DeSantis gets blasted after scrapping another Cabinet meeting: It is 'an insult' to Floridians

Gov. Ron DeSantis has cancelled a meeting of the Florida Cabinet again, prompting complaints from Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried that the governor is evading oversight under Florida’s unique executive branch mechanism.

The three Cabinet members — Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — are top statewide elected officials who conduct the state’s business, along with the governor.

Fried, a Democrat seeking her party’s nomination to campaign against Republican DeSantis in November, said DeSantis’ office gave no reason for cancelling a Cabinet meeting set for June 28 and a June 29 meeting of the Board of Executive Clemency.

The notice arrived via a terse email from Caroline Redshaw, DeSantis’ aide for Cabinet affairs.

“As if only scheduling four total meetings this year of the Cabinet and clemency board to conduct important state business and giving Floridians who have waited years an opportunity for a second chance wasn’t insulting enough, the governor has now cancelled the second of those scheduled meetings that were to be held at the end of the month,” Fried said in a written statement.

“While not surprising given the number of Cabinet and clemency board meetings cancelled without cause by Gov. DeSantis over the years, his continued unwillingness to do his job and focus on the urgent challenges facing our state is an insult to the people of Florida. But maybe he can use this new-found free time on those days to implement the much-needed gas tax break now to help Floridians instead of waiting until October on the eve of the election,” Fried added.

The Florida Constitution allots some executive functions to the Cabinet, which at present comprises Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, both Republicans, and Fried. The governor presides over these meetings.

The same arrangement applies to the clemency board, which considers requests to restore certain rights to convicted felons, including to vote and own firearms.

The Cabinet met monthly before DeSantis took office in January 2019, but early in his term he said he saw no reason to convene that frequently.

““You can meet however often you want,” he said in May 2019. “Probably not going to be every month.”

The governor and Cabinet last met in March and are scheduled to meet again on Aug. 23 and Dec. 13. The clemency board is set to meet on Aug. 24 and Dec. 14.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

DeSantis doesn’t blame Abbott, despite ‘egregiously unsanitary’ conditions at infant formula plant

Gov. Ron DeSantis blamed the Biden administration for the shortage of infant formula within the United States, suggesting manufacturer Abbott Laboratories, in Michigan, was blameless in a plant shutdown that left parents scrambling to provide nourishment for their babies.

The governor addressed the matter during a news conference in Jacksonville as another of the supply chain problem holding back the U.S. economy.

“We’re now seeing this massive problem with the baby formula over the last few months,” he said.

“They shut down Abbott’s plant. I don’t think Abbott even did anything wrong. And they were really slow to bring that to a conclusion,” DeSantis said of federal health regulators.

“Now, I think the plant’s going back, but it’s been a total disaster with that. It’s been very difficult for a lot of mothers to be able to get the infant formula that they need.”

The Florida Phoenix’s Washington D.C. bureau has been writing stories about the infant formula shortage and the hearings in Congress about the crisis. The information from the D.C. bureau states:

FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told Congress in late May that he’s found no evidence of intentional delay or malfeasance within the agency — though it took months to act on a whistleblower report of what he called “egregiously unsanitary” conditions at an infant formula plant in Michigan.

Califf said the agency’s response “was too slow and there were decisions that were suboptimal along the way.” He also told lawmakers there was a “lack of coordination” regarding the whistleblower report the FDA received in October 2021.

Members of Congress have repeatedly criticized the FDA for its slow response to reports of unsanitary conditions at the Abbott Laboratories manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan, where Cronobacter was detected during an inspection earlier this year.

The current infant formula shortage began in mid-February after Abbott Laboratories issued a recall of products produced at the Sturgis, facility.

In the five months leading up to the plant shutdown, the FDA received a whistleblower report about unsanitary conditions at the facility, four infants became ill with Cronobacter infections, with at least two of them dying, and an FDA inspection of the facility in late January found several violations.

Among the issues at the Abbott infant formula facility were:

  • Standing water.
  • Cracks in key equipment that could have allowed bacterial contamination to persist.
  • Leaks in the roof.
  • Previous citations for inadequate hand-washing.
  • Bacteria growing from multiple sites.
  • “A disappointing lack of attention to the culture of safety.”

In a press statement last month, Abbott entered into a “consent decree with (the) U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its Sturgis, Mich., plant; agreement creates pathway to reopen facility.”

Boost for first responders

DeSantis scheduled his news conference at a Jacksonville fire-rescue station ostensibly to highlight $10 million in the state budget that takes effect on July 1 to provide Florida’s urban search and rescue teams with updated equipment, maintenance costs, and training.

These were the crews from around the state that responded to last year’s Surfside condominium collapse, which killed 98 people.

Hurricane season opened last week and has already produced its first tropical storm, named Alex, which developed after a tropical system dumped as much as 11 inches of rain on South Florida and then moved over the Atlantic Ocean.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted above-average storm activity this year — for the seventh year in a row.

“Honestly, these predictions — you don’t know either way,” DeSantis said.

“Just assume we’re going to have hurricanes. I mean, I think that’s the best way to do it. Be prepared and if we end up not getting a significant amount, then great. But just assume that you’re going to have to deal with this throughout the hurricane season,” he said.

Florida Phoenix editor Diane Rado contributed to this report.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

New court ruling appears to favor DeSantis' plan to abolish Black-access district in North Florida

A Florida appellate court ruled Friday that a trial judge abused his authority in ordering state government to retain a Black-access congressional district in North Florida before holding a full trial on whether the state’s Fair District amendment required doing so.

The 20-page opinion (docket here) from the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee arrived exactly one week after the same court reinstated an injunction against enforcing a congressional redistricting plan forced upon the Legislative by Gov. Ron DeSantis that abolished the district in question.

With time running out before the Aug. 23 primary and Nov. 8 general elections, the decision seems to amount to another weight on the scale in favor of the governor’s plan — which also would deliver 20 of the 28 seats to which Florida is entitled under the 2020 U.S. Census to Republicans.

That’s notwithstanding the Fair Districts amendment, which forbids partisan gerrymandering or diminishment of Black representation.

In explaining the outcome for a three-judge appellate panel, Judge A.S. Tanenbaum wrote that Circuit Judge Layne Smith in Leon County improperly imposed a plan retaining Congressional District 5 as a vehicle for Blacks in Florida’s old plantation belt to elect a representative of their choice.

The opinion made clear the panel was not ruling on the merits of the DeSantis’ congressional map raised by voting rights groups including Black Voters Matter, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Equal Ground Education Fund, and five individual voters.


But it lambasted Smith’s handling of the case from the very start, including his decision not to stage a full trial on the case’s merits.

“Rather than proceed by respecting the separation of powers and the historical limits of its authority, the circuit court here improperly fast-tracked the case — in essence, to judgment — and it did so in the context of a constitutional writ of injunction absent a full evidentiary hearing and final adjudication,” Tanenbaum wrote.

“The circuit court’s use of a temporary injunction in this way — to draw up a remedial redistricting plan and force its implementation in the upcoming election without a trial and final adjudication on the merits — was legally unsupported.”

Also signing the opinion were judges Harvey Jay III and M. Kemmerly Thomas. Tanenbaum is a DeSantis appointee. The other two were placed on the court by former Gov. Rick Scott, now Florida’s junior U.S. senator.

Tanenbaum wrote that the panel procedurally couldn’t reach the merits of the case because of the lack of on-the-record evidence. Smith held a Zoom hearing and then ordered the state to plan for the election using the Black-access district.

‘Unauthorized exercise’

“In the order, the circuit court even acknowledges that it is crafting a remedy for the appellees until there can be a trial. The grant of this provisional remedy, unmoored from an adjudication, was an unauthorized exercise of judicial discretion, making the temporary injunction unlawful on its face,” Tanenbaum wrote.

“This abuse of authority by the circuit court, by itself, is enough support for our disposition of the motion to reinstate the stay. Whether there is merit to the constitutional challenge at the center of the appellees’ complaint is a question for another day, after a trial in the circuit court.”

The DeSantis map divides those Black voters among four districts dominated by white voters. It also dilutes Black voting strength in Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area, although those districts weren’t at issue in the case.

A separate federal legal attack on the DeSantis map is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. The voting-rights groups have asked the Florida Supreme Court to hear the case on an emergency basis but that court has not done anything about it at this point.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

For a second time, judge blocks state from using DeSantis’ congressional districts

A state trial judge has forbidden the state from running this year’s midterm elections using the congressional redistricting map that Gov. Ron DeSantis forced the Legislature to enact, citing the prospect of “irreparable harm” to voters, especially North Florida Blacks.

Circuit Judge Layne Smith, sitting in Leon County, insisted Monday that the state stick to an alternative map that he approved on Friday, which maintains a Black-access district stretching from Duval to Gadsden counties, including parts of Tallahassee.

Smith, a DeSantis appointee, said the law allows him to vacate an automatic stay that took effect once the state filed its appeal of last week’s ruling if the interest of fairness or if the state is unlikely to prevail on appeal and if it would cause irreparable harm.

“The court finds overwhelmingly compelling circumstances against maintaining the stay in this action,” Smith continued.

“Fundamental rights are at stake and time is both short and the of the essence. There are no do-overs when it comes to elections; in essence, there is no remedy for a Florida voter once their constitutional rights have been infringed,” he wrote.

The state’s appeal remains pending before the First District, although that court could ask the state Supreme Court to take the case right away given the late date: Qualifying for congressional elections runs from June 13 to June 17; primaries are set for Aug. 23 and the general election for Nov. 8.

Voting rights organizations including Black Voters Matter, the Equal Ground Education Fund, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and five individual voters who live within the contested district challenged the governor’s district boundaries in Smith’s court.

The lawsuit names Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees elections, Attorney General Ashley Moody, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senate President Wilton Simpson, and the head of the state House and Senate redistricting committees.

Lee has announced her resignation, which took effect on Monday; DeSantis has named state House Republican Cord Byrd to replace her pending confirmation by the state Senate.

A separate federal legal attack on the DeSantis map is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

The DeSantis plan provides for 20 GOP seats among the 28 Florida is entitled to following the 2020 U.S. Census. It also splits Black communities in Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area, eliminating two of the state’s four reliable Black districts, but they didn’t figure in Smith’s order.

That North Florida district, CD 5, mirrors a constituency the Florida Supreme Court created in 2015, citing the Fair Districts amendment; Black Democrat Al Lawson has held the seat since then. However, DeSantis complained the district amounted to a racial gerrymander.

The governor forced the Legislature to OK map during a special session in April. The House debate broke down for about one hour because Black and other Democrats staged a sit-in on the floor, but Republicans returned and pushed the governor’s map through to passage.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

DeSantis signs additional voting restrictions into law before cheering crowd

For the second year in a row, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed legislation clamping down on alleged election-fraud by making it harder for voter registration groups to operate and imposing stiff penalties for “ballot harvesting.”

This year’s version (SB 524) builds on legislation (SB 90) that DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2021.

It makes “ballot harvesting” —delivering mail-in ballots belonging to anyone except the single voter and immediate family members — a third-degree felony punishable by five years in prison and $5,000 in fines. Voting rights groups have long used the process in get-out-the-vote efforts but DeSantis demonized it after 2020.

The maximum annual penalty for voter-registration organizations that file registration forms late with election officials rises under the new law from the maximum $1,000 under the old law to $50,000.

The measure would bar elections administrators from accepting outside contributions in support of voting, in line with GOP outrage at reports that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg contributed more than $400 million to support election administration, allegedly benefiting Democrats; DeSantis calls the money “Zuckerbucks.”

And it creates an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Florida Department of State with 15 civilian workers to look into reports of voting fraud including anonymous allegations made through a hot line. Another 10 Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents would be dedicated to such cases.

During a ceremony before a cheering crowd at a sports bar in Spring Hill, the governor bragged, as he has in the past, about how well Florida ran its 2020 elections, during which Donald Trump carried the state although losing the national vote.

“But there’s a lot that needs to be addressed. So, we weren’t just going to sit there and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got everything figured out,’” he said.

DeSantis left without taking questions from the press.

Legislative Democrats denounced the new law.

“No Floridian should fear reprisal from an unaccountable agency with a nebulous mission simply because they wanted to register their fellow citizens to vote or help a neighbor turn in their mail ballot. We should be doing everything in our power to make it easier for our fellow Floridians to vote, yet this bill is another example in a years-long campaign to undermine that right,” House member Susan Valdés said in a written statement.

“Its implementation will put up additional barriers to voting and targets communities of color. This bullying tactic will intimidate and immobilize workers, families, and everyday people,” said Democrat Yvonne Hinson, representing parts of Alachua and Marion counties.

“Another bill to suppress the vote. Why are the Republicans so afraid of the judgement of the citizens?” said Democrat Joe Geller, representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

The earlier law imposed restrictions on drop boxes for mail-in ballots; banned “line warming,” or giving food, water, and other support to people waiting to vote; and required voter-registration groups to warn people that the groups might miss deadlines for filing forms with elections officials.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that law unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act on March 31 for seeking to reduce turnout by Black voters. He called it a “cynical effort” in line with anti-Black voting restrictions extending back for 20 years in Florida.

Walker ordered the state to submit any changes in voting law for preapproval by the U.S. Department of Justice or the courts for the next decade.

The ruling is still under appeal.

DeSantis alluded to the ruling on Monday, saying, ‘They’re trying to mess with us in court,” but predicted the state would win on appeal.

The bill DeSantis signed on Monday featured in the litigation over SB 90. The new law repealed SB 90’s requirement that voting registration canvassers issue those warnings orally, instead requiring them printed on the forms themselves.

Walker cited that as an example of states changing voting restrictions once they’ve been challenged in court to move the goalposts. In other words, as an example of why he ordered the state to submit to preclearance of its voting laws. “In sum, without preclearance, Florida can pass unconstitutional restrictions like the registration disclaimer with impunity,” Walker wrote.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Florida Republicans jam redistricting bill through state House amid protest

The Florida House, operating through a protest led by Black Caucus members, pushed through approval of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to redraw Florida’s congressional districts on Thursday.

After abandoning the chamber for a little more than an hour, Speaker Chris Sprowls and his fellow Republicans returned and called the vote on the DeSantis map, which eliminates Black “access” seats in North and Central Florida, cutting Black Democratic representation in half.

The vote was 68-38. Since the Senate has already approved the plan, it goes to DeSantis to be signed into law and will govern this year’s midterm elections.

In quick order, the leadership used the same tactic to approve two bills targeting The Walt Disney Co., which spoke out against the “Parental Rights in Education Act,” also known as the “Don’t Say Gay,” law that DeSantis signed earlier this spring.

That law restricts classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools — in grades K-3 but also in higher grades in some circumstances.


Throughout the rushed votes, Reps. Travaris McCurdy of Orange County, Angie Nixon of Duval, and Felicia Robinson of Miami-Dade sat on the floor in the well of the chamber, right on top of the House seal woven into the carpet, and chanted slogans. Other Democrats joined in from their seats.

Yvette Hinson, who represents parts of Alachua and Marion counties, stood next to the three.

Having passed the three bills, Sprowls adjourned the House, slamming down his gavel with a resounding whack. Shortly later, the lights in the chamber went out.

The result was a decisive win for DeSantis, who insisted that U.S. Supreme Court rulings disfavoring consideration of race in drawing political districts. If an ugly one. There was no immediate word from the governor’s office.

Sprowls issued a written statement.

“Today a group of representatives decided to hijack the legislative process, violating House Rules and interfering with the rights of their fellow elected colleagues to debate important legislation before the body,” he said.

“We saw a group of Florida House members with microphones at their desk, a statewide audience, and an opportunity to vote on behalf of their constituents, and they instead chose to pretend they had to stage a protest to be heard.

“House Democrats requested and agreed to 75 minutes of debate time on congressional maps, and they used the entire time. They did not request any additional time prior to the group’s disruption.

“After offering multiple opportunities to debate the bills in an orderly way, we carried on and completed our constitutional duty to pass a congressional map. Ultimately, this group tried to drown out the voices of the other elected representatives and the 22 million Floridians they represent.”

Before the protest broke out, Democrats compared the DeSantis plan to Jim Crow-era laws limiting Black voting rights. Republicans called it a reasonable response to constitutional questions about race’s role in drawing political boundaries.

The new map creates 20 districts likely to vote Republican and eight for Democrats. It splits Blacks in Duval along the St. Johns River into two GOP-leaning districts and eliminates a Black “opportunity” district in Orange County. In opportunity districts a minority group wields enough strength to heavily influence the outcome.

Congresswoman Val Demings represents that area now.

The map provides four Hispanic-leaning districts in South Florida.

Disney bills

The vote was 73-38 on legislation (HB 3-C), sunsetting any special district created before the adoption of the Florida Constitution of 1968 effective on June 1, 2023, unless the Legislature has reauthorized them since then.

That bill’s targets include the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which the Legislature approved in 1967 to give The Walt Disney Co. control over the 25,000 acres it owns in Central Florida. That bill cleared the Senate on Wednesday.

HB 5-C, repealing an exemption for Disney connected to last year’s law cracking down on social media over their alleged deplatforming of conservatives, passed on a 70-38 vote.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Florida Senate moves quickly to secure DeSantis' Congressional map; Black representation would be cut

The Florida Senate has set up a final floor vote for Wednesday on a redistricting plan that awards the lion’s share of the state’s seats in Congress to Republicans and cuts representation by Black people in half.

The state House is following closely behind, running the governor’s map through its Redistricting Committee vote and preparing for initial floor debate on Wednesday, according to a schedule announced by Speaker Chris Sprowls.

Committees in both chambers advanced legislation, also sought by DeSantis, that would punish The Walt Disney Co. for opposing legislation passed during the recent regular session forbidding classroom instruction involving sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3 or in upper grades if parents deem the material not age-appropriate.

Critics call it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and argue it discriminates against LGBT people.

Special session

Tuesday’s developments came during a special session, scheduled to last no later than noon Friday, called by DeSantis to force the Legislature to accept his version of a congressional map written to account for population growth documented in the 2020 U.S. Census.

He’d vetoed the Legislature’s version, which would have given Republicans 18 of the 28 seats in Congress and 10 to Democrats, with four Black-access districts and the same number for Hispanics.

DeSantis’ plan contains those four Hispanic seats but only two for Blacks and gives the GOP 20 seats.

Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues of Lee County conceded that the Legislature had attempted to preserve two protected-Black districts because they’d been created by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015, following years of litigation against the redistricting that followed the 2010 Census.

But DeSantis has raised valid concerns that the districts might not qualify for protection under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Rodrigues said.

‘Inherent conflict’

“There’s an inherent conflict between our state Constitution and Supreme Court decisions that have occurred since the Fair Districts amendment was adopted to our state Constitution,” he said.

That was in 2010, by a supermajority vote by Floridians. The amendment forbids the Legislature from drawing political boundaries to benefit any political party or incumbent or disadvantage minorities’ ability to elect representatives of their choice.

Democrat Randolph Bracy of Orange County asked whether Rodrigues considered it fair to slash Black representation in half.

Rodrigues rejected the premise that Blacks can’t win heavily white districts. He said he lives in CD 19 in southwest Florida, with a 3 percent minority population, represented in Congress by Byron Donalds, a Black Republican.

“”I don’t think color makes the determination of whether a person gets elected or not. I think it really comes down to whether that person connects with the voters or not,” he said.

DeSantis sent Alex Kelly, his deputy chief of staff and architect of his map, to brief the House and Senate committees. In testimony on the Senate side, he said he’d consulted with no one but had based his product on an amalgamation of earlier maps produced by the Legislature and the governor.

‘Racial gerrymander’

DeSantis’ adamant refusal to broach a “racial gerrymander” meant the demise of the Legislature’s proposed CD 5, modeled on the district now held by Democrat Al Lawson, and CD 10 in Central Florida, now held by Democrat Val Demings.

CD 5 would stretch for 200 miles from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and majority-Black Gadsden County. The DeSantis team argues that’s too far to qualify as a compact district under Fair Districts and recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

As for CD 10, the black voting-age population has been slipping and is no longer sufficient to qualify as a Black-accessible district, Kelly argued.

The DeSantis map splits black communities in the Tampa Bay region by drawing a line through St. Petersburg, and through Jacksonville by using the St. Johns River as a dividing line between the governor’s preferred versions CD 4 and CD 5, which wind up majority Republican.

Black people living in Florida’s old plantation belt would be left without the chance to elect another Black person to Congress, given voting trends.

The Senate rushed the plan (SB 2-C) through a three-hour hearing committee meeting, where it passed on a party-line vote. The bill landed on the Senate floor a little after 5 p.m.

Home venue

Senators immediately attached an amendment requiring any legal challenges brought under state law to be tried in a state trial court in Leon County, site of the Capitol. That may be an attempt to restrict federal court review of claims under Fair Districts, although the amendment would allow U.S. constitutional or statutory claims in federal court.

Backers argued the state deserves the ability to litigate in its home venue — as usual in lawsuits involving the state.

Voting rights groups are already in federal court in Tallahassee asking for a judge-drawn map on the ground that the map the Legislature is likely to pass violated Fair Districts, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

Of course, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida also maintains a courthouse in Tallahassee.

“This is not just forum shopping. This is avoid Judge Walker shopping,” said Democrat Gary Farmer of Broward County. He referred to Chief Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District, who on March 31 struck down key provisions of Florida’s 2021 voting restrictions law as unconstitutionally targeting Blacks.

Another Senate amendment specifies that if a court deems any of the new districts invalid, that won’t necessarily undo districts elsewhere in the state that are valid. It provides $1 million for litigation costs.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing earlier in the day, Ramon Alexander, a Democrat representing Gadsden and part of Leon counties, criticized HB 5-C, sponsored by Republican Alex Andrade, which would repeal an exemption for Disney connected to last year’s law cracking down on social media over their alleged deplatforming of conservatives.

Also pending is legislation (HB 3-C) to sunset any special district created before the adoption of the Florida Constitution of 1968 effective on June 1, 2023, unless the Legislature has reauthorized them since then. The Legislature could reestablish them after that date, however.

Alexander complained the governor was bullying the company.

‘Lipstick on a pig’

“We talk about checks and balances and the core essence of what that is. And I’ve had my fair share of debates but, for the first time in this process here in Florida, I am deeply concerned about absolute power,” he said.

“If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig,” Alexander said. “And this is a classic example when one person has absolute power, this is the outcome of our democracy.”

Andrade, a Republican representing parts of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, replied that his legislation removes from state law “the exemption from consumer protections on social media platforms for companies that happened to own theme parks in Florida.”

State Rep. Ben Diamond expressed frustration with the special session, saying the Legislature should be focused on addressing their constituents’ real problems.

“They don’t want us up here talking about Disney World, they want us here doing our jobs,” said Diamond, a Democrat representing part of Pinellas County. “I am so frustrated because I don’t see us doing that, I see it as political theater.”

He added: “We shouldn’t be up here fighting Mickey Mouse; we should be up here fighting for our constituents.”

There were moves in both the House and Senate committees Tuesday to require Kelly to testify under oath. Chairmen in both chambers quashed that kind of talk.

“That procedure would be different from any of the testimony that we received in our committee thus far,” said House chairman Tyler Sirois, who represents part of Brevard County.

The request from Skidmore “would be an extraordinary step that I don’t feel is necessary and frankly I find absurd,” Sirois said. “This is a state house, not a courthouse.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Florida 'is in a state of confusion and chaos': Black pastors condemn DeSantis during special legislative session

A crowd of Black pastors, NAACP members and Black legislative caucus members were angry Tuesday about Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attempts to dilute Black congressional districts, on the first day of a special legislative session in Florida.

The group, who came to the state capital on Tuesday, also prayed and quoted Bible verses, in hopes of trying to empower voters to get out and cast their ballots so DeSantis would not be reelected in 2022.

“I’m no longer calling it a culture war. It’s racist tactics,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, who was at the steps of the Old Capitol building prior to the opening of the special session. “We are more ‘woke’ than we have ever been,” Jones said.

The atmosphere was passionate, with chants and signs, such as “Say Black Voters” and “Say Fair Districts.” Another sign said: “Protect Black Representation.”

State Rep. Tracie Davis, of Duval, stressed the importance of young people voting in the 2022 election.

Pastor R.B Holmes Jr., of Tallahassee, said, “Our beloved state is in a state of confusion and chaos. You better wake up and open your eyes to see what’s happening to this state.”

In the Capitol building, Florida lawmakers in a special session Tuesday will take up a congressional redistricting plan designed by DeSantis that will boost Republican representation while cutting back on seats likely to be won by Black people.

And, thanks to a late expansion of the agenda by DeSantis, lawmakers will also consider revoking The Walt Disney Co.’s powers to run its own affairs across its 25,000 acres of theme parks and other developments in Orange and Osceola counties.

The House came to order a few minutes after noon, with Speaker Chris Sprowls telling members the plan was to review the governor’s redistricting plan and two Disney-related bills on Tuesday ahead of floor sessions set for Wednesday and Thursday, then go home.

In the Senate, Senate President Wilton Simpson went over procedures and schedules.

State Sen. Gary Farmer, of Broward, attempted to slow down the proceedings, especially since the Disney-related bills are now part of the special session. But he was unsuccessful.

In remarks to reporters, Sprowls suggested the Legislature is hung on the horns of a dilemma — it’s own preferred map protected Black representation in part by creating a 200-mile long district from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and Gadsden County, but DeSantis insists the district comprises a “racial gerrymander.”

“The House believes and has believed from the very beginning that there are minority-access districts that are protected. The question is, is that one of them when you have to go 200 miles, stretch across the state,” he said.

But the governor rejected the Legislature’s alternative plan to create a Black-access district within Duval County, he noted.

“The court’s going to have to make a decision — it’s either all yes or all no,” Sprowls said.

As to the Disney-related bills, the legislation (HB 3-C) would sunset any special district created before the adoption of the Florida Constitution of 1968 effective on June 1, 2023, unless the Legislature has reauthorized them since then. The Legislature could reestablish them after that date, however.

That definition applies to only five of the 132 active independent special districts now in operation. They include Reedy Creek, but also the Bradford County Development Authority; the Sunshine Water Control District in Broward County; the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District in Franklin County; and the Hamilton County Development Authority.

A separate bill (HB 5-C) would repeal an exemption for Disney that the Legislature included in last year’s law cracking down on social media companies deemed to have quashed conservative voices including political candidates.

“Honestly, it has come at us so fast that we’re still trying to wrap our head around what’s happening,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, policy chair for the House Democratic caucus.

She argued the move continues the culture war initiatives the Republicans, led by DeSantis pursued during the regular session and the expense of important state needs.

“Here they are, trying to attack Disney — when you hear the name Disney, you have to remember, there are tens of thousands of stories behind that in the form of the people who work there, in the people that visit there, the tourists who come and who spend their dollars at Disney and in the surrounding area so we have the benefit and freedom of not having an income tax in the state of Florida,” Driskell said.

“The governor, I think, is overplaying his hand here. And it’s gross overreach and it’s a real shame that the Legislature is abandoning its duty to do it’s damn job, which is to write legislation and to pass bills,” she said.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Congressional redistricting: ‘If Florida enacts this map, Florida will be sued’

A leading Democratic election lawyer reupped Friday on threats to take Florida to court if the Legislature adopts Gov.Ron DeSantis’ congressional redistricting plan during its special session next week.

“I can assure everyone there are lots of lawyers and organizations and groups that are tracking this,” Marc Elias, a litigator and founder of Democracy Docket, said during a Twitter spaces discussion.

“It’s important that people contact even their own Democratic legislature legislators — not because the Democrats would support this map, but because it’s important that as the Democrats in the state Legislature stand up to this, they know that the people are behind them,” Elias said.

DeSantis, a Republican vying for reelection this year and carving out a leadership position for himself among national Republicans, dropped his latest congressional plan on Wednesday, having vetoed the Legislature’s plan and calling the special session set to open on Tuesday. Republicans in the Legislature have indicated that they will support it.

According to data analyst and campaign consultant Matthew Isbell, the governor’s map would give Republicans 20 seats against eight for Democrats (Florida gained an additional congressional district following the 2020 U.S. Census).

His plan would leave two “performing-Black” districts, compared to four under the Legislature’s map by scrapping one in North Florida and taking Black voters away from a second district in Central Florida, Isbell wrote in his newsletter on Friday. There would be four Hispanic districts.

DeSantis had objected to the Legislature’s proposed CD 5, modeled on the existing CD 3 held by Democrat Al Lawson, extending from Jacksonville through Tallahassee to majority-minority Gadsden County. The Florida Supreme Court drew CD 3 following the 2010 Census.

Racial gerrymander

He objected to a 200-mile “racial gerrymander” but rejected even a Black district the Legislature wanted to draw within Duval County. Instead, he splits Black voters there between two majority-white districts.

Meanwhile, the DeSantis map contains a district stretching nearly that far from Polk to Hendry and Collier counties.

It is clear, more than ever, this is all about partisanship.

– Matthew Isbell, analyst

“Is Ron going to tell me he thinks the 5th district is too long, but he’s ok with the 20th? And he has issues with the Duval-only 5th the Legislature proposed? It is clear, more than ever, this is all about partisanship. Ron doesn’t care about compactness,” Isbell wrote.

“Ron only cares about compactness when he can use it as a partisan tool.”

Isbell also sees gerrymanders in the Tampa Bay area, where DeSantis would pack Democrats into CD 14, splitting St. Petersburg and the region’s Black communities, leaving two Republican-majority seats.

The governor’s press office issued a written statement describing DeSantis’ concerns.

“These issues include the constitutional concerns as outlined in the general counsel’s previous memo and the governor’s veto letter. In preparing this proposal, the governor’s office has adhered to geographical and political boundaries whenever possible, and indeed did so at a greater rate than the Legislature’s primary map,” it said.

Disservice to Florida voters

Lawson (FL-05) issued the following statement about Ron DeSantis’ proposal.

“Today’s revelation is a continued scheme by DeSantis to erase minority access districts in Congress in order to create more seats for the Republican party.

“DeSantis is doing a disservice to Florida voters by playing partisan politics. This latest map clearly violates the Voting Rights Act as well as the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.”

Democrat Linda Stewart of Orange County, who sat on the Senate Congressional Redistricting Subcommittee, argued the governor’s approach makes no sense.

“He doesn’t have a long-range view of what he wants to accomplish. He’s just doing what he thinks he can do and that nobody can stop him. He’s right — it doesn’t mean he’s doing the right thing,” Stewart told the Phoenix.

“It’ll go to the Florida Supreme Court — he appointed three people to that so I don’t know if they’ll go by the law or not. Then it’ll go to the [U.S.] Supreme Court — do you know how much time that’s going to take? If the map passes, what he introduced, they have to run on this map before the Supreme Court weighs in on whether it’s legal or not.

“And then, if they say it’s not legal, they’ll have to rerun again.”

An outrage

“This map is an outrage. It is a clear violation of the Fair District amendments. It may be a violation of federal law, but it is definitely a violation of the state constitution,” Elias said.

He referred to a Florida constitutional amendment that forbids redistricting plans that favor parties or incumbents or diminish minority representation.

“And it is outrageous that a demagogue, like DeSantis, proposed it,” Elias said.

“But it would be even more outrageous, and it absolute an absolute dereliction of the state Legislature’s obligation to uphold the state Constitution. And it would be an insult to the voters of Florida who adopted the Fair Districts amendment,” he continued.

“If the Legislature now rubber stamps this monstrosity … , if Florida enacts this map, Florida will be sued. That is, that is that is just a statement of fact.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Trial lawyers defend judge against attacks by DeSantis, legislative leaders

It’s tempting to shrug one’s shoulders when politicians blast away at judges who rule against them — as when Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative Republican leaders unloaded at U.S. District Judge Mark Walker after he struck down key portions of last year’s voter suppression law.

In fact, such attacks are dangerous, undermining faith in the rule of law and possibly even inspiring attacks on judges and prosecutors.

James Gustafson Jr., president of the Tallahassee chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), wrote an opinion piece published in the Tallahassee Democrat on Thursday, defending Walker against the attacks.

“When elected officials engage in personal attacks on judges for their analysis of our laws, they undermine the rule of law, threaten the independence of the judiciary, and undermine the proper administration of the judicial branch,” Gustafson wrote.

“Judges are not allowed to defend themselves from such attacks. That is why the Tallahassee ABOTA Chapter is stepping forward to defend Federal District Court Judge Mark Walker,” he continued.

Life tenure insulates judges like Walker against political attacks — they can be removed from the bench only upon showings of misconduct. Conversely, the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges limits their ability to respond.

It prohibits “public comment about the merits of a pending or impending matter … until the appellate process is complete. If the public comment involves a case from the judge’s own court, the judge should take particular care so that the comment does not denigrate public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality.”

“In a word, judges are not allowed to speak publicly about their rulings,” Bob Jarvis, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University, told the Phoenix by email.

“U.S. Supreme Court justices break this rule all the time — it was one of the things that made Ruth Bader Ginsburg ‘notorious.’ Of course, the Code of Judicial Conduct does not apply to U.S. Supreme Court justices, so she actually wasn’t violating any rules,” Jarvis said.

And so ABOTA stepped in the respond to the attacks on Walker’s behalf, Gustafson wrote.

“Ultimately the appellate courts will decide if Judge Walker is right. That is the role of the judiciary in our constitutional system of government, and it is highly improper for our elected leaders to challenge Judge Walker’s motives or independence. Disagreeing on the merits is appropriate; personal attacks are not,” he wrote.

History of discrimination

In a ruling handed down on March 31, Walker struck down key provisions of SB 90, passed amid Donald Trump-generated conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election.

Specifically, he found violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act in striking language requiring third-party voter-registration groups to warn prospective voters that the groups might not turn in their registration forms in time.

Also quashed was a ban on ‘line warming,” or supplying food and water to people waiting in line to vote, and limits on use of “drop boxes” where voters can deposit vote-by-mail ballots rather than entrust them to the U.S. Postal Service.

Walker cited a 20-year history of Republican-led election laws discriminating against Black people, including unfair roll purges and early voting restrictions calculated to harm Black turnout.

Given that track record, he invoked Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act in ordering the state to submit any future voting law changes during the next 10 years either to the court or the U.S. Attorney General for “preclearance” — meaning a review of whether they violate Blacks’ voting rights.

“Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern,” he wrote.

“At some point, when the Florida Legislature passes law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters, this court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental. Based on the indisputable pattern set out above, this court finds that, in the past 20 years, Florida has repeatedly sought to make voting tougher for Black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates.”

The backlash soon followed. DeSantis denounced the ruling as “performative partisanship.”

“This order is highly unprofessional, inaccurate, and unbecoming of an officer of the court,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Neither mentioned it, but Walker sided with the state on two provisions — one requiring voters to request mail-in ballots every two years instead of every four under previous legislation and another and requiring additional forms of ID.

Threat to rule of law

The governor’s response “threatens the rule of law. As a lawyer and an officer of the court, the governor’s statement was not only wrong, but undermines the independence of the judicial branch,” Gustafson wrote.

“Likewise, Senate President Simpson, himself not a lawyer, personally attacked Judge Walker by calling him unprofessional and unbecoming of a judge. Personally attacking a judge because one disagrees with a ruling is unprofessional and unbecoming of our elected leaders who swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, whether they are trained in the law or not.

Gustafson’s article doesn’t mention it, but House Speaker Chris Sprowls called Walker’s preclearance order “an egregious abuse of his power.”

The trial attorney offered this rebuttal:

“Anyone familiar with Judge Walker’s opinion, which covered 288 pages of factual and legal analysis, would understand how carefully he evaluated that evidence and applied it to the existing law, both against and in favor of the state’s positions.

Gustafson stressed that he wasn’t singling out Republicans — “ABOTA takes no position regarding the merits of the case. It has condemned statements made by politicians of both parties undermining the rule of law,” he wrote.

‘Threats and inappropriate communications’

But the Florida attacks could raise the temperate in an already overheated political environment featuring an increase in threats against the federal judiciary. The U.S. Marshals Service reports receiving 4,511 “threats and inappropriate communications” against federal judges and prosecutors during the last fiscal year.

That was up from 4,300 the year before, Bloomberg Law reported.

Efforts are underway in Congress to boost spending on judicial security and shield private information about judges from the public. This after a disgruntled litigant showed up at U.S. District Judge Esther Salas’ home in New Jersey and shot her son to death and wounded her husband.

An American Bar Association Journal report last October notes that four federal judges perished in attacks during the previous 40 years, not counting murders of family members.

In the Salas attack the FBI identified Roy Den Hollander, “a lawyer who had voiced his support for President Donald Trump and gained notoriety for filing anti-feminist lawsuits and firing off thousands of pages of misogynistic and racist screeds,” the Journal said.

“We live in very polarized times, so it’s not surprising that politicians are no longer observing what used to be the ground rules (i.e., decisions could be criticized, but not the judges themselves),” law prof Jarvis told the Phoenix.

He cited ABA rule Rule 8.2(a): “A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge, adjudicatory officer or public legal officer, or of a candidate for election or appointment to judicial or legal office.”

“It should be noted, however, that: 1) most politicians don’t really care about their law licenses (Bill Clinton lost his after his impeachment, for example, but went on to have a very lucrative post-presidency); and, 2) at least some people believe that Rule 8.2(a) is unconstitutional because it chills speakers in violation of the First Amendment,” Jarvis wrote.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

NOW WATCH: Democratic senator brings receipts of Josh Hawley's record in epic floor speech

Democratic senator brings receipts of Josh Hawley's record in epic floor speech

DeSantis signs limits on vaccine mandates one day after Legislature approved them

Gov. Ron DeSantis affixed his signature Thursday to four bills designed to countermand President Joe Biden's COVID vaccine mandates, one day after the Legislature approved the package during a hastily organized special session.

He did so during a raucous press conference at an auto dealership in Brandon — a locale seemingly calculated to needle a president who's become the target of a popular right-wing cheer: “Let's go Brandon." You can read the history of the rude origins of that meme here.

“I think Brandon, Fla., is a great American city," DeSantis said. The crowd cheered and repeated the Brandon chant.

“We're proud to be able to make a stand for freedom in Brandon, Fla.," the governor said.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Ashley Moody — who joined DeSantis for the news conference, along with House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senate President Wilton Simpson, and sponsors of the legislation at issue — filed a new lawsuit targeting one of Biden's mandates, the one for health care workers.

Her complaint, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Pensacola Division, names the heads of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) and seeks to block pending regulations requiring vaccines for employees of medical providers receiving funding from those agencies.

“Because CMS's rushed and unlawful mandate threatens to defund the state's medical facilities, bleed them of vital staff, hamper the quality of their medical care, and harm both Florida's economy and the health of its citizens, Florida seeks immediate relief from this court," the motion says.

DeSantis had called the Legislature into special session to get ahead of that mandate plus others targeting private businesses with more than 100 workers and federal contractors. Moody has filed legal challenges to those regulations, too.

The Legislature worked for three days and produced bills, now law, forbidding public employers from requiring vaccinations for workers; requiring private businesses that require vaccines to allow exemptions for health and religious reasons, or for people who acquire immunity through infection with the coronavirus, agree to submit to regular testing or wear personal protective equipment on the job.

Additionally, the Legislature voted to let DeSantis study whether to create a state agency to replace the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which promulgated the mandates for private employers and contractors. And it clarified that parents decide whether public schoolchildren wear masks in class or get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Not bad for a couple of weeks' work," DeSantis said after he finished signing the bills, referring to his original call for the special session on Oct. 21.

“At the end of the day, nobody in Florida should be losing their job over these jabs. We want people to be able to work, we want people to be able to provide for their families, we want people to be able to have livelihoods," he said.

“And that's just the way it's gonna be in this state, and we're going to stand by all these folks and we're going to make sure that they have the ability to make the best decisions for themselves."

Overall, 60.7 percent of Floridians are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Florida ranks 21st for its fully vaccinated residents.

Biden announced his mandate initiative on Sept. 9, saying he hoped to curtail a “pandemic of the unvaccinated" amid lagging vaccination rates. He argued that unvaxed people held an obligation to their neighbors to take the shots to prevent further death and suffering, saying, “We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us."

DeSantis argues the president exceeded his authority and rejected a suggestion the session represented a needless expense, citing impending vaccine mandate deadlines for workers and arguing that waiting could have cost “thousands and thousands" of jobs.

“If you think saving people's jobs is a waste of taxpayer money, heck, that's like Page 3 of the governors' manual," he said.

“Look, I could have very easily just said, 'Hey, it's all Biden's fault; companies are doing it; it's private; it's not me; I'm not personally mandating it on anyone,' so whatever. I could have washed my hands of it and said, 'You know what, it's their fault, or their fault.' But that's not leadership. Leadership means you get in there and you do what you can to stand by people. That's exactly what we did today and that's exactly what we're going to continue to do."

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

A remarkable precedent: FL Republicans want to pay workers who refuse to submit to vaccine mandates

The state of Florida would pay workers to quit their jobs by giving them unemployment benefits rather than submit to vaccine mandates under legislation filed for Gov. Ron DeSantis' special session of the Legislature, due to convene next week.

That's a provision of SB 2, one of four bills introduced as part of the governor's campaign against vaccine and mask mandates in workplaces and public schools. The state also has filed lawsuits seeking to overturn President Joe Biden's plan to require vaccinations for businesses, health care providers, and federal contractors.

“Reemployment benefits are there as support for unlawfully terminated employees. Our goal with the legislation is to provide significant options for employers and employees, so we would hope that these options are utilized and employers are not terminating employees unlawfully," Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Danny Burgess, sponsor of the bill, told the Phoenix by text message.

The move would set a remarkable precedent, however, according to Rich Templin, legislative and policy director for the Florida AFL-CIO.

“It'll be the first time that a voluntary quit is eligible for payment," he said in a telephone interview.

“When we tried to change the law so that women being in an abusive situation and needing to leave their job because of that situation, the business community always called that a voluntary quit and said that should not be permissible. We finally got that law changed," Templin said.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a request for information about the organization's take on the provision.

DeSantis set a different tone in May when his administration announced it was cutting off enhanced federal unemployment benefits, authorized amid widespread joblessness caused by COVID-related business retrenchment. He and legislative Republicans had been complaining that businesses couldn't find enough workers.

“The reason is simple: We've got almost a half-a-million job openings in the state of Florida," DeSantis said at the time of the decision.

SB 2 would allow full- or part-time workers or contractors to opt out of any vaccine mandates for medical reasons including pregnancy or plans to become pregnant, subject to documentation by a doctor, physician's assistant, or advanced-practice registered nurse; attestation to sincerely held religious beliefs; immunity based previous infection as documented by lab tests; agreement to undergo regular coronavirus testing; or agreement to wear personal protective equipment on the job site.

Notably, the Biden mandates for businesses and contractors allow workers to wear personal protective equipment or submit to regular testing as an alternative to vaccinations. The medical-facility rule envisions universal vaccination but does provide exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

Under the proposed Florida law, any employer that refuses any exemption anyway can be reported to the state Department of Legal Affairs, also known as the attorney general's office, which would tell the employer to shape up.

If a worker still loses his or her job, the department can impose fines of up to $10,000 for employers of fewer than 100 workers or $50,000 for those with 100 or more workers — although employers could avoid those penalties by reinstating workers.

“The bill provides an appeal process for employers who believe they properly applied the law," wrote Burgess, a Republican representing parts of Pasco, Polk, and Hillsborough counties.

Workers fired under these circumstances would be eligible to draw unemployment insurance and couldn't be forced to take a new job if it also requires vaccination. In other words, the measure would provide a way out for worker adamant about refusing vaccines.

“Reemployment benefits are there as support for unlawfully terminated employees. Our goal with the legislation is to provide significant options for employers and employees, so we would hope that these options are utilized and employers are not terminating employees unlawfully," Burgess wrote.

That could prove cold comfort: Florida has usually paid a maximum $275 per week for 12 weeks in unemployment compensation, among the stingiest payouts in the country. (During periods in the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government supplemented states' unemployment benefits.) The GOP-dominated Legislature refused repeated entreaties by Democrats to be more generous during its regular session lasts spring.

Anna Eskamani, a Democratic House member from Orange County, has been one of the governor's foremost critics on unemployment policy, particularly the collapse of the Connect web interface for people seeking jobless benefits during a spike in applications during the pandemic.

She and her aides have helped more than 50,000 people from around the state secure benefits, Eskamani said via text message.

“The fact that Gov. DeSantis barely lifted a finger to assist Floridians with their unemployment benefits — even killing our efforts to increase the benefits by $100 [per week] this past legislative session — and is now trying to reform UI for people who quit their jobs due to vaccine requirements is a joke," Eskamani wrote.

“There are STILL problems Floridians are facing with the Connect website and zero leadership from him. This is just another example of Gov. DeSantis distracting the public and politicizing public health."

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

IN OTHER NEWS: Marjorie Taylor Greene whines about being in Congress: 'I don't want to have anything to do with politics!'

MTG whines about being in Congress: 'I don’t want to have anything to do with politics'

DeSantis, in rhetorical shift, de-emphasizes promotion of COVID vaccines

With booster doses of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines likely coming soon (Pfizer doses are already available), aides to Gov. Ron DeSantis aren't saying whether the governor will take advantage.

“I do not have any details to share about the governor's personal medical decisions. As the governor has said, each person should be able to make his or her own informed choices," Press Secretary Christina Pushaw said via email last week in response to a question from the Phoenix.

DeSantis was more open about his plans last winter, when he was actively promoting the then-newly available vaccines and traveling the state opening vaccination clinics. Overall, 58.9 percent of Floridians are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to CDC data, above the national average of 57 percent. But several other states have higher vaccination rates, including New York and California.

DeSantis said in February that he would take the J&J shot when his age group became eligible and even teased that he might do it on camera but, amid growing skepticism about the vaccines among core Republican voters, in April did so privately. Under federal guidelines, he'll be eligible for a J & J booster as soon as they become available.

Officially, the administration continues to encourage people to get vaccinated, but these days DeSantis spends more time fighting with the Biden administration, local governments, school boards, and private businesses over whether they can require proof of vaccination for workers and customers.

At times, DeSantis appeared to undermine confidence in vaccines — not least by elevating Joseph Ladapo — who has been openly skeptical of the federal public health response to the virus — to the office of surgeon general, running the Florida Department of Health.

“These vaccines have provided benefit to individuals to reduce severity of illness — less likely to hospitalize, less likely to die. I think the data's very clear on that. However, the vaccines are not providing the type of public benefit in terms of stopping transmission that we had hoped," DeSantis said recently.

To Democratic House co-leader Evan Jenne of Broward County, the governor's combativeness reflects DeSantis' appeal to base GOP voters (many of whom suffer a range of conspiracy theories including the Big Lie that Trump really won last year's election. Note that Republican National Committee member Peter Feaman of Florida this summer called the vaccines “the mark of the Beast," as CNN reported.)

“He needs to hold that base together — not only for 2022 and his reelection bid, not just then. He needs to hold them together for another two years after that when he runs for president," Jenne said during a Zoom conference with reporters on Monday.

DeSantis disavows holding any ambitions beyond reelection but Jenne doesn't buy it.

“It is what it is. When you're the governor of Florida, not many of your constituents can be found in Salt Lake City," Jenne said. He referred to a speech the governor gave there in July before the American Legislative Exchange Council, in which DeSantis mocked the CDC, according to a report in The Salt Lake City Tribune. The governor has made a series of out-of-state fundraising jaunts.


Monoclonal antibodies have proven an effective treatment for COVID if administered early, and DeSantis has been aggressively pitching them since August, opening clinics where the treatments are available free of charge. Additionally, Merck's new COVID pill, molnupiravir, is awaiting regulatory approval.

Again, in launching the monoclonal campaign the governor appeared dismissive of additional U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

“The nonpharmaceutical interventions we've seen — remember, we were promised that they would end the pandemic — lockdowns, school closures, mandates — and it just hasn't done that," DeSantis said at the time.

The governor accuses President Biden of politicizing COVID.

“Don't make the vaccine divisive!" he exclaimed during a news conference Friday in Naples.

“You are trying to take people's jobs away over this issue! You are trying to plunge people into destitution! You are taking away their livelihoods. Nobody else is doing that," he said of Biden.

Ladapo has disparaged the vaccines, too — especially the idea of mandating them.

“You exert pressure and people change behavior. That's true for many different things," the doctor said during a joint appearance with DeSantis.

“But mandates are really about, they're about … who controls whose life, you know? They're about whether kids belong to the parents or whether they're instruments of the state in terms of some of these mandates related to masks."

DeSantis argues that vaccine mandates don't account for natural immunity acquired through surviving infection, including among first responders exposed on the job. Nationally, first responders appear more vaccine averse than the general public, according to a U.S. News and World Affairs report.

The CDC acknowledges that coronavirus variants can break through the vaccines' protections but still recommends taking the shots, arguing that they provide more robust protection than natural immunity does.

The agency points to a study of previously infected people in Kentucky. Those not vaccinated had 2.34 times the odds of reinfection compared with those who were fully vaccinated. “If you have had COVID-19 before, please still get vaccinated," said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

The Ivy League-educated governor keeps himself well informed about pandemic data, medical studies, and regulatory developments, according to spokeswoman Pushaw, and the Department of Health maintains a “vaccine locator" on its website. The state still dispatches mobile vaccine clinics around the state.

As for DeSantis' own plans for a booster shot, Pushaw had this to say:

“Gov. DeSantis chose to get the COVID-19 vaccine several months ago, after his age group became eligible. As he has said, he made that choice because of evidence that getting vaccinated lowers an individual's risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus.

“But the right choice for him, or even for most people, is not necessarily the right choice for everyone. COVID-19 vaccines should be available to all (well, all who are eligible under the FDA's authorization) and mandated for none."

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Ron DeSantis orders investigation into Facebook’s secret leniency program

Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered an investigation into Facebook following reporting that the company has allowed selected high-profile individuals to violate its rules against spreading medical misinformation, harassment, incitements to violence, and other abusive posts.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Sept. 13 that one of the principal beneficiaries of Facebook's practice was Donald Trump, DeSantis' own political mentor.

Nevertheless, the governor pointed in a letter sent Monday to Secretary of State Laurel Lee to the Journal's reporting that “this previously undisclosed double standard 'at times effectlvely grant[ed] incumbents in elections an advantage over challengers,'" especially in local races.

“The thought of technology companies clandestinely manipulating elections is an affront to the basic principles of our republic. Floridians deserve to have faith that their elections are fair and free from intrusion by Big Tech monopolies like Facebook," DeSantis wrote.

Lee is Florida's chief elections officer.

The Journal report cited internal Facebook documents and said executives concealed the program from the public and its own oversight board. The program is known as “cross check" or “XCheck," the Journal reported.

Legislation passed this year at DeSantis' urging targets social media platforms that discriminate on the basis of viewpoint, subjecting them to heavy fines and possible bars against doing business with the state, especially when political candidates are affected.

DeSantis and other Republicans accused platforms including Facebook and Twitter of bias against conservatives, especially after those and other platforms suspended Trump's accounts for spreading misinformation about the 2020 presidential election.

The Journal reported that Facebook “whitelisted" “pretty much anyone regularly in the media or who has a substantial online following, including film stars, cable talk-show hosts, academics, and online personalities with large followings."

Users so designated — including members of Trump's family and Congress — qualified for specialized reviews of targeted posts that Facebook sometimes never actually conducted, the newspaper said, meaning the suspect information remained open to public view.

“Mr. Trump's account was covered by XCheck before his two-year suspension from Facebook in June," the Journal reported.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

GOP lawmaker files Texas-style bounty-hunter abortion bill in Florida Legislature

A Florida version of the Texas law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and allowing citizens to sue people who provide or enable abortions has landed in Tallahassee in the form of HB 167, filed by Republican Webster Barnaby of Volusia County.
Barnaby's bill, filed Wednesday, mimics key provisions of the Texas law — for example, forbidding abortions when medical workers use sonography to detect “cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac."

The only specific exemption in the bill is in case of “medical emergency." However, it retains language in existing law barring public funding for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or when “medically necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman or to avert a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman, other than a psychological condition."

The bill carries no criminal sanctions, leaving enforcement to private citizens who have reason to suspect neighbors of seeking early abortions. They'd take medical providers to court and, as a reward, they could receive court-ordered judgments of $10,000 per case. Defendants would have to shoulder their own legal costs.

Also liable would be persons who “aid or abet" such abortions, defined as “including, but not limited to, paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise, if the abortion is performed or induced in violation of this chapter, regardless of whether the person knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed or induced in violation of this chapter."

Many women don't realize they are pregnant until well after six weeks. The effect of the bill could be to make abortion all but unavailable in Florida; the Texas law forced clinics there to turn away patients, who flooded clinics in neighboring states, according to an Associated Press report.

Barnaby's appears to be the first abortion-restriction bill filed for the regular legislative session due to begin on Jan. 11. However, Democrat Anna Eskamani of Orlando has filed HB 6023, which would end the state-mandated 24-hour waiting period for abortions and allow the use of state funds to pay for the procedures.

The Phoenix attempted to contact Barnaby, the House's only Black Republican, but his Capitol office hasn't replied to a voice mail message.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said that he wants to look into what Texas is doing, but an aide added that he is leery of encouraging citizens to snoop on each other.

However, the governor has joined an attack by the state of Mississippi on Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Casey, key U.S. Supreme Court precedents protecting abortion rights. The case threatens to overturn decades of abortion protections established under Roe and Casey.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Dec. 1 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, stemming from a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks. It has been blocked for now by a lower federal court.

After the high court voted narrowly early this month to let the Texas law go into effect pending further proceedings, Senate President Wilton Simpson told a Tampa Bay broadcaster that “fetal heartbeat" legislation was already in the works in his chamber.

Kathleen Passidomo, chair of the Senate Rules Committee and next in line to become Senate President, said during a speech reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that she opposes having citizens sue each other to police abortions.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls also has indicated he might be interested in legislation similar to that in Texas, as the Orlando Sentinel has reported.

All the officials named above are Republicans.

“This gross excuse of a bill attacks women and birthing people who are seeking an abortion before they even know they are pregnant," Rep. Eskamani said of Barnaby's bill in a written statement.

“Abortion is health care, abortion is a private medical decision, abortion is personal — and there should be no politicians getting involved between a person and their doctor," she continued.

“I'll add that this is an economic issue too: We are already seeing businesses in Texas consider relocating and/or allow their staff to relocate to states that are more welcoming towards reproductive health. We can't attract a talented, diverse workforce when we attack their rights," Eskamani added.

On Tuesday, abortion-rights advocates gathered in the Florida Capitol courtyard to hear speeches by Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried and members of the Legislature.

“A Texas-style abortion ban and bounty hunter bill in Florida represents the greatest threat to bodily autonomy and personal freedom in generations," Laura Goodhue, executive director for the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, according to a press release issued on Wednesday.

“We are here to tell legislative leaders in no uncertain terms that we will not stand for this in Florida," Goodhue said.

“This bill is dangerous, radical, and unconstitutional," Fried said in a written statement on Wednesday.

“The hypocrisy of this attempt by Gov. DeSantis and Republicans in the state Legislature to take away our rights while at the same time preaching 'my body, my choice' when it comes to wearing masks is absolutely disgusting. They have made it abundantly clear by banning masks in schools and refusing to apply for money to help hungry kids that they don't actually care about children's lives," she continued.

“It's obvious that this is nothing more than a shameless attempt to try to control women and our bodies. To every woman in Florida who sees this news today and is afraid for your rights and your future: I promise you that I will do everything in my power to stop this bill from becoming law."

The bill asserts that the presence of a “fetal heartbeat" means the pregnancy is likely to proceed to full term. That usually occurs after about six weeks, calculated from the first day of the woman's last menstrual period.

Doctors, however, say this doesn't mean the fetus has developed an actual heart, including the four chambers that oxygenate blood and send it into the vascular system, according to a National Public Radio report. That happens at around the tenth week. Similarly, doctors don't talk about “fetuses" at six weeks; they consider them embryos.

Still, Barnaby's bill makes a point of eliminating the word “fetus" from most parts of Florida's abortion law and replacing it with “unborn child."

The bill specifies that citizens can't sue women who have undergone abortions.

It says defendants can attempt to argue that they acted in defense of women's constitutional right to undergo abortions.

However, “the affirmative defense is not available if the United States Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade … or Planned Parenthood v. Casey … regardless of whether the conduct on which the cause of action is based occurred before the United States Supreme Court overruled either of those decisions," the bill says.

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