallahassee.
As a state-level committee, “Friends” can’t directly fund a presidential race. But it can contribute to another friendly PAC, as long as it doesn’t get caught coordinating directly with it.
Although the amount raised is noteworthy, committees like “Friends” are commonplace in Florida, where statewide campaigns can only raise $3,000 per donor — $1,000 for legislative races. But these sorts of political committees, on the other hand, have no donation limits and are beholden to a single candidate, making those campaign contribution limits utterly meaningless. “Friends” has reported 22 individual donors of $1 million or more, including a billionaire who gave $10.5 million and another who’s in for $10 million.
It’s astonishingly legal, blissfully tolerated by Florida legislators who long ago lost their virginity to the distorting and corrupting influence of money in politics. Scores of lawmakers from both parties have their own “friends of” committees.
There was once a time when they weren’t so jaded and cynical.
Florida’s fund-raising scandal of a bygone era was Claude Kirk’s “Governor’s Club,” a slush fund the former governor created in the late 1960s primarily to finance his flights on a leased jet. He tried to keep it secret, but the Supreme Court forced him to reveal the donors to a legislative investigating committee. Almost quaint by today’s standards, Kirk’s fund had squeezed $420,680, mostly in $500 checks, out of 233 people, including road contractors, consultants, liquor licensees and state political appointees.
Legislators in both parties took offense. They also took action, refusing to confirm Kirk’s transportation secretary and passing a law requiring public officials to report all gifts of $25 or more.
By comparison, the total haul of Kirk’s Governor’s Club would be worth some $3.2 million today. That’s less than “Friends of Ron DeSantis” reported in each of 25 different months.
DeSantis’ campaign treasury totaled $42 million more in his 2018 and 2022 campaigns, a large sum but incidental to his unlimited slush fund.
The single largest “Friends” donation was $10 million from Robert T. Bigelow of North Las Vegas, Nev., a hotel magnate and aerospace investor.
DeSantis’ top individual donor is Ken Griffin, who moved his Citadel hedge fund from Chicago to Miami and has given the governor $10.5 million. The Republican Governors Association is the largest overall, at $21.8 million, much of which could be money that came from its own wealthy donors. Four days before the election, “Friends” received $500,000 from Trish Duggan, who has been a donor to Donald Trump, a top donor to the Church of Scientology and is the ex-wife of a billionaire venture capitalist.
Potential conflicts everywhere
The “Friends” donor list is a nearly inexhaustible source of potential conflicts of interest and rewards.
The Florida Bulldog, an internet investigate journal, mined it recently after DeSantis called for a statewide grand jury to investigate unspecified “crimes and wrongdoing” in relation to COVID-19 vaccines.
The DeSantis administration has had its own questionable dealings during the pandemic. “Friends” received $125,000 from Phillip Frost, a Miami health care entrepreneur whose holdings include BioReference Laboratories, which received two no-bid COVID-19 state testing contracts totaling $2.5 million in 2020.
According to the Bulldog, Sarasota’s Physicians Group received two no-bid purchase orders for hand sanitizers costing more than $2 million in 2020. Owner Gary Kompothecras, a chiropractor, gave $27,500 to “Friends” in 2018 and $20,000 in May of 2022.
Then there are the appointees. For example, “Friends” reported $1,030,000 in contributions directly from or linked to 11 of the 17 members of the university system’s Board of Governors.
People contribute to politicians for lots of good reasons, such as their shared political ideals and their admiration for the recipients. Others do it for self-interest — to guarantee access or cultivate favors.
It’s hard to tell the good from the bad sometimes, but a decent start would be to limit how much anyone can give to such perpetual committees and restrict the laundering of money among them. The original source of any money that makes its way into politics should be disclosed, period.
Ultimately, the American public needs constitutional amendments that would enable limits on total spending by politicians and parties. Otherwise, we are fated to be a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich — the opposite of what Lincoln extolled.
Orlando Sentinel. January 6, 2023.
Editorial: The myth of Florida as ‘the freest state’
Well, at least it was mercifully brief. Sixteen minutes, start to finish.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ second inaugural address Tuesday sounded word-for-word like a re-election campaign rally — only shorter. It was delivered from a familiar place, the steps of the historic Capitol in Tallahassee, but was aimed at a faraway national audience of Republican presidential primary voters.
The governor’s talk carried a lot of the usual DeSantis rhetorical flourishes, and very little in the way of specifics.
If you didn’t catch it, here’s some of what you missed:
“When the world lost its mind — when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue — Florida was a refuge of sanity.”
Here in Florida, the state’s chief public health officer doubted the efficacy of vaccines or masks at the height of the pandemic. Some 84,000 people have lost their lives due to COVID-19 in this “refuge of sanity.” Unlike in California and New York, a huge portion of those deaths came after the development of vaccines, and, according to a Yale study, largely among the very Republican voters who were most likely to believe the anti-vaccine lies offered by Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo.
Is that enough sanity for you?
The myth of ‘the freest state’
“We choose to navigate the boisterous sea of liberty rather than cower in the calm docks of despotism,” DeSantis said.
Freedom and authoritarianism don’t mix. The notion of Florida as “the freest state” is a myth, manufactured by DeSantis and his image-makers to sharpen the narrative of his expected presidential candidacy.
His is a curious definition of freedom.
Florida has become a place where it’s easier than ever to remove books from school libraries, but harder than it should be for people to request vote-by-mail ballots.
In the “freest state,” Florida teachers fear talking about the country’s racist history. A vote of the people to ban large cruise ships in Key West was wiped away by DeSantis and Tallahassee politicians. How free is that?
In this supposedly “free” state, academic freedom faces the most dangerous sustained assault in Florida’s recent history.
In “the freest state,” higher education is perpetually under the thumb of the governor’s office. On Wednesday, DeSantis demanded that all colleges and universities report every dime spent on “diversity, equity, inclusion and critical race theory.”
Pocketbook crises, ignored
DeSantis’ speech was memorable mostly for what he didn’t say.
There was no mention of the two pocketbook crises hammering so many Florida residents, the skyrocketing cost of homeowners’ insurance and the lack of housing affordability.
Florida faces a heartbreaking epidemic of child sex trafficking, especially in its urban centers in South Florida and elsewhere, as has been well-documented by this newspaper in the recent series Innocence Sold.
That, too, escaped DeSantis’ attention. However, if you listened closely, it did sound as if he made a passing reference to the societal dangers that are posed by drag shows.
“We will defend our children against those who seek to rob them of their innocence,” he said.
In this era of rising sea levels, there was not one word about climate change and its growing threat to our precarious quality of life.
But he did celebrate Florida’s newfound status as America’s fastest-growing state, which, DeSantis claimed, is not the result of year-round sunshine or the lack of a state income tax, but to his own policies.
”We are No. 1 in these United States in net in-migration,” he boasted.
Let that sink in as you stew in traffic on I-4 or State Road 436.
DeSantis did not even mention abortion or guns, or any other issue that is expected to dominate the regular 60-day session of the Legislature that will begin in March.
This was no ordinary roll-out of a governor’s term of office, because this is no ordinary governor, and it is no ordinary time in our state’s history.
On a grand stage for a few fleeting moments Tuesday, DeSantis had an opportunity to offer words of unity and inclusion to all Floridians. But he did provide this:
“We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die!”
In a recent court case, DeSantis’ own general counsel defined “woke” as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”
Florida: Where addressing systemic injustices in society goes to die.
Palm Beach Post. January 8, 2023.
Editorial: Gov. DeSantis’ next move should be a political pivot
The political platform of Gov. Ron DeSantis is pretty much set. His inaugural speech this past week hit all the salient talking points that a conservative governor proud of his first-term accomplishments and eager to do more would make. Like his November re-election victory speech, it promoted “the free state of Florida” as a model for America.
He spoke of family-friendly policies, holding local officials accountable, prioritizing law and order, parental rights and tax relief, rejecting “WOKE” ideology and, of course, opposing the federal government’s approach to treating COVID and spending tax revenue. He highlighted these points made without reminders of the jarring details of the policies’ enactment. Still to come, decisions on abortion and guns that will most likely result in further restrictions on the former and fewer limitations on the latter.
All that may play well in Florida, which gave Gov. DeSantis an overwhelming victory over his Democratic opponent, former Gov. and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist. But now we’ll see how well the Governor’s agenda will play across America, especially outside of the far-right base of GOP supporters. The Post Editorial Board has called on the Governor to politically pivot. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we’re advising him to consider that again.
Tougher abortion restrictions, threatening state colleges and universities for teaching diversity and inclusion, and allowing gun owners to carry weapons without permits or required training, all of which polling shows won’t cut it. Between now and his expected announcement for higher office, Gov. DeSantis can show his willingness to address problems without relying on bluster, red-meat rhetoric or trickle-down economics. It may be a stretch for a Governor who’s spent much of his first term trying to out-Trump the former president. But, if he wants to be a viable candidate for president, he’d better prepare himself to make a change and show some signs of moderation.
“If Gov. DeSantis isn’t paying attention to the fact that voters outside Florida want to see elected officials come together and actually govern, then maybe he should stay put in Tallahassee.”
The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
If we can’t convince Gov. DeSantis − who every day appears more like a candidate for the Republican nomination for president than a second-term governor − that a majority of Americans want more than cultural-war antics, then maybe recent political trends may sway him.
Let’s start with the 2020 elections. The Republican Party, led by then President Donald Trump, completed a four-year trifecta and lost the White House. Republicans were supposed to do better in the 2022 midterms. It didn’t happen. Democrats gained a number of governorships and an outright majority in the Senate. They held the anticipated “red wave” in the House to a trickle, while the Republican majority has shown its inability to choose a Speaker, much less instill confidence they can lead a nation.
The bottom line is that the cultural war antics and red-meat rhetoric bereft of any plan to address serious problems in what remains a divided government isn’t playing well with Americans. If Gov. DeSantis isn’t paying attention to the fact that voters outside of Florida want to see their elected officials come together and actually govern, then maybe he should stay put in Tallahassee.
Gov. DeSantis could use his second term to show he’s more than meets the eye. He already has moved to ensure ongoing efforts to restore the Florida Everglades continue. He can build on his environmental bona-fides by doing more to protect Florida’s springs and making sure the Florida Department of Environmental Protection − an agency the Governor clearly controls − does more to go after polluters and firms that exploit state water resources.
The Governor could also push for Medicaid expansion. Florida is one of only 11 states that hasn’t accepted the federal government’s offer for an increase in aid to bolster the federal-state healthcare program for the poor, elderly and disabled. The refusal by Florida leaders to expand Medicaid is costing the state $6.6 billion a year, according to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Urban Institute data. Officials in other conservative states decided not to leave taxpayer dollars on the table. Why should our Governor remain an intractable holdout?
Gov. DeSantis has not changed course, as he continues to down the road of base politics. At some point, he will have to. His political future depends on it.
Miami Herald. January 9, 2023.
Editorial: Bolsonaro hides in Florida while violent supporters do his dirty work in Brazil
As former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro retreated to a luxury gated community in Florida — where he has been seen doing mundane things like grocery shopping — his marauding supporters Sunday defaced Brazil’s Congress, presidential office building and Supreme Court.
It’s impossible not to see the irony of another far-right leader who, for years, incited his base with unfounded allegations of voter fraud. He takes off, leaving the dirty work to be done by his army of blind loyalists. He then lands in the Sunshine State, home of Donald Trump, who incited the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol invasion with similar conspiracy theories, and the hotbed of America’s extreme right-wing politics at the hands of Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans.
There aren’t two sides to what happened in Brazil’s capital of Brasilia on Sunday — or at the U.S. Capitol in 2021. These weren’t mere expressions of an opinion or dissatisfaction with government. As Brazil’s justice minister rightly described it, these were acts of terrorism and coup mongering.
And it’s not surprising. Ever since Bolsonaro lost an October election to Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, there’s been the threat and fear of violence. Days before Lula’s inauguration last week, a bomb was discovered on a fuel truck near Brasilia’s airport.
The brand of conservative politics disseminated by Bolsonaro, and Trump, cannot be dissociated from violence. They are steeped in the belief that “progress” should be achieved at all costs, even if it means dismantling the democracy that allowed them to be elected in the first place. Little differentiates them from fascist movements of the 20th century.
It’s no wonder that a political movement that preaches complete annihilation of opponents, that feeds on misinformation and hatred toward minorities culminates in an attack on democratic institutions. It’s disturbing — though expected — that Bolsonaro supporters in Miami greeted as a hero a Brazilian congresswoman and Bolsonaro ally who followed, while pointing a gun, a Black man in Sao Paulo after an argument the day before the elections in October. They act much like Trump rally attendees who cheered when the former president said he would like to punch a protester in the face.
Brazil’s rabid mob acted just days after the two-year anniversary of Jan. 6. In both cases, the intent was to reverse the results of a fair election. One sought to stop Congress’ certification of Electoral College results giving Joe Biden the win. The other demands a military intervention like the 1964 coup that sent Brazil into 20 years of an authoritarian regime that tortured and killed dissidents.
The main difference is that the Brazilian Congress wasn’t in session on Sunday. Unlike Biden on Jan. 6, 2021, Lula had already been sworn in as president. So it’s unlikely that the storming of the buildings in Brasilia could have achieved more than sowing fear and chaos in Latin America’s largest democracy. However, Bolsonaro’s radicals have been convinced by fake news and ludicrous theories circulated on chat apps like WhatsApp that the Brazilian army is just waiting for a signal to interfere.
Rioters broke windows, toppled furniture, punctured a painting by a renowned Brazilian artist, ripped the door off a supreme court justice’s office and more. Not even a watch brought by the Portuguese king to Brazil in 1808 was spared. So far, more than 400 people have been arrested, according to CNN Brazil. Another 1,200 who had been camping outside military headquarters in Brasilia have been detained.
No one expected Bolsonaro to act like a statesman while all this happened. He could be facing criminal charges in Brazil related to his doings as president.
He tweeted Sunday that the depredation and invasion of public buildings are “outside the rules.” He then proceeded to play the victim, writing — while police were clearing out his supporters from inside those same buildings — that he rejects “baseless” accusations by Lula. The next day, as his country still tried to make sense of the violence performed in his name, he made several posts listing what he described as 37 accomplishments of his presidential term.
Trumpism and Bolsonarism aren’t defined by self-reflection and love for country. Their main trait is self delusion. There are no facts, no arguing, no pleading that will stop these men — and their zombie-like followers — from inflicting harm on these democracies.
Bolsonaro’s stay in Florida — where Trump only grew in popularity after his first term — is a shameful reminder that too many people are drinking their poisoned Kool-Aid.