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Ron DeSantis, unconstrained by constitutional checks, is flexing his power in Florida ahead of 2024 decision

<i>Marco Bello/Reuters</i><br/>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
REUTERS
Marco Bello/Reuters
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

By Steve Contorno, CNN

When Gov. Ron DeSantis abruptly suspended Tampa’s elected prosecutor last week, it was not accomplished in a late-night sacking or buried in a 5 p.m. Friday press release. Rather, DeSantis summoned reporters and cameras for a midday media event, as he does several times a week, stood before officers in uniform and elected allies and matter-of-factly walked through his decision to kneecap a twice-elected Democratic official.

It was a striking scene, not just for its extraordinary outcome, but for how it had been choreographed. The event was premeditated to trigger — as his spokeswoman 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 Jan. 6th moment.”

The ruthless display of raw political power in removing Hillsborough County state attorney Andrew Warren, however brazen and unprecedented, was merely the latest example of a new reality in Florida: DeSantis is governing unconstrained by the traditional checks on executive authority. In the last eight months, DeSantis orchestrated a new law to exact revenge on Disney amid a political feud with the entertainment giant, bulldozed an aggressively partisan redrawing of congressional boundaries through the state legislature and pushed nearly every facet of state government to the front lines of the culture wars. And he has done it all with limited dissent from the Republicans who control the other branches of government in Florida.

As he seeks a second term in November, and weighs a potential bid for president in 2024, the full weight of this amassed power is also beginning to crystalize. If reelected — and with a nine-figure fundraising advantage, the odds are heavily in his favor — there appears to be little to stop him from pushing through an agenda that would further transform Florida for an audience of future GOP primary voters.

“DeSantis has a blank check,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, a private school in Fort Lauderdale. “There is no part of the constitution now that is protecting democracy because the checks and balances on him have been completely eviscerated. If he wins, he’ll spin it as a mandate and say, ‘If Floridians didn’t like any of what I did, they would’ve vote me out.’ “

DeSantis justified the removal of Warren as necessary to protect Floridians from an elected official who won’t follow the law. Warren had pledged in a pair of letters to use prosecutorial discretion to not go after people who seek abortions or gender affirming care as well as those who provide those services.

“That is not how a rule of law can operate and ultimately, you cannot have safe and strong communities,” DeSantis said.

His critics have bristled at these decisive and contentious actions as an overreach of his office. The two leading Democratic candidates for governor in Florida, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist, likened DeSantis to a dictator after he suspended Warren.

But they have also solidified DeSantis as the only Republican who consistently challenges former President Donald Trump in polls looking ahead to the 2024 presidential primary, and they earn DeSantis plenty of free airtime on conservative media. DeSantis went straight 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 lauded DeSantis for “finally doing something more than whine.”

DeSantis is also building up his influence nationwide. This week, he blasted the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, calling it a “weaponization of federal agencies.” And next week, he’ll 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 hosting 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 targets for a second term, when his actions will be closely watched amid the expected 2024 buzz. He recently said he wants to punish financial institutions that consider factors like environmental destruction or societal good when making investment decisions, which he has derided as “woke banking.” DeSantis has also vowed to change gun ownership laws to allow people to carry firearms in public without a license or prior training. Democrats are bracing for further restrictions on abortion after DeSantis promised to “expand pro-life protections,” though he hasn’t yet said how far he will go.

“Previously, under past Republican governors, you could expect policies to have a conservative bent,” said state House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell. “But this is not a conservative bent, this is a DeSantis bent. 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 it will stand in DeSantis’ way. Instead, they have balked in the face of DeSantis’ growing popularity. After Republican lawmakers spent months carefully crafting a new congressional map, DeSantis blew up the redistricting process by introducing one of his own that eliminated two districts represented by Black Democrats. Republicans at first resisted, but ultimately caved, and are now defending the new boundaries in a legal challenge.

Then, later in year, they quickly got on board when DeSantis’ office authored legislation that punished Disney, the state’s largest employer, for wading into Florida’s fight over a contentious new law to restrict the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. And two months after that, top legislative leaders cheered DeSantis on as he announced he was using his line-item veto power to slash their agreed-upon budget by $3 billion and eliminate many of their pet priorities.

“The dynamics have been this way for the last two years,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg. “I think it maintains its trajectory.”

Brandes is the rare Republican who has publicly criticized DeSantis, but he’s also reaching his term limit this year. He’s leaving behind a legislature that is far more conservative than when he entered office in 2012 and one that will be shaped considerably by DeSantis, who has waded into GOP primaries, at times boosting candidates over others preferred by legislative leadership in his party.

Whether DeSantis continues to amass authority “really depends on whether the House and Senate and courts see themselves as independent bodies that are there to provide a check and balance to the system,” Brandes said. “If they forget that or if they believe that’s not necessary, then we go down one path. But if just one of those groups stand up and say, ‘We have a different perspective,’ I think you’ll see a different outcome.”

The Florida constitution gives the state Senate authority to reinstate Warren. Few expect it will. Senate leaders declined to publicly comment on the suspension, but in a telling series of post, the presumptive Speaker of the House for 2023, Rep. Paul Renner, applauded DeSantis on Twitter minutes after he suspended Warren, calling it a “decisive action.”

“The Florida way puts public safety first,” Renner wrote.

Warren has vowed to mount a legal challenge, arguing 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 judge to the high court, meaning a majority of the seven-member panel owe their jobs to DeSantis.

Jarvis, who teaches the Florida constitution and has written textbooks on the topic, said lawmakers did not envision a DeSantis-type executive when they wrote the latest version of the state constitution in 1968. They drew up a system of government that vested within the Legislature the authority to overrule the governor on several fronts, including appointments and suspensions, and oversight of executive administration. They initially placed considerable power in the hands of a Cabinet, six independently and constitutionally elected state executives who served alongside the governor.

With those checks, the constitution also awarded the governor incredible discretion to suspend elected officials for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony.” Past governors have used the power sparingly to remove elected officials accused of egregious actions or violations of local trust, said Susan MacManus, a retired political science professor and the foremost expert of Florida’s political history.

However, Warren was not suspended for anything he had done, but for something he suggested he someday would not do. If that is the standard for removing someone from office, then, Jarvis said, there is little to stop DeSantis from removing any official he disagrees with — an alarming reality given that his administration has labeled political dissenters “groomers” and characterized Democrats as lawless socialists.

“This is sending a message to every other officer that 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 remove you.”

MacManus said it’s presumptive to speculate that DeSantis in a second term won’t face new headwinds or changing sentiment from voters and fellow lawmakers. There are polls that show large swaths of voters fear for the future of democracy, though they often clash with other surveys that suggest crime remains a top issue for much of the country, she noted.

“It looks insurmountable right now, but politics shift, issues shift,” she said. “A snap of a finger, things can change.”

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