(CNN) — When Gov. Ron DeSantis abruptly suspended Tampa’s attorney-elect last week, he didn’t do it in an overnight firing or bury it in a 5 p.m. Friday press release. Rather, DeSantis convened reporters and cameras for a midday media event, as he does several times a week, stood in front of elected officials and allies, and matter-of-factly explained his decision to suspend an official. twice elected Democrat.
It was an amazing scene, not only because of its extraordinary result, but because of the way it was choreographed. The act was premeditated to trigger, as his spokesman wrote on Twitter the night before, “the liberal media meltdown of the year.” Pat Kemp, a Democrat who sits on the local Hillsborough County commission, described it as “our own January 6th.”
The ruthless display of raw political power in removing Hillsborough County State’s Attorney Andrew Warren as brazen and unprecedented was but the latest example of a new reality in Florida: DeSantis is ruling without the constraints of checks and balances. traditional executive authority. Over the past eight months, DeSantis has orchestrated a new law to get back at Disney amid a political feud with the entertainment giant, sweeping an aggressively partisan redistricting of Congress through the state legislature and pushing nearly every facet from state government to the front lines of the culture wars. And he has done it all with little dissent from the Republicans who control the other branches of the State of Florida.
As he seeks a second term in November, and weighs a possible presidential run in 2024, the full weight of this accumulated power is also beginning to crystallize. If he is re-elected, and with a nine-figure fundraising lead the odds are heavily in his favor, there appears to be little to stop him from pushing an agenda that further transforms Florida for an audience of future primary voters. Republican Party.
“DeSantis has a blank check,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, a private school in Fort Lauderdale. “Now there is no part of the constitution that protects democracy because the checks and balances on him have been completely eviscerated. If he wins, he will interpret it as a mandate and say, ‘If Floridians didn’t like anything I did, I would have been kicked out.'”
DeSantis justified Warren’s removal as necessary to protect Floridians from an elected official who does not follow the law. Warren had pledged in a pair of letters to use prosecutorial discretion not to prosecute people who seek abortions or gender-affirming care, as well as those who provide those services.
“That’s not how the rule of law can work, and ultimately you can’t have safe and strong communities,” DeSantis said.
His critics have described these decisive and controversial actions as an overreach of his office. The two leading Democratic candidates for Florida governor, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist, compared DeSantis to a dictator after Warren’s suspension.
But they have also cemented DeSantis as the only Republican to consistently challenge former President Donald Trump in the polls heading into the 2024 presidential primary, earning DeSantis a lot of free airtime in conservative media. DeSantis jumped right from Thursday’s suspension announcement to an interview with Fox News Digital. He then appeared on the network during prime time, where Fox host Tucker Carlson praised DeSantis for “finally doing more than complaining.”
DeSantis is also growing his influence nationally. This week, he lashed out at the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, calling it “weaponry by federal agencies.” And next week, he will headline rallies for GOP candidates in New Mexico, Arizona, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Charlie Kirk, the president of Turning Point America, the conservative organization that is organizing the rallies, called DeSantis “the model for a new conservative movement” when he announced the planned events.
DeSantis has already laid out some of his future goals for a second term, when his actions will be closely watched amid the expectation of 2024. He has recently said he wants to punish financial institutions that take into account factors like environmental destruction. or the good of society when making investment decisions, which he has described as “woke banking”. DeSantis has also promised to change gun ownership laws to allow people to carry firearms in public without a license or prior training. Democrats are bracing for new abortion restrictions after DeSantis promised to “expand anti-abortion protections,” though she has yet to say how far she will go.
“Previously, under previous Republican governors, you could expect policies to have a conservative slant,” said state House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell. “But this isn’t a conservative leaning, it’s a DeSantis leaning. It’s not about what the party wants, it’s about what he wants.”
The Republican-controlled legislature has so far done little to suggest that it will stand in the way of DeSantis. Instead, they have resisted in the face of DeSantis’ growing popularity. After Republican lawmakers spent months painstakingly crafting a new map of Congress, DeSantis blew up the redistricting process by introducing his own that eliminated two districts represented by black Democrats. Republicans initially resisted but eventually relented, and are now defending the new limits in a legal challenge.
Then they quickly agreed when DeSantis’ office signed into law legislation that punished Disney, the state’s largest employer, for meddling in Florida’s fight over a controversial new law to restrict the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. schools. And two months after that, top legislative leaders cheered DeSantis on when he announced that he was using his line veto power to cut $3 billion from their agreed budget and eliminate many of his pet priorities.
“The dynamic has been like this for the last two years,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg. “I think it keeps track of him.”
Brandes is the rare Republican who has publicly criticized DeSantis, but is also nearing his term limit this year. Brandes will leave behind a legislature that is far more conservative than when he entered office in 2012 and will be shaped considerably by DeSantis, who has scrambled into GOP primaries, at times pushing candidates over others favored by the Republican Party. legislative leadership of his party.
Whether DeSantis continues to amass authority “really depends on whether the House and the Senate and the courts see themselves as independent bodies that are there to provide a check and balance to the system,” Brandes said. “If they forget about that or if they think it’s not necessary, then we’re going down one road. But if just one of those groups stands up and says, ‘We have a different perspective,’ I think you’re going to see another result.”
Florida’s constitution gives the state Senate the authority to reinstate Warren. Few expect him to. Senate leaders declined to comment publicly on the suspension, but in a series of revealing posts, the House’s presumptive for 2023, Rep. Paul Renner, applauded DeSantis on Twitter minutes after he suspended Warren, calling it ” decisive action.
“Florida’s path puts public safety first,” Renner wrote.
Warren has vowed to pursue a legal appeal, arguing that DeSantis has overstepped his constitutional authority. That case would likely end up before the state Supreme Court, a panel appointed entirely by Republican governors. On Friday, DeSantis nominated his fourth justice to the high court, meaning the majority of the seven-member panel owes DeSantis its job.
Jarvis, who teaches Florida’s constitution and has written textbooks on the subject, said lawmakers did not envision a DeSantis-type executive when they wrote the latest version of the state constitution in 1968. They crafted a system of government that gave to the Legislature the authority to override the governor on several fronts, including appointments and removals, and oversight of executive administration. Initially, they gave considerable power to a Cabinet, six independently and constitutionally elected state executives who acted alongside the Governor.
With those checks, the Constitution also gave the governor incredible discretion to suspend elected officials for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform their official duties, or commission of a felony.” Past governors have used this power sparingly to remove elected officials accused of egregious actions or breaches of local trust, said Susan MacManus, a retired political science professor and the leading expert on Florida political history.
However, Warren was not suspended for anything he had done, but for something he suggested he would not do one day. If that’s the standard for removing someone, then, Jarvis said, there’s little to stop DeSantis from removing any official he disagrees with, an alarming reality given that his administration has labeled political dissidents “groomers.” , a term that refers to pedophiles, and has characterized the Democrats as lawless socialists.
“This sends a message to every other officer who is subject to his suspension power, ‘If you don’t toe the line or if I see you as a political threat, I won’t hesitate to suspend you,'” Jarvis said. “And I know the Senate will impeach you.”
MacManus said it’s presumptuous to speculate that DeSantis in a second term won’t face new obstacles or a change in sentiment among voters and fellow lawmakers. There are polls showing that large swathes of voters fear for the future of democracy, though they often clash with other polls that suggest crime remains a major problem for much of the country, he noted.
“Right now it seems insurmountable, but politics change, issues change,” he said. “Things can change with a snap.”