Floridians wonder if DeSantis will change now that he's not running for president
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave his annual State of the State speech last month, he was introduced by a Republican ally as, "America's governor," and got loud applause from the majority-GOP legislature.
But that was shortly before he suspended his candidacy for president. Now Floridians wonder what kind of governor he will be - the culture warrior of the last couple years or more of the bridge builder he showed flashes of earlier.
DeSantis built his national reputation as a combative conservative. He signed a six-week abortion banthat's still caught up in court battles. He removed from office an elected prosecutor who opposed abortion prosecutions.
He challenged some of the books available in public schools and backed restrictions on how gender, sexual identity and history could be taught in classes.
He battled Disney after the company's leaders criticized the governor's LGBTQ policy - stripping Walt Disney World of its special self-governing district status.
DeSantis proclaimed Florida the place where "woke goes to die." His critics viewed his moves as anti-Black, anti-woman, and anti-LGBTQ.
But it hasn't always been that way. After his first election in 2018, DeSantis' looked a lot different.He pardoned four Black men wrongfully accused of a 1949 rape. He appointed a Democratto lead the state's emergency management agency. And Florida, like the rest of the nation, went on lockdown early in the pandemic.
Now, upon his return to Florida from the campaign trail, many wonder which version of DeSantis will show up next.
"He needs to remain active, but in perhaps in my judgment, a less controversial way," said Mac Stipanovich, a retired lobbyist and political strategist who long worked for Republicans. Today he's a registered independent. Stipanovich says DeSantis has to repair his public image after a primary run that shone a light on sometimes-awkward encounters with voters.
"I mean, his image basically, is that he's a mean, little vindictive man, always angry, always outraged, always against somebody. He could stand to soften that image a lot," Stipanovich said.
He said DeSantis's policies are having very real impacts on the lives of Floridians.
"There are teachers losing their jobs for doing their jobs. People who aren't hurting anybody - the drag queen on Sunday morning at brunch," Stipanovich said. "Today, the government of the state of Florida tells me, as a businessman, what I can tell my employees about race! How is that Conservative?"
Observers say DeSantis' combative style has taken a toll on employees inside state agencies.
"I know that people in state government, a great many people feel like they are in prison," says the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., a Tallahassee pastor and civil rights activist. "They have lost their voice, lost their place."
Holmes is former-Republican-turned-independent who has been friendly with several Florida governors--but not this one. He's been critical of DeSantis' approach, especially on race.
"I'm not his enemy," Holmes said. "I thought I could have a relationship with Gov. DeSantis. But that has not worked. I'm not against him. I'm against his policies."
Democrats are wary of the governor's return from the national race and what he may do now back home.
"I thought it was good he was preoccupied, certainly, and let us do our job," says Florida Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book. Of DeSantis' failure on the campaign trail, she says, "I think the rest of the country didn't want to be Florida'd, or his version of Florida."
DeSantis says his policies have attracted people from other states where politicians put "ideology over sound policy."
"Here in the Sunshine State, we have delivered good government that protects liberty and maintains order. We have won the unprecedented backing of a populace reflective of our country at large," he said in his State of the State speech.
Florida Republicans now far outnumber Democrats and DeSantis won his second term in 2022 by a wide margin.
And this week he said he's not slowing down in the aftermath of his presidential run.
"I got right back in the saddle here," DeSantis told reporters. "You know, whenever I have an opportunity to make a difference I'm going to do [something]. You're not going to see me go on, like some hibernation where I'm like saying, 'oh, woe is me'. That's just not how I am."
As he's reminding people now, he has three years left in office, and still wields the veto pen.
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