How Florida’s Republican supermajority handed Ron DeSantis unfettered power

The governor – expected to mount a 2024 White House bid – is ramping up an extremist crusade

If there’s one word Floridians have heard plenty of since their Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, was sworn in for a second term last month, it is “freedom”. The rightwing politician, expected by many to seek his party’s 2024 presidential nomination, sprinkles the word freely as he ramps up the “anti-woke” crusade he believes can propel him to the White House.

It turns out, following a special legislative session last week that handed DeSantis victory after victory in his culture wars against Disney, transgender communities, students, migrants and communities of color, the person with the greatest freedom in Florida to do exactly as he pleases is the governor himself.

In November, voters granted DeSantis’s wish of a veto-proof Republican supermajority in the state legislature. In a five-day session, those politicians validated every one of his demands.

They granted DeSantis total control of the board governing Disney, the theme park giant with whom he feuded over his anti-LGBTQ+ “don’t say gay” law.

They gave him permission to fly migrants from anywhere in the US to destinations of his choosing, for political purposes, then send the bill to Florida’s taxpayers.

And they handed unprecedented prosecutorial powers to his newly created, hand-picked office of election “integrity”, pursuing supposed cases of voter fraud.

The special session is over but DeSantis’s devotion to seeking retribution against those who disagree with him is not.

Last week, after a backlash, the Florida High School Athletic Association backed away from forcing female students to chronicle their menstrual histories on medical forms, a requirement seen by many as a thinly-veiled attempt to keep transgender athletes out of girls’ sports.

Exactly one week later, a Republican House committee proposed allowing DeSantis to turf out those who made the decision and replace them with his own appointments.

It’s a familiar playbook: the Disney legislation allows the governor to supplant sitting officials on its governing tax authority with his own picks; his “hostile takeover” of the liberal New College of Florida last month was accomplished by swamping its board of trustees with hand-picked allies and conservative Christians.

In what critics say was a particularly petty act earlier this month, DeSantis moved to strip the liquor license from the non-profit Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation because it hosted a drag show, which some children attended with parents.

The threats keep coming. The notoriously thin-skinned DeSantis wants to cut state ties with the College Board, which criticised him for a “PR stunt and posturing” when he demanded it revise an advanced placement college course on African American studies he said “lacked educational value”.

“No politician should silence the stories of Black and brown people who helped create our country. Our democracy and constitutional values must transcend such hateful and callous political agendas,” said Tiffani Lemon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Others accuse DeSantis of fascism, among them the progressive Democratic congressman Maxwell Frost, whose vocal criticism of the governor long predated his election in November.

“If you disagree with Ron DeSantis he’ll abuse his power to close down your business, take over your school, remove your classes and unconstitutionally fire you,” Frost said in a tweet. “I encourage folks to look up the definition of fascism then read these headlines.”

Other Florida Democrats see the DeSantis-ordered special legislative session as his “get out jail free card”, sweeping away legal obstacles and other hurdles that threatened to stall his policy objectives.

His original plan to abolish the Disney authority would have saddled residents with $1bn in bond debt, so instead he asked the legislature to rename and restructure it.

Judges threw out charges against several ex-felons the governor said voted illegally because his state office lacked prosecutorial authority, so a new law was drafted to give it.

DeSantis’s administration was sued for flying migrants from Texas to Massachusetts in a “vile political stunt” stunt last year, because the existing law restricted migrant removals to those physically in Florida. So he changed the law.

“It’s just a clear example of DeSantis changing the law because he broke the law,” said Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state congresswoman who voted against the new measure to allow the governor to fly migrants anywhere.

“Republicans like Ron DeSantis don’t care about the rules. If they don’t like the rules, they change them. And if they can’t change them they try to destroy them, as we saw with the [January 6] insurrection.”


Gregory Koger, chair of political science at the University of Miami, said the issues the legislature addressed suggested “speed over thought” when the DeSantis administration was planning its strategies.

“It’s not unusual at all to see legislators and executives fixing problems in the laws that they have passed,” he said.

“You could have had a slow, bipartisan, well-thought-out approach to changing the relationship between Florida and Disney, but that isn’t what we observed. We saw a law being drafted and passed as an act of retribution, and now they have to come back and say, ‘Well, when we passed our act of retribution, here’s what we actually meant.’

“Same with changing the guidelines for Florida to fly migrants. That seems like an effort to back out of a legal challenge to their behavior by retroactively saying the legislature is actually OK tricking people into getting on a plane in Texas and flying them from there, rather than finding actual undocumented people in Florida.”

In an email to the Guardian, DeSantis’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin, defended the governor, saying he was bringing “a new era of accountability and transparency” to Disney, Florida’s biggest employer.

“Businesses in Florida should operate on a level playing field,” Griffin said. “In 1967, the Florida legislature created the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which gifted extraordinary special privileges to a single corporation.

“Until Governor DeSantis acted, the Walt Disney Company maintained sole control over the district. This power amounted to an unaccountable corporate kingdom.”


Richard Luscombe in Miami

The GuardianTramp

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