10 min read

News Recap April 23-29, 2023

Florida-based organizations are coming for democracy in your state.
News Recap April 23-29, 2023
Jennifer Pippin, president of the Indian River County chapter of Moms for freedom at a campaign event in Vero Beach, Florida ,on October 16, 2022. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

Two Florida-based organizations are fundamentally shifting democracy across the country and some of the fruits of their efforts made national headlines this week, though their connection to Florida wasn’t always made clear. In a report, the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute notes that the driving force behind the rash of attacks on child labor laws originate from a single right-wing think tank based out of Florida called the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA). According to historian Heather Cox Richardson’s breakdown of the EPI report, “FGA is working to dismantle the federal government to get rid of business regulations. It has focused on advancing its ideology through the states for a while now, but the argument that its legislation protects parental rights has recently enabled them to wedge open a door to attack regulations more broadly.” Noting that this is part of the Republican Party’s “Ikea” approach to governing, Dr. Richardson also points out:

Historically, states have been far easier than the much larger, more diverse federal government for a few wealthy men to dominate. After 1986, Republicans began to restrict voting in the states they controlled, giving themselves an advantage, and after 2010 they focused on taking over the states through gerrymandering. This has enabled them to stop Congress from enacting popular legislation and has created quite radical state legislatures. Currently, in 29 of them, Republicans have supermajorities, permitting them to legislate however they wish.

Dr. Richardson and several other historians and politicians, including Stacey Abrams, Kevin Kruse, Heather Anne Thompson, Carol Anderson and Jim Downs came together in an essential book to understanding American elections called Voter Suppression in U.S. Elections that I can’t recommend highly enough.

Another Florida-based group wielding a huge amount of power in the American government this year is called Moms for Liberty. Writing for Vice News, David Gilbert has an outstanding piece on how this group, which started because a local legislator was mad she lost an election, is “terrorizing schools in the name of protecting kids.”

Since the group’s founding in Florida in 2020, its influence over local and national Republican politics has grown exponentially: It’s now a nation-wide movement with 260 chapters that claims to be a “grassroots” group working to protect students and defend parents’ rights. Its members are leading the charge on book-banning campaigns across the country and the group says it has helped install 275 of its favored candidates on school boards in 2022 alone, dozens of whom don’t have any children attending public schools in their districts. The group’s methods, however, belie the wholesome vision it tries to project. VICE News has spoken to students, administrators, parents, superintendents, school board members, and teachers who have faced vicious attacks by Moms for Liberty. Their stories paint a picture of a group that conducts orchestrated harassment campaigns against individuals that’s resulted in many fearing for their safety and, in some cases, their lives.

The story documents cases from as far as San Francisco and Pennsylvania where parents and even politicians are capitulating to Moms for Liberty demands after experiencing firsthand intimidation tactics in front of their homes. One message to a person unlucky enough to be caught in the group’s crosshairs was, “if you thought January 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!”

As Dr. Richardson shows, these are all connected means for minority rule. Take for example the bill that was sent to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s desk this week called Senate Bill 7050 which the Miami Herald Editorial Board calls a “98-page kitchen sink of voting reforms rushed through” Congress. The law would make it harder to register to vote and make it a felony for non-citizens and ex-felons to help with voter registration drives and reduces the window for anyone to return their vote by mail ballot. Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat said in response to the bill passing, “(This bill is) actually a clear attack on our democracy. It is designed to keep communities down and apathetic and hopeless.” This all appears to be a continued retaliation for the 2018 law that reinstated the right to vote for some felons who had served their time. There is a wonderful podcast called The Sum of Us that has an episode on the disenfranchisement of ex-felons in Florida, how the 2018 law changed that, and the retaliation it faced.

But SB 7050 doesn’t stop there; It closes that loophole that presently prevents Ron DeSantis from running for President while holding office.

As progressive radio show host Phil Hartmann discusses this week, “The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University discovered that people under 29 are voting Democratic by an almost 2 to 1 ratio, a generational partisan swing not seen since the 1960s.” This helps explain why Republicans are so hell-bent on preventing young voters from being able to vote. “Florida, Texas, and a dozen other states have also criminalized voter registration efforts so severely that the League of Women Voters has abandoned their traditional efforts in state after state. The headline in a Kansas newspaper says it all: ‘Kansas groups halt voter registration drives to avoid being jailed under new law.’ The semi-official new GOP motto is, ‘If you can’t win, rig the game and cheat.’”

Multiple NCF students and employees urged trustees to grant tenure to five applicants at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Meanwhile, Florida Republicans continue their assault on the state’s public schools. Five professors who had been confirmed by their peers as qualified for tenure had that tenure denied by DeSantis’ appointed Board of Trustees members at the state-run New College. As the Associated Press story I link to above points out, “Advocates for tenure say it is a crucial component of academic freedom but conservatives have begun targeting tenure around the country, often taking aim at professors with supposedly liberal views.” Though the conservative Trustees tried to downplay the move, which denied tenure for two chemistry professors and a marine biologist, among others, saying they could apply again next year, what people outside of the world of universities often don’t know is that if the professors fail to get tenure on the second try their contracts are terminated. In other words, they are fired. Protestors at the meeting chanted, “give them tenure.” One of the remaining non-DeSantis Trustees walked out of the meeting and off the board, saying, “I’m very concerned about the direction this board is going. This is my last board meeting. I’m leaving the college.” That Trustee, Matthew Lepinski, the faculty chair of New College of Florida and a computer science professor at the college, told the New York Times in January that he was open to the new DeSantis-appointed trustees and wanted to work with them, gaining animosity with coworkers for not standing up to the DeSantis Trustees more. By the last week in April, he not only left the Board of Trustees but the university altogether.

As Inside Higher Education Reports:

The tenure denial comes amid DeSantis’s quest to convert the small (public) honors college into the “Hillsdale of the South,” modeled on the prominent Christian college in Michigan with deep ties to the Republican Party. In January, the governor appointed six new trustees, who began their work of reshaping NCF by ousting then-president Patricia Okker and replacing her with Richard Corcoran, a former Republican politician, who got a $400,000 pay bump over his predecessor.

While chemistry and marine biology professors are being threatened with termination for being too woke, Leon County school Superintendent Rocky Hanna faces ouster from his elected office because he criticized DeSantis. “Florida officials are threatening to revoke the teaching license of a school superintendent who criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis, accusing the educator of violating several statutes and DeSantis directives and allowing his “personal political views” to guide his leadership.” Revoking his license would disqualify him from the job and thus effectively terminate his employment.

A thorough piece by truthout.org connects Moms for Liberty and the New College tenure denials with other DeSantis efforts to transform public education in Florida through DeSantis’ takeover of the Florida Board of Education. The piece highlights dark money ties to new DeSantis’ Board of Education members and the religious far right. Other efforts this week to destroy public education include the law DeSantis signed this week that is effectively “one of the largest private school voucher expansions in the nation,” according to USA Today. Teachers' unions and other public school advocacy groups say the law “will rob public schools of already scarce funding and allow private schools to discriminate against students, including those with disabilities.” DeSantis signed the bill into law at an all-boys Catholic High School within walking distance from my house.

Stickers and apparel promoting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at an event Wednesday at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston, S.C.Sean Rayford / Getty Images

Finally, no story about Florida politics would be complete without a discussion of Ron DeSantis, whose campaign events have logos appropriated from Disney and the Walt Disney Company. (Insert facepalm emoji, gif, meme, whatever). As you’ve no doubt heard, Disney took the extraordinary but at this point expected step of suing Governor DeSantis for alleged political retaliation, which he obviously has done. But, the notion of corporations having First Amendment Rights traces its history to an ugly, racist and unethical part of history while Radical Reconstruction was ending in the 1870s and corporations were on the rise, as Heather Cox Richardson and Yale Historian Joanne Freeman discuss in their podcast, called Now and Then, in this week’s episode, called “Supreme Court Scandals: A Story of Justice.” This is part of why a number of people are saying they can’t root for Disney in this, as Supreme Court reporter Mark Joseph Stern writes in Slate this week. For Stern, Disney could have simply asked the courts to enforce their contract as written. But instead of being satisfied with that likely successful remedy, Disney instead chose to sue based on a violation of the Constitution, which it claims DeSantis did when he voided their contract, which is a reference to the Constitution’s “contracts clause.” By taking this approach Disney is opening Pandora’s box, according to Stern, who notes “The consequences could be severe given the legal climate; the contracts clause cases just keep on coming. Hotels cite the clause to battle severance pay for workers and rehireof laid-off employees. Delivery apps used itto combat caps on the amount of “commission” cash they can extract from restaurants. Corporations deployed it to fight data privacy laws. Police unions have seized upon it to hobbledisciplinary procedures and conceal records of misconduct from the public.” It is difficult to know how the courts might take this, which is why “far-right anti-government groups like the New Civil Liberties Alliance (have) encouragedthe Supreme Court to … “reinvigorate” the clause.” So while this case started with Disney standing with the LGBTQIA+ community and DeSantis’ retaliating against them for doing so, Disney may be using this to advance a far right anti-government agenda.

Sonali Kolhatkar of the Independent Media Institute, writing in Alternet.org expands on this sound legal thinking, pointing out that “Both DeSantis and Disney are predatory, albeit in different ways.”

Rather than viewing Disney World as “the happiest place on earth,” Sophie Weiner, writing in Popular Mechanics in 2018, explained that, “Disney World is what it looks like if you give a corporation full control over an area of land as big as San Francisco. It’s worked out great for the company, which counts on the park for 14 percent of its $2 billion yearly earnings.” Further, in 2021, the state of Florida gifted the company a massive $580 million tax break in exchange for moving about 2,000 jobs from its California locations to Florida.

Klohatkar reminds the reader that Disney initially didn’t bother to push back against DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” law, responding only after Disney’s workers and “cast” started promoting the hashtag #BoycottDisney. “The company eventually, reluctantly, reacted by suspending all its political donations in the state of Florida to both parties—not exactly the most principled stand.” Highlighting ways that Disney dodges state taxes and exploits its workers (to the point that even Disney heiress Abigail Disney has made a documentary decrying the treatment of Disney’s workers), Kolhatkar’s point is Disney is suing DeSantis to protect its own bottom line, a bottom line that can’t be bothered even to pay its “cast members” a living wage.

The piece concludes with the following:

Disney should not have control over land, resources, tax regulations, or wages. And lawmakers should not be allowed to trample over the rights of minorities. It’s not difficult to oppose both Disney’s power grab and DeSantis’s dangerous culture wars. Indeed, both positions are fully consistent with progressive ideals of protecting and furthering the rights of human beings.
Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade smiles during the first half of the Men’s Basketball Championship National Semifinal between the Florida Atlantic Owls against the San Diego State Aztecs at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Saturday, April 1, 2003. Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

This has been a long post, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the Miami Herald rightly called Miami Heat legend Dwayne Wade "more of a leader than DeSantis," because the former NBA All-Star and Champion took a stand for his transgender daughter--by not living in Florida and telling the world why. "The former Miami Heat champion and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, have done so much for our community," writes The Miami Herald Editorial Board.

"Miami-Dade County has been called “Wade County” for a reason. Wade is something of a hero around here, not just because of his extraordinary talent and drive, but also because of his full-on embrace of the community. It’s not an exaggeration to say he is beloved...Miami’s GOAT doesn’t feel comfortable in Florida. We don’t blame him, though we are sick at heart to hear it. No doubt there are many others who feel the same, though they may not be able to say so publicly. Wade has the platform to speak out and is doing so. His courage is inspiring."

Cuban refugees leave a dock at the port of Mariel, Cuba, bound for Key West, Fla., as a Cuban guard watches.

This Week in Florida History, the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 hit a storm as it picked up the pace. Donald Trump seems to think the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 is happening right now. Find that story here.