This is part of an ongoing series covering the status and importance of the Jewish vote in Florida. Read Part One, “Florida: A Jewish Battleground State?,” here.
On July 20, for the second time in a week, and at the opposite end of Florida, protesters disrupted Governor Ron DeSantis’ coronavirus press conference.
As he was touting the state’s relatively low death rate per COVID infection, several demonstrators at the Orlando briefing shouted: “Shame on you! Thousands of deaths are on your head…Why are you lying about antibody tests? Why are you lying about unemployment?”
On July 15, the State Department of Health announced 15,500 new coronavirus infections, both a state and national record. Since then, the pandemic continued to rage in Florida at a rate of 10,000 cases a day.
In the face of that, on July 17, another protester shouted similar sentiments at a Miami press conference, noting that over 4,000 Floridians have died.
DeSantis continued his Orlando remarks, while the protestors were removed from the briefing as had the Miami heckler.
On July 13, amidst skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rates, DeSantis held one of his periodic press briefings, this one in Miami.
Two days before, the Florida Department of Health reported the state’s largest single-day increase in cases, with over 15,000 new cases, also a national record.
But as DeSantis began to speak, he was interrupted by an activist who later identified himself as Thomas Kennedy.
“Shame on you, you are an embarrassment,” he shouted. “We’re getting record-breaking cases every day, and you are doing nothing…You are falsifying information, and you are misleading the public. Over 4,000 people have died, and you are blaming the protesters. You guys have no plan.”
DeSantis continued his remarks, blaming the rise on testing procedures, as Kennedy was removed from the briefing.
But the activist gave voice to the same pent up anger and frustration that had been welling up throughout the state.
In the weeks before and after the outburst, State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried voiced the same sentiment—if slightly more decorously—almost nonstop. Fried, a Democrat from Broward County in South Florida, won her statewide race in her first electoral outing and has emerged as DeSantis’ most vocal adversary, challenging the governor on this issue relentlessly.
It is a campaign Fried has enlarged to include President Donald Trump, and one that may bear fruit in the fall.
For November, Florida’s wild card is the COVID-19 pandemic and Governor DeSantis’ and Trump’s perceived mishandling of it.
DeSantis owes his election to Trump’s backing in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary, which catapulted the heretofore undistinguished U.S. Congressman into an upset victory over the state party establishment’s favorite.
Since the pandemic began, DeSantis has aped Trump’s responses–and non-responses–to the crisis. He has refused to take significant state action to stem the now-record rising tide of COVID-19. This has included intransigent resistance to mandating the use of masks, closing the beaches and ordering a stay-at-home lockdown. Echoing Trump, he deferred to local authorities to take such action.
One frustrated, South Florida nurse started a petition calling on DeSantis to mandate masks throughout the state.
Under visible duress, DeSantis finally ordered a statewide lockdown from April 1, only to begin relaxing closure orders May 4.
On May 20, standing next to a visiting Vice President Mike Pence in Orlando, DeSantis declared victory over COVID-19. “We succeeded,” DeSantis crowed. Later, the governor appeared at a victory press conference with Trump at the White House, celebrating progress in overcoming the pandemic.
Notwithstanding, closing too late and reopening too soon in Florida had predictable consequences.
In several interviews, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Florida “jumped over a couple of checkpoints,” in its haste to reopen. “I think any state that is having a serious problem, that state should seriously look at shutting down,” he said.
But DeSantis stayed the course and by the first week in July, in the face of skyrocketing numbers, the still defiant governor blamed a “test dump” for the skyrocketing infection rate, at 10,000 new cases a day.
As the reported rates of infection began to rise, he first claimed the increase was nonexistent. Then he attacked what he called the hysterical state news media. “You’ve got a lot of people in your profession who waxed poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York,” he said, after another meeting with Vice President Pence, this one in Orlando on June 20. “We’ve succeeded, and I think that people just don’t want to recognize it because it challenges their narrative, it challenges their assumptions, so they’ve got to try to find a bogeyman.”
Next, DeSantis blamed the rise on Hispanic agricultural workers, because they lived and worked in close quarters. When there was blowback on that charge, he blamed careless millennials for flocking to bars, which he ordered reopened, prematurely, and then banned the sale of alcohol on premises.
But again he refused to take statewide action to reverse the premature openings, often appearing at press conferences without a mask.
“We’re not going back, closing things,” DeSantis told reporters, “We’re open. We know who we need to protect.”
Later in July, despite his preference for local action to respond to the pandemic, DeSantis had his Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran order public schools to reopen in August—just a day after Trump demanded such a move, threatening a loss of federal funding for those who didn’t comply.
That same week, hospitals throughout the state reported that their intensive care units were filling to capacity—and beyond, in Miami—with COVID-19 patients.
The situation in Florida became so grave that the governors of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey ordered that all arrivals from Florida be quarantined for 14 days. This was seen as payback for when, at the beginning of the pandemic, DeSantis threatened to ban all arrivals from those same states.
DeSantis was a strong booster of moving the last night of the Republican National Convention in August from North Carolina to Jacksonville, which some see as a pandemic time bomb. DeSantis later said he was open to requiring masks at the convention event, which Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry subsequently did.
Pence continued to taxi in and out of the crucial state for meetings about both the campaign and the pandemic, although he did call off a planned campaign appearance. At a recent campaign reception in Jacksonville, he pointedly did not wear a mask.
DeSantis had another COVID-related problem to contend with: the state unemployment system proved to be a disaster in the face of the crisis. When the pandemic hit, hundreds of thousands of Florida employees were thrown out of work. Of the 800,000 jobless who filed for benefits, only four percent received the benefits they deserved. The poorly-designed web site repeatedly crashed.
“Nothing in state government…performed more abysmally than the system that was supposed to provide a financial lifeline for the unemployed during hard times,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel in a July editorial. “Instead, it became an anchor, dragging hundreds of thousands of Floridians underwater during what probably will be the worst financial crisis most of them will ever face…Florida let them down and let them drown because for years elected majorities didn’t care what happened to the unemployed.”
DeSantis acknowledged the system’s failure, but blamed former Republican Governor Rick Scott, now a U.S. Senator. It was, in fact, designed to severely restrict benefits. Pointedly, DeSantis did nothing to ameliorate the disaster, saying he lacks authority, and he did not extend the blame to the Republican-controlled state legislature that enacted Scott’s program, many of whose members are still in office.
During this same pandemic period, and almost in secret, DeSantis signed new legislation that required parental consent for a minor seeking an abortion. Then, citing the loss in state revenues due to the pandemic, he vetoed a $225 million affordable housing program.
All this has come at a cost.
Two recent Florida polls, one by Cygnal, conducted for the Alliance for Market Solutions, and the other by Fox News, report that DeSantis’ unfavorability rating has shot up dramatically in recent months.
Will Florida’s Jewish seniors, together with others in the state, punish DeSantis and Trump for their mishandling of the pandemic in November?
There is growing evidence that they will. “It’s going to hurt DeSantis,” says Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, and, “it’s going to hurt Trump.”
“COVID19 has a very direct report card,” says Mitchell Berger, a Miami attorney and major Democratic donor. “And it’s clear that Florida is failing.”
In the face of all this, State Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried has taken on DeSantis, focusing on his handling of the pandemic, and on Trump.
“The two of them are tied together on their response to COVID,” she says. “Our governor has refused to take actions without the thumbs-up approval of the White House.”
Daily, she pounded DeSantis on his various missteps, in particular for his refusal to order statewide use of masks.
In a typical June 26 Tweet, Fried wrote, “This is not about politics @GovRonDeSantis, this is about putting the health and safety of Floridians first…It’s time to take action, and require a mandatory mask mandate statewide.”
Although by statute, as a statewide elected official she is a member of the governor’s cabinet, Fried says that DeSantis has frozen her out of any information or policy discussions involving the pandemic.
Fried was particularly put out when DeSantis tried to blame the rise in infections on Hispanic agricultural workers, whose welfare she oversees.“That was so offensive,” she says. “First and foremost, in the time that we are dealing with race conflict in our state and country, all his comment did was to inflame the racial divide.”
At a time when a third of Florida children tested for the coronavirus are positive, Fried also criticized DeSantis for echoing the White House in ordering all public schools in the state open five days a week.
“Parents, teachers and administrators are worried about opening without flexibility,” she says. “It’s not only irresponsible; it’s cold-hearted.”
Fried’s role in taking on DeSantis has drawn comparisons with her 2018 campaign, in which she went after the NRA, something Sun Belt Democrats rarely did and that has made her the hero of otherwise dispirited Democratic base.
“I’m somebody who’s going to stand up for what I believe in,” she says. “I see both actions doing exactly that.”
As the only statewide elected Democrat, she has been mentioned as a possible challenger to DeSantis in 2022. “Leaders in the Democratic Party are very appreciative of my willingness to stand up and fight for the citizens of my state,” she says.
The state Democratic Party has followed Fried’s lead, with a digital ad that was featured on MSNBC and racked up 300,000 views on Twitter. And on July 17, the state party announced a partnership with Fried to assist legislative candidates in the fall, in hopes of recapturing one or both houses of the legislature.
What effect Fried can have in Florida’s presidential vote is unclear.
“If the number of deaths increases dramatically, along with the number of new cases and the economic recovery is weaker than people expect, then I think Fried’s criticisms will have an effect on voters who will see the pandemic response as a failure of the governor and by extension the president,” says University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett. “Objectively, and in the eyes of most Florida voters, Governor DeSantis and President Trump have been very closely linked on many political and policy issues and the COVID19 response is certainly one of them.”