DeSan­tis muz­zles one of his crit­ics, democ­racy suf­fers

Orlando Sentinel - - Opinion -

TALLAHASSE­E — The face mask. It’s our pro­tec­tion against COVID-19.

It’s also an apt sym­bol for what’s tak­ing place at the high­est lev­els of Florida’s gov­ern­ment, and it’s dan­ger­ous for democ­racy.

Si­lenc­ing a po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent is rou­tine in au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes and ba­nana re­publics. But Gov. Ron DeSan­tis has gone to elab­o­rate lengths to muz­zle the voice of Nikki Fried, the elected state agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner.

As one of three in­de­pen­dently cho­sen mem­bers of the Florida Cabinet and the only Demo­crat elected statewide, Fried is the only per­son in high of­fice who doesn’t ap­plaud ev­ery DeSan­tis de­ci­sion.

The gov­er­nor re­fused to put Fried on a statewide task force to ad­vise him on how and when to re­open the state, and she says the gov­er­nor’s peo­ple rou­tinely ig­nore her staff.

By squelch­ing Fried’s voice in the Tallahasse­e po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness, it’s DeSan­tis who looks smaller.

The lat­est ex­am­ple of this pet­ti­ness re­vealed it­self Thurs­day. Af­ter nearly four months, DeSan­tis con­vened a Cabinet meet­ing. But, this be­ing an emer­gency, it was done by phone. Four dis­em­bod­ied voices.

That pre­vented the pub­lic from be­ing heard, and more im­por­tantly from the gov­er­nor’s point of view, it made it im­pos­si­ble for Fried to en­gage in a give­and-take with the gov­er­nor on such timely is­sues as the eco­nomic col­lapse and its ef­fect on the state bud­get; lev­els of COVID-19 test­ing; and the bro­ken un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits web­site that has frus­trated Florid­i­ans and be­come a na­tional em­bar­rass­ment.

Day by day, we’re wit­ness­ing the slow­mo­tion death of trans­parency. This in the state that pioneered the con­cept of “sun­shine” five decades ago.

An emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion it­self serves as a shield. Pre­sum­ably with more ur­gent mat­ters, rou­tine press in­quiries to the gov­er­nor’s of­fice can go unan­swered, in­clud­ing for this col­umn. Agen­cies stonewall re­quests for records. Even the most ba­sic piece of in­for­ma­tion, the gov­er­nor’s of­fi­cial daily sched­ule, some­times is not re­leased un­til 8 p.m.

Fried sent DeSan­tis a let­ter May 19, ask­ing that three top state agency heads ap­pear be­fore the Cabinet to an­swer ques­tions, in­clud­ing the fir­ing of Re­bekah Jones, a Depart­ment of Health data sci­en­tist. The let­ter went unan­swered and the agency heads stayed away.

Only Fried, sport­ing a blue mask, showed up in the Cabinet room in the base­ment of the Capi­tol build­ing in Tallahasse­e.

That’s the same room where DeSan­tis has re­peat­edly sum­moned the me­dia over the past few weeks to give up­dates on the pan­demic. If it’s safe for him to be there with a bunch of strangers, why isn’t it also safe for him and three Cabinet mem­bers to be there, wear­ing masks and sep­a­rated by so­cial dis­tanc­ing? It’s be­cause that would have given a Demo­cratic of­fice­holder a plat­form to hold him ac­count­able.

This is how life in Florida has evolved over the past three months. We’re all liv­ing in an in­def­i­nite state of emer­gency and most Florid­i­ans have re­sponded with re­straint by lim­it­ing their move­ments to re­duce spread of the virus. But un­like other states, Florida Leg­is­la­ture has ac­qui­esced and de­ferred all de­ci­sion-mak­ing to DeSan­tis, who can uni­lat­er­ally ex­er­cise broad pow­ers in an emer­gency.

Fried has been per­sis­tent in ques­tion­ing DeSan­tis’ de­ci­sions, but she has not been stri­dent or ex­ces­sively par­ti­san. She faulted him for a “piece­meal” ap­proach early in the cri­sis, but in late April said she was “en­cour­aged by this cau­tious ap­proach” to a slow re­open­ing.

By re­peat­edly marginal­iz­ing Fried, DeSan­tis demon­strates an in­tol­er­ance of crit­i­cism that’s trou­bling at any time, but es­pe­cially in a statewide emer­gency. Dis­sent is not dis­loyal. A strong, con­fi­dent gov­er­nor should welcome it in a democ­racy.

Pan­demic or not, life goes on.

We still have a two-party sys­tem. And Florida, alone among the 50 states, has a quirky ar­range­ment called a Cabinet, in which the gov­er­nor is re­quired by the Con­sti­tu­tion to share power with three other elected of­fi­cials. To­gether they over­see a myr­iad of mun­dane but im­por­tant ar­eas: land con­ser­va­tion, law en­force­ment, high­way safety, tax col­lec­tion and state pen­sion fund over­sight. The Cabinet used to con­vene reg­u­larly ev­ery two weeks; DeSan­tis sched­uled seven meet­ings this year and one was can­celed.

When the Cabinet helps to pro­mote DeSan­tis’ agenda, he’s happy to share the stage with his three col­leagues. Ex­actly one year ago this week, all four of them were all smiles at a Cabinet meet­ing in Is­rael. It was an ef­fort by the new gov­er­nor to build good­will with a crit­i­cal ally abroad and a key con­stituency at home.

A year later, Florida faces per­sis­tent and trou­bling ques­tions. Sud­denly, the Cabinet doesn’t mat­ter.

DeSan­tis won by about 32,000 votes or four-tenths of a per­cent­age point. Fried won by a much smaller mar­gin of about 6,800 votes. Both of them re­ceived more than 4 mil­lion votes. Both speak for us. Both de­serve to be heard.

GOV­ER­NOR'S OF­FICE

A year ago this week, Gov. Ron DeSan­tis and Jimmy Pa­tro­nis were all smiles.

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