‘Free to do as you are told’: Florida Republicans advance wave of draconian bills

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<span>Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP</span>
Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP

It has been a long and painful month in the Florida legislature for opponents of the state’s Trumpist governor Ron DeSantis and his loyal band of rightwing Republicans. A slew of bills has advanced attacking everything from diversity rights, abortion protections and free speech in schools, in addition to a proposal that would legally shield white people from feeling “discomfort” over the state’s racist past.

And last Wednesday, an anti-masker physician, hand picked by the governor and apathetic about the value of Covid-19 vaccines, was backed unanimously by a Republican senate panel as the next surgeon-general following a walk-out by Democratic politicians frustrated by Joseph Ladapo’s evasiveness.

To hear DeSantis tell it, the “freedom state” of Florida is merely following the will of a populist citizenry in defying the perceived tyranny of the federal government, determined to protect liberty in the face of a deadly pandemic that has claimed more than 64,000 of their fellow residents, and standing up against the “indoctrination” of children.

Yet as the possible 2024 presidential candidate presses ahead with turning Florida into what critics see as his own conservative fiefdom – a de facto Trumpistan of the south with an “Orwellian-sounding” election police force – DeSantis is finding opposition beginning to harden.

More of the state’s 21 million people, which elected him in 2018 by barely 32,000 votes, appears displeased at the creeping authoritarianism and is keen to show DeSantis – who will be seeking re-election in November – that Florida is not the solidly red state he believes it to be.

Those voices come from parents, doctors, LBGTQ+ activists, proponents of voting rights and others who will be affected if many of the Republican bills, as expected, become law.

“People do not like the authoritarian nature of this governor and the way that he has weaponized fear between his constituents to try to curry favor with his base,” said Brandon Wolf, development manager and spokesperson for Equality Florida.

“And I think you’re going to see that show up at the polls. I know people get concerned that maybe Florida is gone forever. But let me tell you we fully intend to mobilize and show up for our communities in the election cycle.”

Wolf pointed to several areas where he said DeSantis’s moves were gaining little traction.

“Florida is a beautifully diverse state. I live in downtown Orlando, which has folks from all walks of life, different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities. We all live in this wonderful tapestry that is central Florida,” he said.

“I can tell you that the things that concern people here are not the conversations that are happening in Tallahassee. That rent went up 29% in 2021, that Florida is leading the country in increases in housing prices, people are concerned the governor has essentially made Covid-19 a political battleground.

“Yet the legislature is singularly focused on legislating as if they won by a margin of 99 to one in 2018, as if they have a total mandate by which they can control people’s lives. It’s disgraceful and disappointing.”

The issues that Republicans see as a priority for Florida are red meat to DeSantis’s conservative base. They include the 15-week abortion ban bill, which received a chaotic hearing on Thursday, and moves to give parents more say over classroom curriculum and control of school libraries. In Polk county this week, education officials went from school to school pulling 16 books flagged by a conservative parents’ group as inappropriate, including Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 bestseller The Kite Runner.

They include bills to strengthen the governor’s fierce anti-immigrant stance by locking out from state or local government business any company involved in the transportation of undocumented migrants.

And two healthcare bills have been introduced in the Republican-dominated Florida legislature that opponents say further vilifies and isolates the LBGTQ community. One, touted as the vulnerable child protection act, would criminalize professionals who provide gender-affirming medical care to minors; the other would allow any medical professional the right to refuse treatment or procedures including gender affirming surgery or abortions on moral grounds.

“It doesn’t deny their right to access that procedure, but also protects the individual who has a conscience reason they don’t want to perform it,” the bill’s sponsor, Republican state senator Dennis Baxley, told the Sun-Sentinel.

The proposal that has caused perhaps the most outrage is the parental rights in education bill, the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill that would prohibit elementary schools from discussing sexuality and gender identity other than in an unspecified “age or developmentally appropriate” settings, and would allow parents to sue.

“It’s going to effectively erase LBGTQ students and families and LBGTQ history by banning classroom discussion,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democratic state representative who opposed the measure vigorously in the legislature.

“If a fourth-grader wants to come into the classroom, they’ve written an essay about their two dads, they want to present that essay to the class to talk about who they are or who their family is, the school is going to shut it down?”

Wolf, meanwhile, sees a straight line from the flurry of reactionary legislative action to DeSantis’s own political ambitions.

“These bills don’t live in silos. It’s easy if you look from the outside to see this scattershot of legislation and see them as individualized, that an abortion ban may not be tied to the Don’t Say Gay bill, which may not be tied to the license to discriminate in healthcare bill,” he said.

“But the truth is they are all connected. And the thing that connects them is the concerted attempt by Governor Ron DeSantis and his allies to push themselves to the right of Donald Trump and set DeSantis up to run for president in 2024.

“In Florida you are free, but only free to do and say as you are told.”

Lauren Book, a state senator representing parts of Broward, Florida’s bluest county, led a walkout of Democratic colleagues at this week’s confirmation hearing for the polarizing Ladapo as Florida’s surgeon general, after he repeatedly refused to say if vaccines were effective in the fight against Covid-19. His views appear to echo those of DeSantis, who has feuded often and loudly with the Biden administration over the pandemic, and banned mask and vaccine mandates in Florida.

“21 million Floridians deserve more than a mouthpiece for the governor, than talking sound bites that sound good and suit a narrative,” Book told CNN. Her criticism was echoed by a group of prominent Florida physicians, who accused DeSantis and Ladapo of “espousing policies contrary to the evidence”.

Jabari Hosey, president of the education advocacy group Families for Safe Schools, said that the actions of DeSantis and Republican allies, particularly in banning Covid safety measures, do not match the wishes of the majority of parents and guardians of Florida’s 2.7 million school-age children.

“He’s representing a small, loud group of parents,” he said. “We feel omitted and it’s kind of a punch to the gut when he’s selecting small, far-right groups of folks that kind of determine his legislative decision making.

“Creating these bills like Don’t Say Gay is a dog whistle, and also a suppression tactic, a way to force us not to talk about these things and therefore not accept them. It’s scary for us, parents who don’t agree with this, and we just really believe we are the majority and we want to move forward, not backwards.”