Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. September 26, 2022.

Editorial: Pete Antonacci was the ultimate right-hand man

Pete Antonacci was around so long, it was natural to assume he would be there forever. But his long career abruptly ended last Friday when he died of a heart attack at 74 while at work for the state. Nobody alive has had a longer, deeper career in Florida government, at both ends of the political spectrum.

Across five decades, he advised the last Democratic attorney general, Bob Butterworth, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. A kid from Hialeah, he went to Tallahassee and adapted to a shifting political environment, which made him a greater fixture at the highest reaches of power. A lawyer who helped direct a historic legal assault on tobacco companies under Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, he became a trusted DeSantis ally and member of the right-leaning Federalist Society. He was a symbol of what happened to Florida itself.

Governors came and went, but Antonacci remained. He was statewide prosecutor, deputy attorney general and legal advisor to former Gov. Rick Scott. As Scott’s highly trusted right-hand man, he was appointed as Palm Beach County state attorney, South Florida Water Management District executive director and chief of Enterprise Florida.

Scott also appointed Antonacci interim Broward supervisor of elections after a messy 2018 election. The choice appalled Democratic partisans at first, but Antonacci exceeded expectations and oversaw a smooth election, despite early problems that we documented. He kept his door open and live-streamed canvassing board meetings for the first time.

For Antonacci, earning Scott’s trust also meant being Scott’s hatchet man.

He had the job of handling the illegal ouster of a commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Gerald Bailey, in 2015. Scott eventually admitted he was wrong, and the ever-loyal Antonacci never discussed that ugly episode. The fiasco never fully receded from the public mind, and Antonacci remained a feared and formidable presence at FDLE headquarters.

His last job was as DeSantis’ first director of the state Office of Election Crimes and Security — a special unit DeSantis formed with the Legislature’s approval to safeguard election integrity but which has been embroiled in controversy from Day One. Antonacci was with DeSantis in the Broward County Courthouse on Aug. 18 as the governor announced the arrests of 20 people, many elderly and Black, on charges of voting illegally, even though the state had the responsibility to flag their ineligibility — but didn’t. It was a partisan spectacle full of hype, meant to intimidate voters.

But running the elections police was the ideal Antonacci assignment: Controversial, important and close to the center of the action.

___

Tampa Bay Times. September 23, 2022.

Editorial: Fiona’s gone. Hurricane season is not

Floridians must prepare as Atlantic heats up.

Puerto Rico was left in misery this week after Hurricane Fiona struck the U.S. territory. With hundreds of thousands of residents lacking clean water, electricity and other basics, U.S. relief agencies need to get the recovery in high gear. And the island’s bad luck should prompt Floridians to prepare for the height of hurricane season.

Fiona struck Puerto Rico’s southwest coast Sunday sparking an islandwide power blackout and lashing ashore with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Bad weather and high winds disrupted transmission lines, leading to “a blackout on all the island,” the island’s power operator said. As of Thursday, four days after the storm, officials said about two-thirds of 1.47 million electricity customers were without power, while more than a third of customers did not have water service. Hundreds of people remain stranded across the island after historic flooding smashed roads and bridges. Emergency workers are still combing the territory to find survivors and assess the damage. This massive relief effort will need Washington’s attention and coordination on the ground — and whatever charitable support the island’s fellow American citizens can muster.

The recovery won’t be quick or easy. Fiona hit just days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that devastated the island in 2017, killing nearly 3,000 and destroying the power grid and other infrastructure. Thousands of homes in Puerto Rico had blue tarps for roofs even as Fiona approached. The storm dumped up to 30 inches of rain in some areas, causing widespread flooding and landslides that washed away cars and homes.

President Joe Biden on Thursday approved Puerto Rico’s request for a major disaster declaration, which will help speed the delivery of assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also deployed hundreds of employees to supplement the 700 staff already living and working there. The administration needs to quickly assess Puerto Rico’s needs. It also needs to kick-start the recovery effort that’s languished after Maria. FEMA has allocated tens of billions of dollars to Puerto Rico to help it rebuild from Maria, but only a fraction of that money has been spent. Washington needs to remove the bureaucratic hurdles and get more involved in the island’s long-term recovery effort.

Fiona is on a track to pass close to Bermuda early Friday and then hit easternmost Canada early Saturday, avoiding a landfall in the mainland United States, according to the National Hurricane Center. But the Atlantic is heating up, with two named storms and three tropical systems, including a system in the southeastern Caribbean Sea that forecast models continue to show is headed for the Gulf of Mexico.

This weekend is a great opportunity for Floridians to prepare. There’s no need to wait longer to stock up on nonperishable food and medicines that will be needed, anyway, in the weeks ahead — or on the bottled water, batteries and other goods that get in short supply as storms systems near. And get those important papers together. It’s all the price of living in Florida.

___

Miami Herald. September 26, 2022.

Editorial: As Florida’s DeSantis roars ‘Onward, Christian soldiers!’ Democrats must get real about religion

Is America a Christian nation?

The United States is a secular nation with no official religion, so the answer is No. But to Republicans such as Florida Gov. DeSantis, simplifying the answer to a Yes is a powerful tool. They’ve found a political gold mine in pitting Christians against the so-called evils of the left, gay and transgender people and teachers accused of pushing a “woke” agenda.

DeSantis’ flirting with Christian nationalism — the belief that America is in God’s plan and was intended to be a Christian nation — as the Herald recently reported, is not new in GOP politics. But it shows where the governor’s mind is. Elected in 2018 by a razor-thin margin in a state long considered purple — Florida has become redder, but it isn’t Mississippi, yet — he appears more concerned with 2024 GOP presidential primary voters. He’s not losing any sleep over alienating middle-of-the-road voters in his state.

But there’s something else to which the other side of the aisle should pay attention.

NO COINCIDENCE

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that, at the same time the GOP ramps up its rhetoric on religious and culture wars, the party makes gains with Hispanic and non-white voters in places like Miami-Dade.

That seems like a contradiction given that Donald Trump based his campaign on anti-immigrant and anti-”other” sentiment. But many of those groups share traditional values espoused by the GOP, religious values being one of them. When religious voters say they feel shamed for talking about God, they should not be derisively dismissed as Bible-thumpers.

Democrats have yet to come up with an effective counter-narrative to DeSantis’ use of war imagery to talk about religion.

“Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes,” DeSantis told an audience at Michigan-based Christian Hillsdale College.

Yes, Democrats appear in some church pulpits to rally their base during election season, and high-profile politicians like President Biden, who’s Catholic, have been open about their faith. But given the onslaught of religious talk in Florida — and the use of government to promote one conservative religious view — Democrats must find a better way to acknowledge the importance of religion and spirituality in people’s lives without crossing the line into proselytizing.

If DeSantis is telling his followers to go fight to shape the nation to their religious liking, the counter-narrative should be that this rhetoric could not only incite violence, but it also undermines Christianity itself. For most Christians, religion doesn’t mean hostility toward your fellow men and those who share different beliefs, as DeSantis makes it seem.

Religion has always been a sticky subject for the left. The Democratic Party has served as a big tent for Catholics, Protestants, religiously unaffiliated people, Jews, Muslims, voters of other religions, atheists and agnostics. While the GOP has been the party of mostly white Christians, Democrats “have been the party of everyone else,” and they can’t “hit the same note time and time again,” said Ryan Burge, an Eastern Illinois University professor who studies the intersection between religion and political behavior.

THE APPEAL

The secularization of America presents challenges to DeSantis’ strategy in the long run. But, as Burge explained, Christian nationalism isn’t appealing only because of religion. To some, it’s nostalgia for the days when traditional values weren’t questioned, when “a woman was a woman and a man was a man,” to quote a common conservative grievance. It’s resistance in the face of the excesses of identity politics, which DeSantis skillfully mislabeled “woke” culture.

There’s a big difference between a leader turning to faith to guide their decisions and turning the state into the vehicle to advance one religious point of view. When the latter happens, the result is often to exclude people who don’t fit the mold. We cannot overlook the overlap between Christian nationalism — and its nostalgia for our “Anglo-Protestant” past — and white supremacy. Many devout Christians enslaved Black people in centuries past. This brings us to present-day data, cited in The New Yorker magazine, that, according to Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan polling and research group, “The more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian.”

DeSantis and other conservative leaders are trying to erode the separation of church and state, a concept Thomas Jefferson wrote of in an 1802 letter and cited in landmark court rulings. Florida taxpayers are now paying for training sessions for public school teachers that deny the Founding Fathers wanted that separation. The Founding Fathers had very nuanced views about religion, as the Herald Editorial Board previously explained.

DeSantis is not alone in this. The majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court chipped away at that wall of separation with a series of recent rulings. With Evangelicals proving to be such an important and faithful voting bloc for Trump, there’s incentive for our ambitious and savvy governor to continue to court them.

Whereas the governor’s Christian nationalist shtick only separates us, the Democrats need to counter it more boldly and bring back into their tent voters who feel that, on the issues of religion and faith, the party has nothing to say to them.

___

Orlando Sentinel. September 23, 2022.

Editorial: The best path to justice in DeSantis’ migrant-flight scandal

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Gov. Ron DeSantis will have to answer for the dubious legality of his cruel stunt that dropped two state-funded planeloads of migrants on the Massachusetts resort community of Martha’s Vineyard. At the very least, he appears to have violated the boundaries of the state budgetary provision that allowed him to spend money on this travesty in the first place. But the real question is whether actual crimes were committed — including, potentially, human trafficking or kidnapping of the 48 vulnerable, impoverished souls who became pawns in the governor’s game.

They had done nothing wrong and all available evidence suggests they were in this country legally. To protect its claim to be the world’s beacon of liberty and virtue, the United States owes them justice.

That means DeSantis and other state (and potentially federal) officials must be held accountable, to the full extent of the law. We believe the best way to accomplish this is through the auspices of a federal grand jury, and call on the U.S. Justice Department to pursue that course of action quickly and with vigor. Other groups agitating for an investigation should direct their resources toward that coordinated quest for the truth.

The alternative could be chaos — which will only benefit the governor and sow confusion among voters, who in just six weeks will be delivering their own verdict on DeSantis’ political future.

A true outrage

We certainly appreciate the outrage and disgust engendered by the governor’s latest abuse of his power to strike against his perceived enemies — magnified by the fact that this particular group of “enemies” had the legal right to be in the United States. Official records and reporting across multiple outlets suggests that most, if not all, of the migrant families and adults on the Martha’s Vineyard flight were seeking asylum from the meltdown wracking Venezuela — people who “have led lives inflicted by violence, instability, insecurity, and abuse of trust by corrupt government officials that most Americans could hardly conceive of,” according to a lawsuit filed this week on their behalf. As such, they had the right to live and work in the United States while they awaited the hearings that will determine their final status.

How ironic, then, that they fell victim once again to a breathtaking abuse of their autonomy and dignity as human beings, reduced to the status of political playthings. That lawsuit, filed in Massachusetts, describes a scheme in which operatives trolled outside shelters “pretending to be good Samaritans,” offering gift cards and promising help with housing, jobs and other needs in Boston while they awaited their official hearings. DeSantis has insisted the migrants were not tricked — and that they knew they were headed to Martha’s Vineyard. So far, nobody who doesn’t work for him has stepped forward to back him up.

One thing, however, has not been disputed: When they arrived, they were abandoned. None of the promised help was there to greet them until the people of Martha’s Vineyard leaped into action.

That’s bad news for the governor and his potential liability, and for the Florida taxpayers who were swindled into footing the bill for this vicious boondoggle with the full support of legislative leaders.

Calls for justice

Along with the lawsuit, officials across the nation — including Florida House Democrats, a Texas sheriff and the governor of California, are calling for investigations. News outlets (including the Orlando Sentinel) are vigorously digging into documents and chasing money trails.

We appreciate the indignation. But we also see a very real potential that pursuing this case on multiple fronts could, at best, be duplicative and costly. At worst, it could offer DeSantis and his defenders multiple opportunities to create confusion about what really happened.

It makes far more sense to coordinate all official investigative efforts through the Justice Department — which should get moving now, and be as transparent about the information it uncovers. That shouldn’t cloud the media’s pursuit for the truth, however. Florida voters deserve as much truth as possible before they vote on whether DeSantis should have a second term, and mail ballots go out in just a few weeks.

Already, there’s a chill in the air.

When DeSantis campaigned with Kansas Republicans last weekend and talked about the flights, he got a standing ovation. But no such standing ovations took place in Florida. Instead, we’re hearing an eerie silence from Republicans who, for once, can see what we all see: DeSantis’s stunt was cruel, inhumane, possibly illegal -- and definitely politically dumb. Where’s your ringing endorsement of DeSantis’s actions, Sen. Rick Scott? Sen. Marco Rubio? Members of Congress? GOP legislators? Republican candidates?

Meanwhile, The Miami Herald has documented a third flight that DeSantis’ people are now claiming designed to “punk” the media. Really, governor? That’s a valid use of state funding?

Even more important: Is it the truth? We know now is that, per the Herald, migrants were gathered for that flight, and then turned away. The flight left with no cargo.

That’s a shocking waste of state dollars. Florida leaders know that the money authorized by the Legislature was clearly targeted toward the relocation of undocumented migrants — not legal asylum seekers. And that the funds were only authorized to be spent in Florida, not Texas.

But we also believe they understand, finally and when it’s almost too late, that this despicable fiasco is not about immigration, which everyone agrees is a brewing crisis. It’s about a governor gone renegade and — perhaps, finally, having gone too far.

Florida’s governor has brought shame upon his state. The only path to redemption lies in a rapid and vigorous pursuit of the truth, in all its ugly reality.

END