Few knew what to expect from Ron DeSantis when he was first elected governor of Florida in 2018 as a little-known congressman. He had barely managed a victory. He had almost no ties to the State Capitol. His political agenda seemed unclear.
But he knew, at least, how he wanted to govern: he ordered his attorney general to find out how far a governor could carry his authority. He pored over a folder that listed his various powers: appointing Florida Supreme Court justices, removing local elected officials and exercising vetoes of articles against state legislators.
He then systematically deployed each one.
Four years later, Mr. DeSantis is about to enter the 2024 Republican presidential primary race on the promise that he would make the country more conservative, just as he did in Florida, using almost any means necessary to impose his right vision. .
“What I was able to bring to the governor’s office was an understanding of how a constitutional form of government works, the various pressure points that exist, and how best to leverage authority to achieve substantive political victories,” said Mr. DeSantis, a Harvard student. “Educated lawyer,” he wrote in his recent book, “The Courage to Be Free,” which he described his systematic approach to using executive power.
Mr. DeSantis’s willingness to wield that power in extraordinary ways has led him to break the law, defy the legal limits of his position and threaten political retaliation against those who cross him. Unlike former President Donald J. Trump, the leading 2024 Republican candidate who sees the governor as his main rival, Mr. DeSantis is a keen student of American government who has tactically and methodically expanded his influence, using detailed knowledge of the limits flexibility of your office in your favor.
“He’s the most powerful governor Florida has ever seen,” said Jeff Brandes, a former state senator and a rare Republican who has raised concerns about DeSantis’ use of power. Democrats have been scathing in their assessment of him, describing the governor in words usually reserved for foreign demagogues.
“Americans want to live in a democracy with freedoms,” Nikki Fried, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter this week, “and not under an authoritarian regime.”
Jeremy T. Redfern, press secretary in the governor’s office, rejected the claim that the governor has overstepped the bounds of his authority, calling it “nonsense” and a “leftist talking point.”
Removal of elected officials
Mr. DeSantis was elected by just 32,463 votes in 2018, a margin so narrow it required a recount and could have prompted him not to “make waves,” the governor wrote in his book. Instead, three days after taking office in January 2019, he suspended Broward County’s Democratic sheriff-elect for his handling of the Parkland high school shooting a year earlier.
That moment warned the state that Mr. DeSantis did not intend to govern like his predecessors, who typically suspended elected officials only if they had been charged with crimes.
“I got 50 percent of the vote,” DeSantis told Republicans at a dinner this month, “but that gave me the right to exercise 100 percent executive power.”
Mr. DeSantis has continued to target local elected officials. In 2019, he removed the Palm Beach County Democratic supervisor of elections from her position for her handling of the 2018 recount. Mr. DeSantis called the suspensions necessary for accountability.
Last August, Mr. DeSantis suspended four Broward County school board members, citing a special grand jury investigation into school safety lapses that he had petitioned the Republican-led state Supreme Court. The four ousted were Democrats who had been elected since the shooting; Mr. DeSantis replaced them with Republicans.
That same month, he suspended Andrew H. Warren, Tampa’s top prosecutor, after Warren, a Democrat, vowed not to criminalize abortion. The governor did not cite any specific cases that Warren had not prosecuted, and records showed that the removal had been driven by politics.
A federal judge ruled that while Mr. DeSantis went too far in suspending Mr. Warren, the court had no authority to reinstate him. Mr. Warren has appealed.
Accumulate power during a pandemic
While Mr. DeSantis showed an early interest in consolidating power in his office, the covid pandemic allowed him to centralize and expand his authority. During the declared emergency in 2020, the Governor had and used the authority to spend $5 billion in federal aid without legislative approval.
He went further than that, banning local mask and vaccination mandates, calling the Legislature into special session to make those bans law, and threatening to withhold pay from public school district administrators who tried to defy him.
His hard line helped him build a broader national profile and seemed to push DeSantis to govern more assertively, especially when it came to heated cultural issues popular with his political base. He reached deep into his administration to force shadowy agencies and boards to enact his policies.
The governor packed state hospital and university boards with like-minded appointees, eventually orchestrating the takeover of New College of Florida, a public liberal arts school in Sarasota that he and his allies hope to turn into a conservative stronghold. Two state medical boards whose members were appointed by the governor have banned gender transition care for minors, and education regulators have expanded the ban on classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.
More recently, he has used the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to try to strip liquor licenses from a Miami restaurant, a Miami hotel and an Orlando theater because children have attended drag shows at the venues.
“What’s scary in Florida is that we’re seeing continued efforts by the governor to consolidate power under his own power so there are no checks and balances for what he does,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy adviser at American Florida Civil Liberties Union.
Mr. DeSantis has also relied on raw political power and retaliatory threats, often directed at allies.
He has intervened in legislative races, where his endorsement has helped him pack the Legislature with loyal Republicans and sent a clear message to lawmakers to get in line or possibly face a primary challenge. Last fall, he turned to school board races, working with Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group, to publish a list of endorsements for seats that aren’t technically partisan.
During redistricting last year, when senators drew a map of Congress that Mr. DeSantis did not like, he vetoed it and forced lawmakers to adopt a map he had submitted, the first time anyone in the The State Capitol could remember a governor making such a decision. reckless step.
The Senate initially resisted Mr. DeSantis’ map, which eliminated a majority-black district in North Florida and effectively gave Republicans four more seats in Congress. But lawmakers knew DeSantis could use endorsements and primaries as a stick. In fact, he didn’t endorse the Senate president’s campaign for state agriculture commissioner until the chamber delivered his map to the governor. (The map is still facing a court challenge.)
The episode that best crystallized the Legislature’s deference to Mr. DeSantis, however, involved an enemy Florida Republicans previously would have been reluctant to face: the Walt Disney Company, one of Florida’s largest taxpayers.
When Disney’s CEO at the time opposed legislation last year restricting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, Mr. DeSantis didn’t hesitate to back down. He called on lawmakers to strip Disney’s special tax district of many of its powers, pitting traditionally pro-business lawmakers against Florida’s most famous corporate giant.
The standoff dragged on into this year, with Disney taking steps to limit the state’s new oversight board and the state fighting back to undo Disney’s plans. Disney recently sued Florida in federal court and canceled a billion-dollar development near Orlando.
It’s far from clear that Mr. DeSantis will win his battle with Disney. Still, he sees political advantages in bragging that he didn’t bow to corporate pressure.
After the sugar industry endorsed his opponent in the 2018 Republican primary, DeSantis, in his first week in office, signed a water quality executive order that targeted some of the industry’s polluting practices.
“While Big Sugar didn’t like it,” DeSantis wrote in his book, “most people across the political spectrum in Florida were thrilled.”
Lawmakers have been so quick to comply with Mr. DeSantis’s orders that they have repeatedly had to return to the State Capitol to retroactively grant the governor authority for actions already taken.
“We had a recent seventh special session, which is supposed to be an extraordinary measure, basically to clear all the unfinished business,” state Sen. Jason WB Pizzo, a Democrat, said earlier this year. “A colleague referred to this as ‘cleaning in aisle five’ for the governor.”
During that session, held in February, lawmakers passed legislation detailing their authority over Disney’s special tax district. But they also amended laws passed last year that had bogged down the DeSantis administration in the courts.
Mr. DeSantis created an election crime bureau in 2022 that brought fraud charges against people who may have improperly cast ballots. But the judges threw out case after case, saying state prosecutors lacked the authority to bring those charges. Lawmakers changed the law this year to explicitly empower prosecutors.
Lawmakers also removed language that had complicated the governor’s legal justification for moving Venezuelan immigrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts last summer. The original language adopted in 2022 gave the DeSantis administration the authority to transport migrants “from this state,” not Texas, Pizzo argued in a lawsuit after the Martha’s Vineyard stunt. In the February special session, lawmakers dropped that phrase and expanded DeSantis’ authority to transport migrants from anywhere in the country.
“He completely controls the Legislature,” Pizzo said.
Last week, Mr. DeSantis used his influence to win support for his presidential campaign. His political team announced the endorsement of 99 of the state’s 113 Republican lawmakers, even as some privately said they felt pressured to support DeSantis for fear that he might otherwise veto the bills or spending. of the.
If Mr. DeSantis were to win the White House, he would likely face tougher opposition in Washington than in Tallahassee. There have already been signs of division: Last month, 11 of the 20 Republican representatives in Florida’s congressional delegation endorsed Trump over DeSantis.
Alexandra Berzon and Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.