DeSantis declares ‘freedom lives here’ as he begins 2nd term

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TALLAHASSEE — Declaring “freedom lives here in our great Sunshine State of Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis was sworn in Tuesday for a second term amid widespread belief he’ll soon become a candidate for president.

In his 16-minute address outside the Old Florida Capitol that clocked in far shorter than some of his campaign speeches, DeSantis gave few specifics about his agenda for the state, instead returning to the heated cultural war rhetoric that helped him win re-election in November.

He did pledge the state would “enact more family-friendly policies” and “defend our children against those who seek to rob them of their innocence,” likely referring to the controversial law derided by critics as “don’t say gay” and his administration’s recent targeting of drag shows.

Florida Democratic lawmakers were quick to criticize the speech as long on platitudes and topics that appeal to Donald Trump supporters and a national audience but short on specific problems such as affordable housing and rising utility bills that need addressing in the upcoming legislative session in March.

“This is probably the first Florida governor to give an inaugural speech not speaking to the people of our great state and the challenges we all face, but directed at GOP primary voters and billionaire donors,” said House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, called it a scaled-down version of campaign speeches using the same Republican buzzwords.

“There was no vision or commitment to solve these issues, but what he did say was more about culture wars and appeals to the MAGA crowd,” Eskamani said. “When it comes to the everyday Floridians he seemed out of touch, disconnected.”

DeSantis is widely expected to seek the Republican nomination for president this year, potentially taking on Trump to face Democratic President Joe Biden.

Ed Rollins, chief political strategist for Ready for Ron, a group trying to draft DeSantis to run in 2024, gave top scores to the governor’s speech.

“If DeSantis continues to govern as a bold conservative and enact pro-freedom policies, he will be poised to run for the Republican nomination and become the man to beat Joe Biden in 2024,” Rollins said in a news release.

David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Pinellas County who served with DeSantis in Washington D.C., and briefly ran against him for a U.S. Senate seat in 2016, said the governor’s speech serves both his gubernatorial goals and presidential aspirations.

“His message got him a 20-point win, and he thinks he can sell that nationally. He thinks he has a like-minded national audience,” said Jolly, a vocal Trump critic who left the Republican Party in 2018. “I do believe he is confident that he is right, that he is leading Florida in the right direction.”

But that victory and that DeSantis is being talked about as a top contender for the Republican nomination for president could blind him to the realities of the rest of the country and whether his rhetoric will prevail.

“There are a lot more challenges heading the governor’s way,” Jolly said.

‘Not destined for failure’

In his speech, DeSantis attacked “the floundering federal establishment ... and corporations wielding public power,” and claimed some unnamed people believe the country’s failure is “inevitable.” But, he added, “Florida is proof positive that we the people are not destined for failure.”

He also evoked patriotic images and events such as the signing of the Constitution at Independence Hall, those who fell at the Battle of Gettysburg and the young soldiers who fought to liberate Normandy. He also mentioned a young preacher’s dream, a veiled reference to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and Lincoln’s own words as the nation’s first Republican president to pledge a “new birth of Freedom.”

DeSantis gained a national profile in Republican and conservative circles in 2020 for his policies opposing most anti-COVID-19 measures. His stance hardened in 2021 and 2022 with his embrace of anti-vaccine figures such as Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo and his call for a grand jury to investigate pharmaceutical companies for alleged COVID-10 vaccine “wrongdoing.”

He made the issue a centerpiece of his speech, saying that while “so many states in our country grinded their citizens down, we in Florida lifted our people up ... When the world lost its mind, when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, Florida was a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for our fellow Americans and even for people around the world.”

Infectious disease experts have described the governor’s COVID policies as reckless and deadly.

Florida had the 16th highest COVID death rate per 100,000 people in the nation as of December, pulling ahead of New York despite the massive number of deaths in that state at the beginning of the pandemic. Florida ranked in the bottom half of states when it came to the number of residents who had received a booster shot, at less than 29%.

DeSantis also took the lead on culture war battles during his first term, including an “anti-riot” law cracking down on protesting and attacks on “critical race theory.”

Criticism of one of the most controversial of DeSantis’ measures, the “don’t say gay” bill, by former Disney CEO Bob Chapek led the governor to target the company’s self-governing district at Walt Disney World.

The law, officially known as Parental Rights in Education, bans discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in early grades of public schools and whenever it is considered not “age appropriate” for older students.

DeSantis said he would “never surrender to the woke mob,” claiming instead to seek “normalcy, not philosophical lunacy. We will not allow reality, facts and truth to become optional.”

No talk about abortion or guns

The governor didn’t mention the two issues expected to be at the top of the Legislature’s agenda in March, stronger abortion restrictions and allowing people to carry guns without a concealed weapons permit.

DeSantis had said last month he was open to signing an even stricter abortion bill than the one passed last year that imposed a 15-week limit with no exceptions for rape or incest. He also said he expected to sign a bill allowing people to openly carry guns without a permit, called “constitutional carry” by its proponents.

“Any time he wants to distract from his own failed record, he creates a new fake ‘woke’ boogeyman to battle but doesn’t really address real issues Floridians are struggling with like housing affordability and health care that doesn’t bankrupt families,” Driskell said.

DeSantis’ nationally ambitious inaugural speech was a contrast from four years ago, when he took office following a razor-thin victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum and a less-than-smooth transition from former GOP Gov. Rick Scott. He logged a surprisingly moderate first year for a candidate who had campaigned as a Trump loyalist and conservative firebrand.

This time around, DeSantis easily won a second term over Democrat Charlie Crist. Even before then, everything he’s done has been scrutinized as a potential GOP presidential frontrunner.

He also has about $60 million left in his political committee account, which campaign finance law prevents him from using to run for a federal office but could potentially be funneled to a super PAC in the absence of aggressive Federal Election Commission oversight.

Trump, who announced a third White House bid in November, has taken shots at DeSantis in advance of a potential primary showdown. He called the governor “Ron De-Sanctimonious” and an “average governor” who pleaded with him for an endorsement in 2018.

DeSantis has so far refused to publicly hit back at Trump, saying in November that people “need to chill out a little bit on some of this stuff.”