TALLAHASSEE — With Renatha Francis joining the Florida Supreme Court, Gov. Ron DeSantis will cement a majority of his own appointees in line with his legal philosophy and thus more likely to rule in his favor on lawsuits challenging the many controversial laws he has signed.
Her appointment is the latest example of how DeSantis has exerted his influence as governor of the third largest state in the nation, as he rolls toward a second term and positions himself for the 2024 Republican presidential campaign.
“Governor DeSantis seems to have been able to consolidate power and use more power than previous governors,” said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. “There is a lack of checks and balances that we’ve seen in the past.”
He’s aggressively pushed an agenda steeped in culture wars that gives him national exposure, brought Republican lawmakers and other leaders in line, and used his executive powers to punish any person or corporation, including the Walt Disney Co., who opposes him.
He has control over all the executive agencies that answer to the governor’s office. He’s barred schools and businesses from requiring masks, fought with cruise lines and tourist resorts over vaccine mandates and hindered parents’ efforts to vaccinate their own children against COVID-19.
He also can count on two of the three independently elected Cabinet members as allies who consistently back him up on his agenda. His only opposition on the Cabinet, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, isn’t running for reelection in November. Instead, she is running to unseat DeSantis.
The governor’s most recent move has brought even more attention. He suspended Andrew Warren, a twice-elected Hillsborough County state attorney for signing a statement promising not to prosecute people seeking or providing abortions and doctors providing transgender care.
“To take a position that you have veto powers over the laws of the state is untenable,” DeSantis said at a press conference announcing the suspension.
Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, backed him up on a recent Fox & Friends appearance, saying he has a “duty to make sure the laws are faithfully enforced throughout the state. And he felt, based on prior statements, that he wouldn’t enforce the law.”
Howard Simon, former longtime state director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said DeSantis appears to be taking his cues from Viktor Orban, the autocratic prime minister of Hungary admired by many American conservatives.
“But there are few that are actually putting in practice the model of Viktor Orban other than Ron DeSantis,” Simon said. “And it is essentially to make the state not only a one-party state but a one-person state.”
Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, told CNN that DeSantis has been handed a “blank check.”
“There is no part of the constitution now that is protecting democracy because the checks and balances on him have been completely eviscerated,” Jarvis said.
Brevard County Republican State. Rep. Randy Fine said the reason DeSantis is so successful with the Republican-controlled Legislature is that they share the same conservative values.
“We all run on the same principles and deliver,” Fine said. “We’re all on the same page.”
But Jewett said the only check and balance that appears to remain for DeSantis is the will of the voters come Nov. 8.
“Elections are coming up, and if the public disagrees with him, they can vote him out,” he said.
DeSantis’s consolidation of power gives him unprecedented influence over all three branches of state government since at least 1970, threatening the normal system that controls the flow of political power, Jewett said.
And there is a real danger in that, he said.
“It concerns me as a political scientist when you see one person seeming to wield so much power and pushing things to what I would say is a political extreme,” Jewett said.
The political system works best when no one person can exercise too much influence or reach too far beyond what accepted public opinion allows, he said.
“There are plenty of examples over the span of time when one person becomes too strong or powerful,” Jewett said. “Folks believe in checks and balances, you don’t want to see one person come to wield such enormous power without any checks.”
Since the Republican Party took over the Governor’s Mansion and Legislature in 1998, there were clashes between the executive and legislative branches even when they were supposedly allies working toward the same goals. Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott all had their skirmishes with the GOP-controlled Legislature, Jewett said.
“Scott had a somewhat contentious relationship, while the Legislature today just pretty much gives DeSantis everything he wants,” Jewett said. “And when he takes action that humiliates them, like by cutting their budget priorities, they lavish him with praise.”
A key moment came during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when the Legislature deferred to DeSantis on all things COVID. Using emergency powers, he issued sweeping executive orders to shut down bars and restaurants, close public schools, send state workers home and allocate billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief money from Washington without lawmakers’ approval.
DeSantis headed into the 2022 session with an agenda that he laid out months ahead of time, and he achieved most of the things he wanted to accomplish.
He got the Legislature to pass a bill embracing his Stop WOKE Act plan that dictates training parameters for corporate employees and racially related instruction in schools.
He also supported restrictions on what can be taught in schools about gender identity and sexual orientation.
And when Disney stood up to him about the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, DeSantis punished them by getting the Legislature to disband Disney’s special improvement district.
He also usurped the Legislature’s constitutional duty to redraw political districts by vetoing a congressional map that was approved with bipartisan legislative support, replacing it with his own map that expanded the number of Republican seats in Congress.
The Legislature revived a state militia that reports directly to the governor, created an elections “police force” run by the governor’s appointees to investigate alleged voter fraud, and gave him a $1 billion emergency fund to use at his discretion.
Several proposals the governor’s staff drafted for the Legislature to consider did not get across the finish line, according to public records obtained by Seeking Rents and the Orlando Sentinel.
He wanted the Legislature to give him even more power to remove elected state attorneys and local school board members from office, make it easier to sue newspapers and refuse public records requests, make it harder for citizens to get constitutional amendments on the ballot, and strip the Cabinet members of some of their powers.
After giving DeSantis most of what he wanted, the governor vetoed a $350 million Lake Okeechobee water treatment project pushed by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars for a cancer treatment center in Simpson’s district.
He also trimmed a $75 million environmental and oceanographic research center at University of South Florida that was a project of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.
Fine disputes the notion that the governor controls the Legislature.
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“Other than redistricting, where he lobbied intensely, I never felt pressure from the governor on anything,” Fine said.
DeSantis is a gifted strategist, who has planned this expansion of powers since he took office in 2019, Jewett said.
“I do admire his political skill as a neutral political scientist,” said Jewett, who is not registered with any political party and says he’s probably voted for more Republicans than Democrats. “While a few mistakes were made along the way, he mostly continues to do things that are popular with Republicans.”
Jewett said DeSantis’ team “is great at putting a political spin on things to make them seem reasonable. ‘Don’t say gay’ is about protecting your children from sex, and if you’re against it you’re a groomer. It’s absurd and horrible, but it works.”
But Jewett is concerned that DeSantis is not just using his executive powers to fight for policies he believes in, but to push laws to squelch the opposition, like the anti-riot law in 2020, election laws that appear to target voting methods that were popular with Democrats and making it harder for citizen initiatives to change the constitution.
“Without opposition, that is what people end up doing,” Jewett said, referring to political leaders. “With no check or balance and nobody in your way you do what you want.”
Staff writer Anthony Man of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel contributed to this report.