DeSantis muzzles one of his critics, democracy suffers
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.
A year ago this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Jimmy Patronis were all smiles.