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News Recap Week of April 30- May 6, 2023

When I went to bed Saturday night this was largely written
News Recap Week of April 30- May 6, 2023
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a law that immediately enhanced criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests – Miami Herald/The Florida Channel May 2021

When I went to bed Saturday night this was largely written and a little shorter than the more recent ones, believe it or not. Then I saw something this morning that I had missed yesterday and whoa boy did it set of alarm bells. “Miami-Dade sheriff saga ends with a power grab by Florida lawmakers. As usual…” ran the headline on the story posted by the Miami Herald Editorial Board Saturday afternoon. I immediately thought of two terrifying podcast episodes I've listened to, one by award-winning historians, the other by the Miami NPR station.

The first was the 25 January 2023 podcast episode by historians Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman entitled “The ‘Constitutional Sheriff’ Myth,” which describes how many sheriffs think that because they were elected they alone determine when, how and even if every law in their county is enforced. “A number of people calling themselves constitutional sheriffs believe that they are the last word in whether or not a law can be put into effect,” Heather Cox Richardson describes the Constitutional Sheriff Movement.  The thinking is that if people don’t like what the sheriff is doing, they can just elect someone else. But what happens between elections? And when the elections do happen, what happens when the local law enforcement, tasked with keeping elections safe, is running for office and used to unfettered power? A local autocrat with no one with the authority to check their power is not consistent with democratic rule of law, was not intended by any of the people who created our government and is thus a very dangerous myth. Richardson and Freeman note that only about 800 sheriffs, roughly one out of five in the United States, follow this doctrine, which emerged in the 1990s and took deeper root during the Trump Administration. Nevertheless, while Miami-Dade County residents have firmly voted to keep the current system where the county’s top law enforcement officer serves at the behest of the county mayor, Tallahassee lawmakers have thwarted the will of the people, "as usual."

The other podcast was the 12 May 2021 episode of Tallahassee Takeover by WLRN called “How to Consolidate Power from: From Venezuela to Florida.” This episode described how Hugo Chavez, an initially weak leader with authoritarian inclinations but with billionaire backers, destroyed Venezuelan democracy by neutering local power authority. Chavez's strategy was eerily similar to what the Florida legislature is doing by removing all local control over the top law enforcement officer in the county. The episode compares the Chavez (and his successor Nicolas Maduro) strategy to that of Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans. The strategy, which Brookings Institute authors Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold describe as “competitive autocracy” in their 2015 book, Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chavez, is a back door way to destroy democracy that worked in Venezuela. The oligarchic billionaires who backed the Chavez and now the Maduro dictatorships likely heavily invest in Miami, “the banking capital of the Americas,” and have influence through Miami Dade County’s massive and growing Venezuelan population. As sociologist Alejandro Portes put it in 2019, “Global cities like New York and London are coordinating centers for the corporate, financial, and commercial aspects of the entire global economy. Miami is a global city on a regional scale because of what goes on in Latin America. The Brickell financial center in Miami has the second largest concentration of international banks outside of New York.”

The Florida state legislature (mercifully?) adjourned for the year, celebrating the human rights they revoked in just a few short months. “Eager to advance Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda as he angles toward running for president, the Republican-controlled Legislature veered its furthest to the right politically in modern history on issues such as abortion, education and gay rights,” Jeffrey Schweers of the Orlando Sentinel reported on Friday. Schweers cited professors and political consultants alike who agreed the goal of this year’s legislative session was “to get the governor what he wanted,” as he prepares to run for President. University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett told the paper, “He’s very Machiavellian and successful.” The whole piece is a good look at what the Republican-controlled legislature has, as House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell of Tampa called it, “one of the most “divisive and dangerous” sessions, resulting in laws that restrict the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, voters and minorities.”

“For Floridians, this has been an anti-freedom session,” Driskell said, referring to DeSantis’ assertion that Florida is the “freedom state.”

Aerial photos on March 1 show damage to Fort Myers caused by Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in late September 2022. [ PATRICK CONNOLLY | Patrick Connolly ]

Notably, while Floridians suffer from the highest homeowners’, renters’ and automotive insurance rates in the country, the legislature passed two laws to address the insurance crisis that did nothing to help Floridians devastated by insurance costs. A significant reason why the insurance crisis was not addressed may well be because DeSantis, who got everything he wanted this year, didn’t want it addressed because the insurance industry is helping fund his campaign for president, as it funded his campaigns for governor and made massive contributions to his inaugural ball. This is from a new report that The Guardian summarizes, “The report pinpoints the insurance industry as a crucial underwriter of DeSantis’s meteoric rise to the governor’s mansion and as a potential White House contender – and alleges that this may have influenced his decision making.” The Guardian reported an interview with “Tracy-Ann Brown, 53, (who) said by phone from Miami: ‘The prices are horrendous. Our insurance went up to $1,800 per month and I could not afford it with my husband’s salary and my salary put together. We had a home that we had to take the insurance off and, unfortunately, our house caught fire on Easter Sunday and we didn’t have insurance on it.’” Other papers focus on the $3.9 million that DeSantis has “raked in” according to the report, saying, “The governor has overseen dramatic rise in home insurance premiums and legislative giveaways to insurance companies.”

Despite months of attacking men wearing dresses on stage, children struggling with gender dysphoria, enabling the banning of books about Anne Frank and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letters from the Birmingham Jail, banning a course on African American history, functionally outlawing abortions, Donald Trump still managed to suck the air out of DeSantis’ successes at turning Florida into a corrupt dystopian hells scape when Miami resident Enrique Tarrio, the former leader of the terrorist organization called Proud Boys, was convicted of sedition for his leadership role in what the Orlando Sentinel called “a plot to attack the U.S. Capitol in a desperate bid to keep Donald Trump in power after the Republican lost the 2020 presidential election.” Tarrio’s attorney’s closing defense of his client? “It was Donald Trump’s words. It was his motivation. It was his anger that caused what occurred on January 6th in your beautiful and amazing city,” attorney Nayib Hassan said in his final appeal to jurors. “It was not Enrique Tarrio. They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald J. Trump and those in power.”

Enrique Torrio and Trump confidant Roger Stone via Torrio's Facebook page

Interestingly, this means the prosecution and defense agreed that a man who lives in South Florida was responsible for attempting an autogolpe (self-coup) at the United States Capitol in January of 2021.

The news that Orlando-based Darden has purchased Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse (Ruth’s Hospitality Group) for nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars may seem like a “so what” deal, but it means another restaurant chain is no longer independent. Darden, who the Orlando Sentinel points out that Darden not only owns Olive Garden and now Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, but “already has 1,890 restaurants including Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Bahama Breeze, Eddie V’s and The Capital Burger. The company last acquired Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen in 2017 for $780 million.”

So, the next time you go out to a restaurant, it may all be lining the pockets of investors in a company that’s name doesn’t appear in the advertising much. This is likely more than a coincidence given Darden has a legendary “rap sheet” dating back years for a range of abuses of its workers, including wage theft, sexual harassment, racial harassment, tip stealing, not to mention issues more directly impacting customers such as food poisoning. To be clear and fair, that “rap sheet” is ten years old. More recently, to attract more workers, Darden has raised wages. But as CNN Business reports, “the move doesn’t go far enough to satisfy critics of a practice common in the restaurant industry.” Dismissing Darden’s recent wage increase as a stunt, Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage said, “If Darden were serious about making sure their employees were paid enough money to live on they would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and give the employees their tips on top of that pay,”

There are a lot of other stories worth mentioning, too, like the protestors who were arrested for standing in front of DeSantis’ office, the death row inmate who was executed, DeSantis suing Disney and signing a law that allowed the state to inspect Disney’s monorail system and a woman charged with assault for throwing wine at US Representative and Proud Boys Pal Matt Gaetz, but this is now very long.

Still, I’m going to have to leave you with Ron DeSantis being asked if he believes in human rights for adults and declining to answer.

Alan Shepard awaits takeoff from the Florida coast in 1961 (Tampa Bay Times May 5, 1961)

This week in Florida history, Alan Shepard left Brevard County, Florida, strapped to the top of a missile and left the Earth's atmosphere. See rare Florida newspapers from that day in May 1961 here.