By Jim Turner, © 2021 The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved; see terms.
Weekly political notes from The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Nearly three months after signing a highly contested law cracking down on violent protests, Gov. Ron DeSantis went all in this week in support of people blocking roads in major Florida cities to show solidarity with an explosion of protests in Cuba.
Cubans are “rebelling against a communist dictatorship,” DeSantis said during a roundtable at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami on Tuesday. The event was partially closed to the media on Tuesday.
DeSantis’ support for Cubans and their allies drew questions from reporters about a new law — one of the Republican governor’s top legislative priorities — that creates a host of new crimes and enhances existing penalties related to protests, including a provision prohibiting the “willful obstruction” of streets and highways.
The governor was asked if protesters on the Palmetto Expressway in Miami-Dade County expressing support for Cubans should be arrested, under the state’s new anti-riot law.
But he said the rallies taking place since the weekend differ from violent protests that broke out throughout the nation following last year’s death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
The protests about Cuba are “designed to be peaceful,” DeSantis said.
“They are trying to end the regime,” he added. “And so that is fundamentally different than what we saw last summer, where people were burning down buildings — and this fortunately wasn’t happening in Florida to any large extent — burning down buildings, looting, breaking windows, targeting law enforcement and all those things. And so I think that people understand the difference between going out and peacefully assembling, which is obviously people’s constitutional right, and attacking other people or burning down buildings or dragging people out of a car and doing that. So, they’re much different situations.”
DeSantis’ comments drew harsh criticism from Democrats, including those who opposed the “Combatting Public Disorder Act” the governor signed into law on April 19. The law creates a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting,” prohibits municipalities from impeding law enforcement actions to protect persons and property during a riot or unlawful assembly, and puts restrictions on how a local government can reduce the budget for law enforcement.
Black Democrats, who strenuously objected to the measure (HB 1) they assert is rooted in racism and evocative of Jim Crow-era laws targeting Black people, were quick to compare the state’s handling of protests in support of the Cuban people with the governor’s framing of the need for the new law following last year’s protests.
“@GovRonDeSantis made blocking roads during a protest illegal, but he’s 100% cool with this because it’s Cuban-Americans protesting communism, not Black people protesting police violence,” tweeted Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, on Tuesday. “Anti-protest laws are meant to be enforced against Black people only, of course.”
State Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, blasted DeSantis and his allies for “applying a politically-driven double standard when it comes to the right to peacefully protest and exercise free speech.”
“The blatant hypocrisy from the governor and republican lawmakers is deeply disturbing and only increases the urgency for the people and leaders at every level to keep confronting the misinformation and injustices needed to build safer, healthier communities for ALL Floridians,” he said in a prepared statement.
A coalition of groups, including the Dream Defenders and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, are challenging the law in court.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday said they were pleased the anti-riot law hasn’t been “weaponized” against those protesting on behalf of Cuban people, but asked Attorney General Ashley Moody for guidance on how the law should be applied.
“We believe it is critical for every Floridian to be treated equally, and since we’ve seen peaceful protests emerge across various municipalities and local governments — many spilling onto state roadways — it’s critical that elected officials and Floridians alike have clarity from your perspective as Florida’s chief legal officer as it relates to the new statute,” the caucus wrote to Moody on Wednesday.
But DeSantis’ spokeswoman Christina Pushaw lashed out at his critics.
“Florida Democrats and media are so mad that the Governor didn’t personally drive down and arrest people for protesting against the communist regime in Cuba. When did liberals become such authoritarians?” she tweeted.
VISIT FLORIDA’S HOUSE
In what could be mistaken for a Visit Florida marketing effort, House Republicans on Monday introduced a new statewide digital ad campaign with a video called “Firewall for Freedom” featuring GOP representatives and policies they’ve championed.
The ad promotes the Sunshine State’s economic recovery from COVID-19, education and support for law enforcement. Several state reps also flourished driver’s licenses to tout the need for voter identification laws in other places.
“Crazy liberal ideas? They don’t fly here,” Rep. Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City, says in the video.
Rather than telling people to enjoy the sun and fun, the two-minute video features 17 representatives at various locations throughout the state.
Florida House Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Paul Renner said there was a “conscious effort” to highlight certain members, particularly those in potential swing districts.
“We hope to do more of these in the future and include other members of the caucus,” Renner, who is set to take over as House speakerafter the 2022 elections, told reporters in a video conference call Monday.
OWNING THE MERCH
DeSantis’ political committee is tapping into COVID-19 skepticism to raise money.
The Friends of Ron DeSantis committee announced new “exclusive team” campaign merchandise that features drink koozies bearing the messages “Don’t Fauci My Florida” and “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on?”
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a pandemic adviser to former President Donald Trump as well as his successor, President Joe Biden, has become a punching bag for GOP pundits.
“We have merchandise with all your favorite slogans from ‘Freedom Over Fauci’ to ‘Keep Florida Free,’” DeSantis’ committee said in an email promoting the merch.
DeSantis, who privately got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, has continuously focused on the state’s economic recovery from the highly contagious coronavirus. The governor has downplayed health warnings as Florida has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases and has exceeded 38,000 resident deaths since the pandemic started in early 2020.
The state has “done a good job” making vaccines available, DeSantis said Tuesday.
“You literally could go to any pharmacy now in the state just about make an appointment and go and get it free of charge,” he said.
TWEET OF THE WEEK:
“As I have throughout the pandemic, I am communicating with hospital leadership to address the recent increase in COVID-19 cases. The data from the @CDCgov shows that nearly all COVID deaths in the U.S. are in people who were NOT vaccinated. The data proves that the shots work.” — Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry (@lennycurry).