Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. August 27, 2021.

Editorial: On campaign money, DeSantis doth protest too much

What’s with Gov. Ron DeSantis and his spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw?

Their high-volume squawking over an Associated Press story about his biggest campaign contributor has been so over the top and out of proportion to the article itself that it calls to mind Shakespeare’s phrase, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” That has been a metaphor for suspicious insincerity ever since “Hamlet.”

Team DeSantis’ outrage may be mostly about discouraging more questions about all the money it’s raising.

To recap, the AP story noted that “a top donor” to DeSantis (his largest donor, actually) also has a $15.9 million corporate investment in Regeneron Pharmaceutical, the company makes the monoclonal antibody treatment that the governor is promoting heavily in Florida to reduce hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.

The article noted that DeSantis actively opposes face mask and vaccination mandates that could prevent COVID infections. It also quoted Pushaw’s observation that donor Ken Griffin’s Chicago-based hedge fund has even bigger stakes in vaccine producers Pfizer and Moderna, and that the fund’s Regeneron investment was a tiny share of its $39 billion portfolio.

Nothing in the article could be interpreted to accuse or even imply corruption on the governor’s part or discourage patients from seeking antibody treatments. It was simply timely reporting on yet another of the innumerable coincidences involving campaign supporters. But it provoked an eruption from the governor’s press secretary, whose $120,000 salary should be paid by the campaign, not taxpayers.

The AP report would have been a one-day story had it not been for Pushaw insistently tweeting and forwarding provocative comments that brought online abuse to reporter Brendan Farrington and got her Twitter account frozen for 12 hours. A complaint from AP’s top management prompted a petulant outburst from the governor himself, who spouted yet another Donald Trump-style complaint about “corporate media” that “continue to push false political hit pieces trying to hurt me.”

That’s likely what this is about. Like Trump, DeSantis relishes every pretext to play the victim card in the high-stakes game of campaign finance. He was quick with an e-mail blast crying phony tears over “this latest partisan smear campaign from the AP,” and there he was saying it again on Fox “News.”

(For the record, the AP is a notably nonpartisan news source. Democrats as well as Republicans have chafed under its objective reporting.)

Given the underlying issue, though, DeSantis should think twice about drawing more attention to how much money he raises and where he gets it.

There is something simply deeply, irredeemably wrong with a system in which anyone can give $10.75 million to a candidate. That’s what Griffin has given to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee over the past three years. The fund has raised $90.6 million since DeSantis openly began running for governor in January 2018. He has $58 million on hand for next year’s re-election.

Since 2018, the fund has scored 150 donations of $100,000 or more, including $500,000 from the late Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife; $320,000 directly from Associated Industries of Florida, a top business lobbying group; and $555,000 from a PAC called Conservative Principles for Florida, whose contributors include insurance giant Florida Blue at $410,000 and Koch Industries — yes, those Kochs — at $120,000.

DeSantis reports $665,000 from a PAC called the Florida Prosperity Fund, whose contributors are a who’s who of influence. They include Disney Worldwide Services for $640,000; Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar, $5 million between them; Florida Power and Light, some $1 million; and various components of HCA, the hospital company, in for $5.2 million.

This is how the political world works. Large contributors spread their wealth beyond what they give directly to candidates, laundering the rest through other committees that disburse it further, often backing the same candidates.

The cumulative effect is to secure the election and re-election of politicians whose policies satisfy the corporations and individuals who give the money. There is rarely if ever a specific quid pro quo for any particular donation, nor does there need to be. It’s enough for Florida Power & Light, Florida Blue or the Big Sugar companies to know they’re helping to elect dependable allies. They know that when they do call, their calls will be answered.

Griffin’s wishes can be inferred from his record. In Illinois, he was the largest contributor to a campaign to defeat an initiative to raise the state income tax on billionaires like himself. He would surely be comfortable with DeSantis as president.

Although federal law bars state PACs like DeSantis’s from spending in federal races, he is already using his to accrue name recognition and supporter lists nationwide as well as an enormous financial lead in the race for re-election as governor, a must-win if he runs for president.

In 2014, a well-documented article in the Journal of the American Political Science Association established that the U.S. had became an oligarchy, defined as “government by the few… in which a small group exercises control.”

Correlating opinion polls with the known wishes of powerful special interests in regard to nearly 1,800 policy issues, the authors pointed out that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy. … When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”

That’s how it works in Florida, too. That’s what DeSantis and spokesman Pushaw don’t want you to know.

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Orlando Sentinel. August 30, 2021.

Editorial: If DeSantis won’t say it, we will: Thanks, Miami Herald, for exposing group’s abuses and saving Florida millions

Last week we learned that Florida was recouping more than $5 million from the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which had been fleecing the state for years.

At a news conference in Orlando, Gov. Ron DeSantis thanked Attorney General Ashley Moody for her role in the settlement. Then Moody took the podium and thanked DeSantis for his leadership. Both thanked lawmakers for pursuing the matter.

Here’s who Moody and DeSantis should have thanked, but didn’t: The Miami Herald.

The Herald’s 2018 reporting first revealed that Tiffany Carr, executive director of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, had been paid the absurd sum of $761,560 the prior year, thanks to pay raises of more than $300,000 granted by the group’s board of directors. The Herald also found that the board’s directors were involved in separate programs that were getting funding from the coalition, a glaring conflict of interest for directors.

The administration of Rick Scott, who was governor at the time, was clueless. So was the state Department of Children and Families, which oversaw the publicly funded coalition’s work. Scott had questioned Carr’s compensation back in 2012 when she was making about $300,000 per year, but then dropped it.

The Herald’s reporting on Carr’s salary six years later triggered multiple inquiries and investigations that, ultimately, resulted in the multimillion-dollar settlement that DeSantis and Moody were patting themselves on the back about last week.

But neither could bring themselves to acknowledge the Herald’s role. The closest DeSantis came was a vague reference to early “reports” showing Carr’s excessive salary. Not media reports. Not Miami Herald reports. Just “reports.”

We’re not surprised. The governor’s antipathy toward the media is boundless, even when the media are serving state government’s best interests by revealing wrongdoing and waste. And officials like Moody take all their cues from the governor.

DeSantis is intent on following the playbook of his political mentor and benefactor, Donald Trump, in portraying the media as the enemy. DeSantis employs a spokeswoman whose primary role in her publicly funded job is trolling the media on Twitter.

Absent the Herald’s reporting, Florida likely would have gone on its merry way, blissfully unaware that an agency enshrined in state law to provide domestic violence services was gouging taxpayers to enrich its executive director.

You wouldn’t know it from listening to state officials, but news organizations in Florida, depleted as they may be, perform this kind of public service all the time.

The Orlando Sentinel’s dogged reporting over the past year of possible election wrongdoing and the role of dark money has shamed the state into launching what it’s calling a “preliminary investigation.”

Sentinel reporters uncovered a complex web of shady, political nonprofits that have funneled dark money into various campaigns, including a Central Florida state Senate race with ties to a possible election-fraud case in South Florida.

Authorities who are supposed to enforce state law did their mightiest to ignore the Sentinel’s reporting or pass the buck, but they finally relented.

In Pasco County, the Tampa Bay Times revealed last year that Sheriff Chris Nocco had used schoolkids’ grades and family violence histories to develop a secret database of potential criminals. His department also created a separate list of potential criminals who then became targets of harassment and intimidation by deputies.

News organizations across the state have been tireless in their 18-month coverage of the pandemic, from its impact on schools and businesses to the toll it’s taken on schools and the health care system to the state’s spectacular failures in paying unemployment benefits to people who lost their jobs.

Data reporters across the state have crunched numbers so the public can better understand the pandemic and its continuing threats to health and the economy.

There was the Herald’s game-changing investigation of Jeffrey Epstein, the Sentinel’s stories about state-sanctioned discrimination of gay kids at voucher schools, the Tallahassee Democrat’s coverage of City Hall corruption.

Even if state government officials in their lofty positions don’t like some of that reporting, it takes a real effort to hold a news conference about the domestic violence coalition’s spending and fail to acknowledge that, without the media’s scrutiny, the state might never have clawed back all that money.

So if Ron DeSantis and Ashley Moody won’t say it, we will: Thank you, Miami Herald, for exposing the excesses of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Your work ultimately saved the state millions.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

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Tampa Bay Times. August 30, 2021.

Editorial: Florida and the nation must welcome the Afghans who helped us fight our 20-year war

The United States owes Afghan immigrants at least that much.

The devolving situation in Afghanistan has posed many impossible choices, but this one should be easy: welcoming Afghan immigrants to the United States. After two decades of conflict and occupation, we have an obligation to help resettle Afghan families whose lives have been capsized. More fundamentally, our nation is made stronger and richer by immigrants who come here to work, build lives and add to our magnificent melting pot.

Once the U.S. completed its military withdrawal, the Taliban wrested back power with astonishing speed — suddenly imperiling ordinary Afghans, in particular, those who aided the American occupation, not to mention girls and women who face a return to repressive conditions under Islamic rule. Afghan citizens had enjoyed a tenuous freedom as long as the central government was propped up by the U.S. presence, but with the Taliban’s resurgence it was easy to see that way of life disappearing into the vortex of the American retreat.

It will be important to analyze all the ways President Joe Biden could have orchestrated a smoother withdrawal and better protected Afghan civilians and our own soldiers. As chaos and desperation intensified outside the Kabul airport following the Taliban takeover, the heinous terrorist attack on Aug. 26 that killed 13 U.S. troops and hundreds of Afghan civilians bore the grim pall of predictability. But all that has little bearing on the worthiness of Afghan immigrants.

Just like the Vietnamese after Vietnam, Bosnians after the Bosnian War and countless other examples, immigrants who come to America for a better life, in turn, make our country and our communities better. We need immigrants to grow the U.S. population after years of declining birth rates and to address worker shortages at all levels of the economy. Despite fear-mongering rhetoric to the contrary, immigrants are not a drain on the nation, nor are they a threat. Years of research indicates that immigrants are more likely to have jobs and less likely to commit crimes than citizens who are born here.

The vast majority of Afghan refugees don’t come to the U.S., settling in countries closer to home. Pakistan, which shares a 1,600-mile border with Afghanistan, has taken in the most Afghans for years, along with Iran and Turkey. Now with the country in such disorder, a worldwide effort is required to avert a full-blown refugee crisis. The U.S. must and will be part of that coordination, vetting Afghan arrivals just like any other legal immigrant, and providing support services once they’re here.

Local efforts to do just that are already under way in a heartening display of citizenship and service. Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services and Radiant Hands are two of the groups helping Afghan arrivals with housing and transportation in the immediate term. Radiant Hands also runs businesses that employ immigrants so they can quickly begin working and learning useful skills. This ground-level work will need to be replicated on a massive scale to ensure Afghan immigrants have a real opportunity to become fully contributing members of society.

Afghans have composed one of the world’s largest refugee groups for decades, and their plight is vastly more dire following the events of the past month. Of the many defeats and missteps that history will record about the United States’ two-decade presence in Afghanistan, failing to help the Afghans who helped the U.S. must not be one. The U.S. should strive to be a shining example to the world of welcoming and assimilating Afghan immigrants into our communities, businesses and schools. We’ll be a better nation for it.

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Miami Herald. August 30, 2021.

Editorial: Isn’t it ironic? Law touted by DeSantis backfired on his defense in mask mandate case

Oh, the irony of it all.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a July executive order to block school mask mandates, he cited a law called the Parents’ Bill of Rights as the foundation for his position that parents, not schools, should decide whether children must wear facial coverings. His legal team also used the law passed this year in the defense against a lawsuit by parents challenging the executive order.

It appears the DeSantis team read — or chose to mention — only a portion of the law he signed in July.

Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper ruled Friday that the governor doesn’t have the authority to ban mask mandates. He acknowledged that the Parents’ Bill of Rights does say that government entities “may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of” their child.

But, as Cooper said, “that’s where the reading (of the law) has been stopped by the defendants in this case.”

He pointed out that there’s another part of the Parents’ Bill of Rights that makes an exception when a requirement “is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.”

In other words, the Miami-Dade School Board and nine other districts across the state might have the authority to impose mask mandates if doing so is “reasonable” and necessary for “a compelling state interest.” We believe this situation meets that threshold, considering the highly-contagious delta variant has fueled the worse surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Florida since the beginning of the pandemic.

We don’t believe DeSantis or his aides forgot to read the entire Parents’ Bill of Rights or at least the one paragraph that makes up the section in question.

But in DeSantis’ relentless fight against local rule, it’s clear he’s willing to spin even a bill that he supported. While Floridians are dying, he complains about mask requirements instead of dedicating that energy toward getting more people vaccinated.

With leaders like DeSantis stoking anti-mask fervor — coupled with misinformation online — it’s no wonder we have had protesters burning masks outside a Broward School Board meeting and a man arrested this week after allegedly grabbing and twisting the arm of a student when he tried to send his mask=less daughter to Fort Lauderdale High School.

DeSantis has deployed his own cabal of experts and studies to discredit the effectiveness of masks. But Cooper appears to have seen right through that strategy.

DeSantis relied on a study by Brown University that his executive order states “analyzed COVID-19 data for schools in Florida and found no correlation with mask mandates” and COVID cases.

Again, it appears the governor and his team didn’t fully read the data he has touted.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, the Brown University study itself points out the limitations of its methods. The authors looked only at whether mandates existed at particular schools, and not the masking behavior of students and staffers, and they didn’t account for mitigation measures that might have been in place in the surrounding community, which would influence case counts.

The study authors in the end actually undermined DeSantis’ executive order, saying that “in-person school can be operated safely with appropriate mitigation, which typically includes universal masking.”

If DeSantis’ team didn’t take the time to read the entire study, Judge Cooper did and offered a scathing rebuke.

“I don’t say that the governor has the time to read a report that is that thick. But his advisors do,” Cooper said. “So the statement in the executive order is just incorrect.”

Ouch.

This is the second court defeat DeSantis has suffered in recent weeks. A federal judge has temporarily blocked a law banning cruise lines and other businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers.

DeSantis might also be losing in the public court of opinion. Six in 10 Floridians support requiring masks in schools, though there’s a sharp partisan divide on the issue, a Quinnipiac University poll released this week found.

Of course, that won’t deter DeSantis from his crusade against public health. Even before the Friday ruling, he had vowed to appeal if the decision went against him, Florida Politics reported.

DeSantis may have too much hubris to back down from this fight, but true leaders recognize when they have made a mistake. We know this is a vain hope, but — for the good of the state — we wish the governor would finally put children first and bow to common sense.

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Palm Beach Post. August 27, 2021.

Editorial: Florida Gov. DeSantis, legislature to Glades residents: Eat smoke.

Big Sugar’s just doing what big companies do. In 1950.

It’s operating in the fastest, cheapest way it knows, to process its product and prepare its land by openly burning hundreds of thousands of acres of cane fields each year.

Never mind that heavy clouds of smoke send ash particles snowing onto communities of mostly black and brown Glades families who rely upon the jobs the industry provides. Complaints of breathing problems and other ailments allegedly brought on by the smoke have gone unheeded for decades, poorly measured and under-analyzed.

But again, the industry is just doing what it has done for decades, maximizing profit while denying culpability for any health impacts, just like the tobacco industry did until cascading lawsuits and federal pressure brought change. In the case of cane-burning, though, the industry has sustained these practices much longer, thanks to a powerful accomplice: the state of Florida.

As The Palm Beach Post’s Lulu Ramadan reported in her Aug. 22 article, “A Complete Failure of the State,” the health department in Palm Beach County has conducted three air pollution studies over the past two decades, “each raising more alarms about the popular harvesting practice than the last.”

And yet.... Nothing has been done.

Mothers still keep their kids indoors when the smoke blows through their neighborhoods. While Peggy Cuyler’s 5-year-old son Cash and 6-year-old David fight over who gets the blue seal nebulizer and who gets the panda when both boys get simultaneous asthma attacks, the sugar companies deny any link between their smoke and children’s lung disease. And sugar supporters in the community don’t want to hear otherwise. They say the media is unfair.

As for the environmental regulators, what environmental regulators? While a Republican president, Richard Nixon, established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, Republican leaders across the nation long since have railed against Big Government, working to “starve the beast” or deregulate at every opportunity, while Big Sugar and other industries line politicos’ pockets with campaign contributions.

The Palm Beach County Health Department continues to show no interest in pursuing research recommended by earlier studies. They forward complaints to the Florida Forest Service, the agency in charge of agricultural burns, which regularly opens and closes investigations without taking action, often reporting that the smoke dissipated or that the offending burns were authorized by the state, Ramadan wrote.

Florida’s GOP-dominated Legislature, pointing to a lack of evidence -- there can be no evidence if there are no studies, after all -- has shown little interest in the Glades communities that inhale the “black snow.” The one exception was the law passed in April to make it harder for citizens to sue the sugar companies.

But suing, Glades residents are. In federal court they’re alleging that the smoke causes respiratory illness, which U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, the region’s biggest producers, deny. Same as it ever was.

At least a NASA division focused on air quality has launched a study on impacts of sugar cane-burning, using ground sensors and satellite monitoring.

The sugar farmers consider themselves good neighbors and are content to leave it at that. They provide 12,000 jobs, participate in food drives and other charitable projects and their billions in revenues bolster Florida’s economy. Nothing wrong with that.

But corporate responsibility requires more in 2021.

On the face of it, open burning of hundreds of thousands of acres makes no sense at a time when the entire community of nations is scrambling to reduce carbon emissions and reverse the effects of climate change.

On the regional and local level, on Peggy Cuyler’s street, for one, it makes no sense to block or slow-walk research and remedial solutions that Palm Beach County citizens deserve.

The 1950′s were good times for polluters. But those days are long gone and Florida leaders need to step up.

So, where is this government of ours, the one that exists to keep us safe and not to deny reality or to close eyes even to the possibility that change is needed?

END