Minority groups and others in Florida trampled by Ron DeSantis during his march to a White House run are warning of democracy in peril at a national level.
The rightwing Republican governor’s announcement on Wednesday that he was seeking his party’s 2024 presidential nomination provoked anger and a renewed promise of resistance from transgender rights advocates, immigrant organizations, and civil and voting rights groups in Florida, who have borne the brunt of his extremist policies and legislation.
One prominent Democratic state congresswoman called Florida “the canary in the coalmine” for the wider US as DeSantis prepares to hawk his hard-right brand on the national stage.
“It will only get worse if Governor DeSantis gets anywhere near the White House,” said Anna Eskamani, who represents central Florida. “We’re here to not only hold the line and fight back, but to be that canary in the coalmine, reminding the people of this great country how dangerous Ron DeSantis really is.”
DeSantis’s assault on transgender rights, especially the so-called don’t say gay law that prohibited classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation, and which sparked a long-running feud with the state’s largest private employer Disney, offers only a glimpse of his plan for the country, Florida activists warn.
The “Florida blueprint” that is DeSantis’s vision for the future of the US is, they say, a culture-war Bible peppered with extremist policies such as the six-week state abortion ban recently signed into law, and a mandate to pursue nationwide the same minority targets he went after in Tallahassee.
“Let our struggle be a warning to the nation. If you give Ron DeSantis the keys to the Oval Office, you will find yourself in the crosshairs too,” said Brandon Wolf, press secretary of Equality Florida.
“He will ban books about your families. He will strip your children of the healthcare that they need. He will put himself between you and your doctor when you’re making difficult decisions about your own body.
“He will empower his rightwing base to terrorize you in public restrooms and yes, he will also punish your business if you so much as whisper your disagreement into your pillow if we do not stop him.
“His plan to make America Florida will imperil civil liberties from coast to coast. DeSantis’s assaults on freedom are not simply a Florida fight, they are an impending national crisis and everyone has now been inducted into the resistance against him.”
Leaders in Florida of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which this week issued a travel advisory for the state warning of the “active hostility” of DeSantis’s policies, believe voters nationally are already on to him.
“[DeSantis’s] campaign against wokeness has awakened the people, and is awakening the people,” said Leon Russell, chair of the NAACP, who lives in Tampa.
“Whether it’s the LGBTQ+ community, whether it’s women’s and reproductive rights, or voting rights, there are any number of issues that the Florida legislature and governor have taken up that the public needs to be aware of.”
Alex Barrios, co-founder of the Palm Springs-based Hispanic voting rights group Mi Vecino, said DeSantis had “overplayed his hand” in Florida, which could prove costly to him in his pursuit of higher office.
“We’ve never seen anything like the discrimination, the authoritarian approach coming out of this Republican legislature led by Ron DeSantis. The amount of hate that’s presented openly in our state, trying to divide communities and isolate Hispanic people, has never been seen before,” he said.
“DeSantis and his rubber-stamp, subservient legislature have overplayed their hand. They’re feeling invincible and invulnerable. Voters are going to show him that that’s not the case and what you saw in Jacksonville [when a Democrat upset a DeSantis-backed Republican to win the mayoral race] was a taste of that.
“The Democrats should have lost that race. Swing voters came back to the left in a huge way in a rejection of what we’re seeing from this governor, and that’s going to mean big changes this year in Florida and nationally.”
Tessa Petit, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, sees DeSantis’s presidential run as an attempt to impose a “dictatorship” on the US.
“Dictatorships come from the fear that a leader inspires in its people, and none of us can say that Republican legislators are not afraid of DeSantis,” she said.
“What this governor has done with his supermajority has been to create absolute power for the state over the people. It’s regulating who we talk to, who we love, who we welcome in our home. It regulates every thought that we have, our education, even our capacity to understand where we came from, where our country came from.”
Democratic former state congressman Joe Saunders, Equality Florida’s senior political director, suggested DeSantis’s popularity in Florida, where he was re-elected as governor by 19 points in November, is unlikely to translate nationally.
“If you look at how the polling is going so far, it’s not going well,” he said. “Donald Trump is consolidating Republican voters, they’re not flocking to DeSantis in any kind of meaningful way. We’ll see how the election evolves, but I think sometimes the country, pundits, can give Ron DeSantis just a little bit too much credit.”
Saunders, however, said voters should not let their guard down.
“I hope the country receives the announcement for the warning it is, specifically to every state’s LGBTQ+ communities, every state’s immigrant communities, every state’s Black and Hispanic communities,” he said.
“Ron DeSantis has built whatever momentum he has for the presidency on the backs of marginalized communities here in Florida. The country really needs to imagine what this version of Florida looks like, and what the country would be like if DeSantis’s leadership became a part of what was happening in every state.”
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