DeSantis’ disappearing act; A-Rod clues; COVID pre-emption; Tiptoeing around Trump

Mary Ellen Klas
·9 min read

It’s Monday Nov. 23 and do you know where your governor is? For nearly three weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis has remained virtually absent from public view. Like President Donald Trump, the governor has scarcely appeared in public or made remarks in person. He appeared at the legislative organization session Nov. 17, but his official public schedule has mostly been empty. This is in sharp contrast to his omnipresence before the election as he hop-scotched across the state, promoting the president’s pandemic messaging and campaigning for him exclusively.

Last week, the governor’s communications director said with certainty that the governor would have a press conference. Instead, DeSantis traveled to the White House, got a briefing on vaccines and therapeutics, and then posted a five-minute video on social media about it. Like his predecessor, he is trying to control the message when he can’t control the questions.

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING

What questions do we have for the governor? For starters, does DeSantis agree with Trump’s claims that the election “was rigged”? Does he have any concern these baseless claims could destabilize the election process for when he seeks re-election in two years?

President-elect: Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio referred to Joe Biden as “president-elect,” making him the first prominent Florida Republican — who isn’t retiring — to directly acknowledge Biden’s victory as Trump continued to falsely claim he won the election.

Meanwhile, we are keeping a running tally of other high-profile Florida Republicans who refuse to react and respond to the president’s extra-legal gambit.

Mayors protest: Perhaps a more urgent question to the governor right now is: Will you reverse your pre-election decision to pre-empt local government enforcement of coronavirus mask mandates and social distancing limits?

As DeSantis remained out of the spotlight last week, a bi-partisan group of mayors from five Florida cities held a news conference asking him to impose a statewide mask mandate, ramp up the state’s testing effort, and reinstate the authority of local governments to impose coronavirus restrictions.

‘Protect the elderly’: The governor did not respond but, in a Tweet last week, the governor’s spokesman Fred Piccolo said there is no reason to worry about rising coronavirus cases. The policy is to “protect the elderly,’’ he wrote. “Don’t lockdown. Keep calm and carry on.”

But evidence was mounting that the state wasn’t protecting the elderly. Daily cases reported by the state were up about 150% from where they were on Oct. 1, and cases for those 65 and older (considered the most vulnerable) had increased by about 140% in that same time period.

Signs of widespread transmission: Another signal that transmission was increasing occurred at Miami’s public hospitals. Over the last week, 898 patients at the hospitals tested positive for the novel coronavirus and more than half of them often had no symptoms and were admitted for other reasons — a sign that the virus was spreading rapidly in the community.

School COVID concession: The DeSantis administration indirectly conceded that the virus is not under control last week when Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who months ago ordered all schools to reopen, announced that, because of COVID-19 concerns, students will be allowed to attend classes online through the end of the school year.

Locals get aggressive: Meanwhile, counties and cities continue to act on their own, despite being hamstrung by the governor’s order. Last week, Hillsborough County commissioners unanimously approved a “recommendation” asking nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other group homes to test their staffs for coronavirus on a routine basis. And in Key West, city officials amended their mask ordinance to require that people wear masks when outside their homes whether or not they can maintain social distancing.

WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT

Clues about A-rod, the phony candidate: Alex Rodriguez, the no-party candidate who earned more 6,300 votes in the Senate District 37 race that was decided by just 34 votes, now is under investigation by the Miami-Dade state attorney. It turns out Rodriguez, who likely cost incumbent Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez his re-election, is a one-time mechanic with no history in local politics. He was a Republican until June, lived in Palm Beach County not Miami-Dade, never started a campaign website, attended no candidate forums, and received no donations.

Tiptoeing around Trump: President Trump’s attempt to retain a firm grip on Republican Party politics may explain the loud silence from GOP ranks. While many of them would privately like to purge Trump from the system, they know they can’t because he commands the support of a very engaged electorate. They now have to navigate carefully. Presidential hopefuls like Rubio and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and DeSantis have all started to tiptoe around the outgoing president who appears to want to stoke rumors he’ll run again.

No legislative COVID plan: In last week’s newsletter, we asked if Florida’s returning legislators would take any ownership of the state’s COVID response and plans for an economic recovery. We got our answer and it is no.

9 in quarantine: Lawmakers convened their organizing session last Tuesday but Republican leaders gave only brief mention to the coronavirus. As a testament to the omnipresence of the virus, at least nine of the 160 legislators were absent because they had tested positive for COVID-19 or had been close to someone who had.

What COVID threat? House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson outlined their priorities for the next two years and included only a passing reference to coronavirus. In fact, Sprowls spent more time on opposing efforts to “defund” the police than he did on acknowledging COVID-19, begging the question: Which is the bigger threat to Florida right now?

1 million Floridians to get vaccine: Pfizer said Friday that it will send 2 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine to Florida, enough for 1 million patients, and distribute it across the state to hospitals. But who gets the first round and how that will be decided is still unknown. The earliest it will be here is mid-December.

Silence on bizarre conspiracy: Miami’s Republican leaders also remained silent last week as Trump’s lawyers advanced another baseless allegation, this time that widespread voter fraud in the November election involved Venezuela, Cuba and potentially China. They alleged, without providing evidence, that vendors involved in U.S. elections used software created in Venezuela with the ability to change votes from one political party to another without a trace. The president’s claims that election system is rigged may be baseless, but why are officials who were elected to office on the same election system saying nothing?

Disappointed immigrants: We have written much about the growing coalition of Cuban and non-Cuban Latino voters who helped lift the president to the best margins a Republican candidate has seen in Miami-Dade County in 16 years. But for some non-voting Latino immigrants in South Florida who have felt targeted by Trump’s restrictionist immigration agenda, the election proved bittersweet.

A Trump supporter shows a thumbs-up after an anti-socialism car caravan at Tamiami Park near Miami-Dade County Fair grounds in Sweetwater, Florida, on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020.
A Trump supporter shows a thumbs-up after an anti-socialism car caravan at Tamiami Park near Miami-Dade County Fair grounds in Sweetwater, Florida, on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020.

Post-mortem continues: Analysts point to several reasons why Latino voters in Miami-Dade went for Trump from affluent to working class neighborhoods. The reasons include: a prosperous economy, the strongman aspect of Trump’s character that apparently appealed to some Cubans and other Hispanics, the election to Congress of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which further fueled the narrative about the Democratic Party steering to the left. Add acts of vandalism amid protests over police brutality, and slogans like “defund the police” which were exploited by the Trump campaign. The messages worked to instill fear among Latino voters that the progressive left would dictate Biden’s agenda.

Biggest mistake: Analysts say their biggest regret was assuming accusations about socialism and communism were not worth rebuking because they “were considered absurd.”

Freedom squad: A group of incoming Republican members of Congress, including Miami’s Carlos Gimenez and Maria Elvira Salazar, are being recruited by GOP leaders to form “The Freedom Squad” to push-back on the left-leaning progressives and continue the socialist rhetoric, (which has often been inaccurate) about them.

Course correction: Want more proof of the enormity of the job ahead for Democrats, consider this: Democratic President-elect Joe Biden won every precinct and 58% of votes in Weston, an affluent suburb and the westernmost city in Broward County. He beat President Donald Trump in the city by 18 points, part of a 30-point victory overall in Florida’s bluest county. But Biden’s success did not transfer down the ballot. Among the winners was Republican Margaret “Peggy” Brown, a city commissioner who spoke at a pro-Trump rally about her desire to “make Weston red” and who denounced a local Black Lives Matter group while seeking the nonpartisan mayor’s seat. The crossover vote carries some big lessons for both parties.

Scott in quarantine: Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott tested positive for COVID-19 last week, becoming the second U.S. senator to test positive recently as cases surge across the country. In a statement, Scott, 67, said he was experiencing mild symptoms.

Gold standard on hold: Scott’s absence meant a setback for the president. A vote over Trump’s Federal Reserve Board nominee Judy Shelton failed last week with Scott out and 47 senators voting in favor and 50 voting against. Shelton wants to return to the gold standard, a monetary system that links the value of the U.S. dollar to gold which the U.S. abandoned in 1973.

Cruise industry crashing: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention dealt a devastating blow to the cruise industry last weekend, recommending that travelers avoid cruise ships given the “very high” risk of becoming infected or spreading the novel coronavirus.

Fewer late ballots: Voter education efforts by state and local elections officials paid off and Floridians did better at getting their mail-in ballots returned by the 7 p.m. deadline on Election Day than in most other years. Aiding the effort: drop boxes at early voting sites and efforts by third-party groups reminding and nagging people to act.

Ball & Chain and public meetings: A controversial decision to restrict outdoor music between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. at some restaurants generated nearly nine hours of comments from people mobilized by Ball & Chain, the popular Little Havana bar and restaurant entrenched in a battle against City Hall over code violations. But rather than listen to all the testimony at a meeting last week, some of which was scripted, commissioners voted anyway. The Miami Herald obtained some of the recordings and did its own listening.

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