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Florida’s new Trump-backed governor seeks to broaden appeal

January 19, 2019
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Governor Ron DeSantis, center, John Morgan, left, and U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz, right, during a press conference to pressure state legislators and give them a mid-March deadline to repeal a law that prohibits smokable forms of medical marijuana at Kraft Azalea Garden in Winter Park, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Tampa Bay Times via AP)
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Governor Ron DeSantis, center, John Morgan, left, and U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz, right, during a press conference to pressure state legislators and give them a mid-March deadline to repeal a law that prohibits smokable forms of medical marijuana at Kraft Azalea Garden in Winter Park, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Tampa Bay Times via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida voters who expected new Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to be politically divisive because of his strong ties to President Donald Trump may be surprised by the quick actions he’s taken in his first two weeks in office.

DeSantis announced a bold plan to address environmental issues, including an acknowledgement that the state needs to address rising sea levels; posthumously pardoned four black men accused of raping a white teenager nearly 70 years ago; named a Democrat to a top position in his administration; and demanded that the Republican-led Legislature rewrite a restrictive law so medical marijuana can be more accessible to patients.

While Trump continues to divide the country, DeSantis is beginning his term with actions that can unite people across political affiliations.

“This new governor is a great governor. I’m more encouraged by Ron DeSantis’ first two weeks than anything I’ve seen in years,” trial lawyer John Morgan said recently in a Facebook video.

Morgan has raised millions of dollars over the years for Democratic candidates, including Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. Morgan also led the effort to put legal use of medical marijuana in the state constitution and sued when the Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Scott banned smokable use of the plant.

DeSantis is now on Morgan’s side on the medical marijuana issue, prompting Morgan to declare, “DeSantisclause came to town!”

DeSantis campaigned on building off the economic accomplishments of Scott, who was elected to the U.S. Senate after two terms as governor, but he’s proving to be neither a Scott clone nor a divisive figure like Trump.

Scott had a reputation for being partisan, and DeSantis is starting his term by appealing to a broader political base. In doing so, he’s taking action on issues Scott failed to address.

In 2017, the Legislature unanimously approved a resolution apologizing to the families of the Groveland Four, the men accused of raping a 17-year-old girl in 1949. One of the four was tracked down by a posse and shot 400 times. The other three were convicted with dubious evidence.

The case is now seen as a racially unjust blight on Florida’s history. The Legislature asked Scott to pardon the men, but he took no action. DeSantis and the state’s Cabinet granted the pardons on his first Friday in office.

“I don’t know why it took this long to do it. I don’t know why Gov. Scott didn’t (pardon them). He didn’t have the guts,” said Wade Greenlee, the brother of one of the Groveland Four. “But I thank God for the governor that we have now. He didn’t waste no time.”

Although Scott was criticized by environmentalists for denying climate sea level rise, DeSantis plans to create a chief science officer position and said on his second day in office that the state needs to protect wildlife and communities from sea level rise.

The new governor has also strengthened the commitment to addressing red tide off the state’s coast and pollutants in Lake Okeechobee that cause algae blooms downstream by promising to spend a billion more dollars on the issues and create new state offices dedicated to environmental threats.

DeSantis is also reaching out to people who opposed him politically — most notably by appointing former Democratic state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, one of the Legislature’s most vocal opponents of the Republican agenda, as the state’s emergency management director.

Of course, DeSantis’s first impression is only two weeks old, and the remaining three years and 50 weeks of his term will be the test of whether he continues to govern for a broad spectrum of Floridians.

But for now, he’s even caught the attention of some Democrats.

“He’s taken a pretty proactive Florida stand, and it’s a distinct contrast with Scott,” Democratic pollster David Beattie said. “It’s almost like he’s giving the finger to Scott.”

Beattie was among those who thought DeSantis would have a hard time getting elected because he ran almost entirely on his and Trump’s mutual admiration. Trump backed DeSantis in the primary, tweeting his praise and holding a Florida rally. Beattie said at the time that the extreme partisan nature of the campaign would make it difficult for DeSantis to build off his base.

But Beattie now admits DeSantis as governor appears to be different than DeSantis the candidate, saying there’s no doubt he’s appealing to a broad base rather than a narrow ideology.

“I’m surprised. It’s not what I anticipated,” he said, predicting that DeSantis’ first approval ratings will be higher than Scott’s ever were in his eight years in office.

DeSantis said he’s not trying to create a distinction between himself and Scott.

“We all come in under different circumstances. Gov. Scott came in when the economy was in the tank. He had run based on being a jobs guy and he focused on that,” DeSantis said.

He said issues like the environment are more of a priority for voters now than they were 10 years ago.

“Some of these other things like the Groveland Four, the Legislature led on that ... ,” he said. “I was like, ‘These guys got railroaded. We’ve got to do what’s right.’ So I’m just calling them as I’ve seen them.”

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