Democracy dies in darkness but liberty lives in light
Author: The Paradise Progressive
David Silverberg is a veteran journalist who spent over 30 years in Washington, DC covering a variety of topics, including Congress and politics. He moved to Southwest Florida in 2013 and lives in Naples.
Some things just seem to happen as decreed by nature: the planets in their orbits, the moon in its phases, the sunrise and sunset.
Americans in particular have come to expect their calendar to be comfortingly predictable: Independence Day every July 4th, presidential elections every four years, and elections for congressional representatives every two years.
However, as hard as humans try, human events are not dictated by the same forces that make the planets turn.
The fragility of human ritual was shown on Jan. 6, 2021. No matter how many times it had happened since ratification of the Constitution, that day proved the counting of Electoral College votes could be disrupted and that acceptance of the results of a fairly conducted and meticulously counted election could be disputed. It also proved the peaceful, orderly transition of power could nearly be destroyed.
As disastrous as the Jan. 6th insurrection was, it could have been even worse. But despite the defeat of rioters incited by a narcissistic, megalomaniacal president, the worst could still happen. Indeed, the possibility exists that the 2022 election could be America’s last—if the forces of fanaticism get the power to snuff out democracy and the Constitution.
This has happened before in history. The worst example was that of the Nazis, who turned to electoral politics after their violent putsch failed in 1923. It took them nine years before Adolf Hitler attained power and began dismantling a representative democracy. But it’s not the only instance. For example, in 1948 an election in Czechoslovakia brought communists to power and once in power, they simply got rid of democracy and imposed one-party rule. For the next 41 years the country did not have another free election until after its “Velvet Revolution” of 1989.
There is no sugar-coating the reality that this year a political party that has surrendered to mass delusion and the cult of personality looks positioned to take over the US House of Representatives. Bolstered by gerrymandered districts and a wave of new laws intended to restrict voting access and enable the invalidation of the popular will as expressed in elections, there is a very real possibility that America could lose its democracy and that the 2022 election could be its last.
The website FiveThirtyEight.com is now tracking upcoming elections for the House, Senate and governorships. While the odds change hourly as new polling comes in, as of this writing it was giving Republicans a 54 percent chance of winning the Senate and an 87 percent chance of winning the House.
It is the prospect of a Trumpist House that is most dangerous for America. As the 1948 Republican Congress was characterized as the “do-nothing” Congress, a Republican 2023-24 Congress would likely be the “revenge” Congress, dedicated to dismantling and destroying as many democratic safeguards and mechanisms as possible in pursuit of an autocratic dictatorship.
To see proof of this, one need look no further than Southwest Florida’s own Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.).
In an interview on the Patriot Talk show held at the Seed to Table market last Tuesday, June 28, Donalds, who voted to invalidate the 2020 election, told his hosts that the January 6th Committee’s inquiry “is an atrocity for a country like ours. So you have my word, in the next Congress, we will be investigating the January 6th Committee.”
Sentiments like these in the rest of a Republican House means there would be no will to pursue truth or defend the Constitution in the next, 118th Congress. Rather, the House majority will officially propagate Donald Trump’s big lie and do everything possible to undermine popular democracy.
In such an instance there will likely be further efforts at the national level to shrink voting rights, ballot accessibility and exclude the franchise from all but favored people who rubberstamp preordained results. Combined with similar efforts at the state level, this raises the possibility of state officials like governors invalidating elections whose outcomes they don’t like.
Nowhere is this possibility greater than in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has created a state election police force to use against unfavorable outcomes and a state defense force answerable to him alone, all ratified by a completely supine state legislature.
As with all human events, nothing is inevitable so this does not have to be the outcome. But it is undeniable that events are trending in this direction.
True patriotism on the 4th
The Fourth of July has devolved from a celebration of America’s determination to “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them,” to a day to get drunk, chow down and blast off fireworks without thinking of any higher meaning.
This year it’s worth pausing a moment to ponder, not the past, but the future and to rededicate ourselves to preserving democracy and democratic outcomes.
As the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has shown and continues to show, America came breathtakingly close to losing its democracy, its Constitution and its legitimate government on Jan. 6.
What prevented that outcome were patriots—not long-ago patriots in powdered wigs and knee breeches and not loud, beer-swilling, MAGA “patriots,” but real, living, boots-on-the-ground patriots who took their oaths of office seriously and had the courage to stand against a would-be tyrant.
We have seen them on our television screens. They were officials in state offices who wouldn’t fabricate or “find” votes that weren’t there. They were poll workers who did their jobs despite verbal attacks and threats that drove them underground. They were government staffers willing to go before Congress to tell the whole truth about what actually happened that day. They were Capitol Police officers who tried to do their jobs despite a tsunami of crazed rioters wielding spears and clubs and chemical weapons. They were Secret Service agents who wouldn’t indulge presidential rage or obey an order resulting in a constitutional apocalypse. They were members of Congress who put country above party and fearlessly pursued the truth. And one was a Vice President of the United States who, after four years of subservience and abasement, simply upheld his oath of office and followed the law despite blandishments, threats and ultimately a mob intent on lynching him.
These are the real patriots to inspire us this July 4th. While they put their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor on the line to preserve America and the Constitution, the rest of us, in more peaceful circumstances, have only one thing we must do—and that is, vote.
Starting with early voting on Aug. 13 and culminating on Aug. 23 with the primary election and then, beginning on Oct. 27 and continuing to Election Day, November 8, every citizen has to show the same courage and commitment as the patriots of Jan. 6. But the everyday citizen has the great good fortune of being able to do this non-violently and without the cost and danger they faced.
On Sept. 18, 1787 when he was leaving the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether America was to be a monarchy or a republic. He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
On Jan. 6, 2021, Americans proved they wanted to keep it.
On Nov. 8, they have to prove that they want to keep it again.
If they do, if the forces of fanaticism can be defeated at the ballot box, maybe—just maybe— the 2022 election won’t be America’s last.
In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s ruling last Friday, June 24, to overthrow the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, Cindy Banyai, the Democratic candidate for Congress in the 19th Congressional District, has emerged as the leading political candidate supporting women’s choice in Southwest Florida.
All regional Republican officeholders and candidates are either on the record against choice, praised the decision or have not expressed an opinion.
In a lengthy statement issued the day of the decision in the case of Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Banyai stated: “The day we feared has come. Far right extremists have succeeded in stripping us of our rights. The partisan corruption of the Supreme Court has eroded trust in our institutions. The Dobbs ruling is yet another blow to our democracy and to freedom.”
Banyai, the mother of three, continued: “I believe we all deserve human dignity, to live life on our own terms. This means deciding when and where to have a family. Failing to recognize abortion as health care and the value of body autonomy will put lives in danger.
“The partisan corruption of the Supreme Court has eroded trust in our institutions. The Dobbs ruling is yet another blow to our democracy and to freedom.”
However, she exhorted her audience: “Do not lose hope, though. We must keep fighting—for our rights, for our children, and our democracy.”
Given Southwest Florida’s Republican dominance, Banyai’s stance makes her the region’s only pro-choice political figure.
Banyai’s opponent, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), praised the Supreme Court’s ruling and has long been on the record against women’s choice, making it a fundamental part of his 2020 election campaign.
Among the region’s state legislators, state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Naples), the incoming president of the Florida Senate, was also quick to praise the Dobbs decision.
“I am grateful to see the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. These defenders of the Constitution have given the states rights to do what is right. Here in Florida, we will continue to defend life,” she tweeted following the decision announcement.
While retiring state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Fort Myers) has not issued a statement on the Dobbs decision, during his campaign for office in 2020 the nastiest charge that his supporters could hurl against his primary opponent, Heather Fitzenhagen, was that she supported choice, to the point that she was said to be a clone of House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.).
As of this writing, Jonathan Martin, head of the Lee County Republican Party and the primary candidate seeking to succeed Rodrigues in the newly-drawn 33rd Senate District, had not commented or stated a position on the Dobbs decision.
In Florida the defining legislation on choice was the Reducing Fetal and Infant Mortality Act (House Bill (HB) 5), which put new restrictions on abortions in the state, prohibiting them after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It was approved by the House by a vote of 78 to 39 on Feb. 17, approved by the Senate by a vote of 23 to 15 on March 3 and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on April 14. It goes into effect this coming Friday, July 1.
Lee and Collier counties’ state representatives, all Republicans, voted for HB 5.
On a statewide basis the picture was different but predictable, with Republicans praising the decision and Democrats condemning it.
DeSantis issued a statement: “For nearly fifty years, the U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited virtually any meaningful pro-life protection, but this was not grounded in the text, history or structure of the Constitution. By properly interpreting the Constitution, the Dobbs majority has restored the people’s role in our republic and a sense of hope that every life counts. Florida will continue to defend its recently-enacted pro-life reforms against state court challenges, will work to expand pro-life protections, and will stand for life by promoting adoption, foster care and child welfare.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidates condemned the decision.
Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.): “Today’s Supreme Court decision to overturn nearly fifty years of progress by dismantling Roe v. Wade is shameful, harmful, and wrong. Without the protections of Roe, radical Republican governors and legislators, including those in Tallahassee, will now have the power to outlaw abortion entirely, regardless of the circumstances.”
State Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried: “This is a tragic day for women in America. The freedom to make our own choices about our lives, our bodies, and our healthcare is fundamental to our humanity. It’s absolutely devastating to have those rights taken away. It’s not an exaggeration to say that women and girls will die as a result of this decision.” She vowed: “In Florida, for now, we still have a provision in our state constitution that protects abortion rights – although that is in question as well. I promise that we will fight with everything we have to keep that from being overturned.”
Both of Florida’s Republican US senators praised the decision while Democratic senatorial candidate Val Demings condemned it.
Yesterday, June 24, Southwest Florida’s representatives in Congress voted against the final version of a bill to dampen gun violence and had fulsome praise for the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and end the right to abortion.
Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) all voted against the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (Senate 2938), which imposes new restrictions on gun purchases, helps states establish “red flag” laws, funds mental health programs and increases school security. It was constructed as an amendment to a measure proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) renaming a court house in Tallahassee.
The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 234 to 193. Fourteen Republicans voted with the majority to approve the bill.
Having been approved by both chambers of Congress, the bill now goes to President Joe Biden for signature. (UPDATE: President Biden signed the bill into law this morning.)
While that vote was taken in the afternoon, at 11:00 am that morning the Supreme Court released its ruling in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization, striking down Roe v. Wade by a 5 to 4 vote.
Southwest Florida’s congressmen were quick to praise the Supreme Court ruling.
“Today, we saw the rule of law established under the Constitution prevail,” tweeted Donalds. “This monumental decision ends a once unconstitutional ruling riddled w/ judicial activism. Now the right to abortion rests in the hands of the people, where it belongs.”
“More than 63 million unborn children have been murdered by abortion since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973,” tweeted Steube. “I applaud the Supreme Court’s courageous decision today to reverse Roe v. Wade.”
“Today, the Supreme Court of the United States has applied sound constitutional principles to arrive at its opinion,” stated Diaz-Balart in a lengthy statement. “This decision is long overdue. The Supreme Court is to be commended.”
By a vote of 65 to 33, he United States Senate last night passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to make American communities safer (Senate 2938) by regulating gun sales and possession.
Both of Florida’s Republican senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, voted against the bill.
The bill now returns to the House of Representatives for final approval, which may occur as early as today.
In a bizarre bit of legislative maneuvering, the major provisions were tagged onto a bill that Rubio introduced in May renaming a US courthouse in Tallahassee after Joseph Woodrow Hatchett, a former US Appeals Court judge.
The bill expands criminal background checks for gun buyers, bars a larger group of domestic-violence offenders from being able to purchase firearms, and funds “red flag” programs that would allow authorities to seize guns from troubled individuals.
“Many are comparing the bill being considered in the Senate to what we did in FL. However, they aren’t the same at all,” stated Scott in a tweet explaining his vote.
In 2018, as governor, Scott signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, which went further than the Senate bill in restricting gun sales and establishing “red flag” provisions to allow seizure of guns from people considered a danger to themselves and others. Nonetheless, stated Scott, “The Senate bill is unacceptably weak on protecting due process & automatically restores gun rights to convicted domestic abusers. That’s why I can’t support it.”
As of this writing, Rubio had not issued a statement on any online platform explaining his vote.
Immediately after the 9:42 pm vote in the Senate, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) issued a statement: “On behalf of the House, we applaud the Senate for passing its gun violence prevention package on a strong bipartisan vote.
“Every day, gun violence steals lives and scars communities — and this crisis demands urgent action. While we must do more, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is a step forward that will help protect our children and save lives,” she stated.
“First thing tomorrow morning, the Rules Committee will meet to advance this life-saving legislation to the Floor. When the Rules Committee finishes its business, we will head immediately to the Floor. And we will send the bill to President Biden for his signature, with gratitude for his leadership.”
All of Southwest Florida’s members of Congress voted against the bill when it was first considered in the House.
Some indication of their likely votes came yesterday, June 23, after a Supreme Court decision striking down a New York restriction on concealed weapons. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) tweeted: “Today’s SCOTUS ruling is a massive win for our Republic and the Constitution that guides it. As Justice Thomas stated, the Second Amendment is NOT a second-class right, and this 6-3 ruling sets that in stone. DON’T TREAD ON ME & MY RIGHT TO KEEP & BEAR ARMS.”
Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 21, Collier County, Florida, will have its only formal, neutrally-moderated forum for all candidates running for three places on the Collier County School Board.
The in-person forum will be at the Naples Conference Center in the Naples Board of Realtors building, 1455 Pine Ridge Road at 5:30 pm. It will be netcast and streamed by public television station WGCU at WGCU.org and covered by both the Fort Myers News-Press and the Naples Daily News.
The forum is being sponsored by a spectrum of mainstream, good-government organizations: the League of Women Voters, the Collier Citizens Council and Greater Naples Leadership.
The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 23, with early voting beginning on Aug. 13. Candidates will win if they receive 50 percent of the vote plus one. If not, they will proceed to the general election on Nov. 8.
Given the intensity of interest and the passions that have been generated over education governance during the past two years, this forum has a significance way beyond the usual specialized and relatively obscure contest that it has been in the past.
The policies, oversight and administration of education now constitute a battlefield between competing worldviews and political agendas. In addition, although school board elections are non-partisan, the Collier County Republican Party has weighed in with endorsements, as have other groups and individuals.
It is this clash of worldviews, their implications for Collier County public education and the likely impact on students’ minds that voters should monitor and evaluate as they watch this forum.
From an analytic standpoint, this year’s slate of candidates can be divided into three categories: educators, newcomers and ideologues.
The educators are already serving the Board of Education. All are running on their records and expertise, which collectively is quite considerable. All have spent time in different educational positions, from teachers to administrators. Further, all have experience with the nuts and bolts of school system administration, from budgeting, to purchasing, to contracting, to personnel management, which is really what represents the bulk of school board duties.
But more importantly, all represent a service-oriented, secular, objective, apolitical approach to public education.
District 1: Jory Westberry
District 1 covers Lely Elementary, Lely High, Manatee Elementary, Manatee Middle, Marco Island Academy, Marco Island Charter Middle, Parkside Elementary, Shadowlawn Elementary, and Tommie Barfield Elementary.
Originally from Wyoming before moving to Naples in 1989, Westberry, vice chair of the school board, has a long history in education. In addition to undergraduate and master degrees in education she holds a doctorate in educational administration with honors from the University of Miami. She’s served as both an elementary and middle school teacher, and is a winner of the prestigious Golden Apple Teacher award. She went into administration and served as an assistant principal and principal at Tommie Barfield Elementary for 14 years. After retirement she mentored new teachers through the C-Certs Program.
Westberry was elected to the board in 2018 when she ran unopposed. But this year she’s facing two challengers.
“Over the past months there has been a vocal minority that disrupts school board meetings, not only in Collier County, but coordinated across the US, ostensibly to make changes in policies and procedures,” she states on her campaign website. “However, most of the policies and procedures they want to change are controlled by the State of Florida, the Florida Department of Education and the federal government. I will follow the laws.”
Westberry is promising continuity and says she wants to work with “a fully functional Board” and calls for flexibility, communications, trust and support for teachers to “continue to make positive progress.”
District 3: Jen Mitchell
District 3 consists of BridgePrep Academy of Collier, Calusa Park Elementary, Golden Gate Elementary, Golden Gate Middle, Golden Gate High, Golden Terrace Elementary, Gulf Coast High, Laurel Oak Elementary, Mike Davis Elementary, Oakridge Middle, and Vineyards Elementary.
Originally from Lafayette, Indiana, Mitchell, chair of the school board, has lived in Naples for the past 21 years. She has a degree in elementary education from Purdue University and taught for a year at Naples Park Elementary. She remained home as a full-time mother after having her first child but was active in a variety of educational advisory boards and committees. She returned to the workforce in 2014 as a real estate agent before running and being elected to the school board in 2018.
Mitchell is relying on her school board record in her run for re-election. Her message rests firmly on the nuts and bolts of school administration. She points to a district strategic plan that she helped draft, expanded career and technical education options for students, raising grades and testing results, sound financial management and budgeting that has passed numerous audits and increased teacher pay and raised standards.
Weathering the two previous years of pandemic was perhaps Mitchell’s greatest achievement and also point of vulnerability. The school system faced challenges that were daunting by any standard: pivoting to online learning, steering through debates over masking and mandates, and even ensuring that students were fed properly.
“While districts around the country were throwing in the towel, we were innovating to create opportunities and to ensure the best possible learning outcomes for our students, which continues today,” she writes on her campaign website.
It was precisely the battles over mask mandates that first generated the most heat at school boards in Southwest Florida and created the wave of opposition that continues today. Exactly one year ago on June 21, after an initial mandate, the board unanimously voted to make masks optional for the next school year.
Essentially, Mitchell wants to continue the work she has already done and take it up a notch. “We need a school board that will continue to set politics and personal agendas aside, collaborate, and focus on the nearly 48,000 students who are counting on us to get it right,” she states.
District 5: Roy Terry
District 5 consists of Bethune Education Center, Big Cypress Elementary, Collier Charter Academy, Corkscrew Elementary, Corkscrew Middle, Cypress Palm Middle, Eden Park Elementary, Estates Elementary, Everglades City School, Highlands Elementary, Immokalee Middle, Immokalee High, Immokalee Technical Center, Lake Trafford Elementary, Naples Classical Academy, Palmetto Elementary, Palmetto Ridge High, Pinecrest Elementary, RCMA Immokalee Community Academy, Sabal Palm Elementary, and Village Oaks Elementary.
Originally from Maryland, Terry received his master’s degree in education from Colorado State University and began working as a teacher in Baltimore, Md., before moving to Naples. For the past 35 years he’s held every position in the education system, from teacher to assistant principal to principal before joining the school board. He was extensively involved in athletics, serving as a coach and athletic director and winning numerous “coach of the year” awards in baseball and football.
Terry has extensive experience with the physical complexities of Collier County’s education system. He supervised and designed Lely High School’s athletic field renovation and helped to plan, design, and supervise construction of Palmetto Ridge High School.
In running this year, Terry is seeking his fourth term on the board. He’s seen a lot of controversy and challenges during that time and he’s looking for a constructive approach and cooperation among school board members.
One is Arthur Boyer. A native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Boyer has lived the past 30 years in Immokalee. He has a doctorate in education from Argosy University and has been involved in educational activities in and around Immokalee for the past 18 years. During the worst of the pandemic, he organized a free virtual tutoring program for students that attracted other educators and helped students.
On his campaign website, Boyer calls for equitable education, a commitment to special education, teacher recognition and support, parental involvement and classrooms that reflect the whole community.
“Collier County Public School should consider a learner-driven education system,” he states. “CCPS Policies should reflect the vision, the challenges, the assets, and the best interests of Collier County.”
Jacqualene “Jackie” Keay is also seeking the seat in District 5.
Born in the Bahamas, Keay moved to Naples as a young child and graduated from Lely High School in 1988. She served in the US Army, living in Germany for 17 years before returning to Southwest Florida in 2015. With a master’s degree in psychology, she homeschooled her children for 10 years and taught for two years at Mason Classical Academy. She’s been deeply involved in community organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Empty Bowls and served on the board of Audubon Western Everglades.
“My aim is to motivate informed understanding by connecting the parents, educators, and elected officials,” she states on her campaign website. “Our mission will be to ensure our students have the education, skills, and tools needed to compete for and secure jobs in the global world.”
The other challengers for seats on the Collier County school board this year are driven by ideological passions, whether religious or political.
The challenger with the most educational experience is Kelly Lichter, who is running in District 3. She served as a high school teacher and founded Mason Classical Academy charter school and from 2014 to 2018 sat on the Collier County School Board.
At that time Lichter and fellow board member Erika Donalds aggressively pushed charter schools, which though private, were under the oversight of the board.
As reported by the Naples Daily News, during her tenure, “Lichter has frequently engaged in shouting matches during board meetings, prompting negative feedback from education advocates online, at board meetings and in the Naples Daily News opinion and Letters to the Editor sections.” The same article stated that “…Lichter received criticism for sending emails to other board members accusing them of collusion and lying.”
Lichter also had a falling out with Erika Donalds, wife of Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), accusing her and others of what she said appeared to be “an unlawful and hostile takeover of Mason Classical Academy, Inc.”
Lichter’s positions on school board issues include ending the teaching of “socialist dogma” like “social justice, transgender bathrooms, global warming, climate change, Critical Race Theory.”
She’s been endorsed by the Collier County Republican Party, Patriot Parents, the Christian Conservative Coalition, Rogan O’Hadley, whose stage name is “DC Draino,” and conservative farmer and grocer Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III.
(During a speech at Patriot Fest on March 19 in Naples’ Sugden Park, Oakes gave his criteria for school board endorsements: “I don’t want to hear about what IQ someone has or what level of education someone has,” he said. “Common sense and some back is all we need right now.”)
Among the other ideologically-driven challengers Jerry Rutherford, an insurancesalesman and painter,is running in District 1. Rutherford has been attending school board meetings for 35 years. His slogan is “rectitude, reliability, resilience” and on his campaign website he states (capitalization his) that “Constitutionalism, Acknowledgement of Natural Law in the affairs of Government, and traditional American Culture need to be returned to the classrooms of Collier County, Florida,”
When he endorsed Rutherford at Patriot Fest, Oakes noted that while Rutherford might be too old to know how to use a computer, Thomas Jefferson also didn’t know how to use a computer.
Also running in District 1 is Kimberly Boobyer, a golf teacher and coach, who states on her campaign website: “I am a conservative, Christian mother who believes in civic responsibility, and taking action” and wants to restore the education system “to its former glory.”
Jana Greer is a candidate in District 3. She’s a businesswoman who states on her campaign website that “While the radical left continues to push their agenda onto our children, we need a bold conservative School Board to stand up for our values.”
In District 5 Timothy Moshier, a former trucking company executive, is running on a platform of ensuring that schools teach “what really matters.” Interestingly, while his campaign website is entirely dedicated to himself, it has nothing at all related to education, the schools or his vision, positions or solutions on school board issues. Moshier has been endorsed by the Collier County Republican Party and Alfie Oakes.
Also running in District 5 is Ana Turina, whose slogan on her campaign website is “Dedication, Passion, Rectitud” [sic, as spelled]. She states that she wants to be the protector of parental rights and keep “inappropriate materials, media and [critical race theory] out of our schools!”
Analysis: Education or indoctrination?
Traditionally, public education in the United States was more or less based on Enlightenment ideals of promoting independent critical thinking, democratic values, objectivity and respect for facts and science in a secular environment.
For a long time this approach in public education has been under attack but never more so than since the presidency of Donald Trump. The counter argument now is that such values represent “indoctrination” and need to be countered. In Florida no organization has promoted this idea more than the Florida Citizens Alliance, which argues that “Florida children are being indoctrinated in a public school system that undermines their individual rights and destroys our nation’s founding principles and family values.”
It seems as though the critics can’t believe that a young person’s own rational thought, objective observation and sense of fairness could lead to a liberal political outlook. Clearly, in their minds, that’s impossible because any sane person would naturally be politically conservative. They suspect there’s a culprit at work and that culprit is public school “indoctrination.”
In the past the arguments over education might have remained confined to educational circles but two years of pandemic and fights over mask mandates and lockdowns, a sense that ideologically-driven parents were not being heeded and the hyper-politicization of all American life has sharpened the divides over education.
But it’s also clear that in this Collier County election there is a stark difference between the incumbent educators with experience and expertise and challengers who are fueled by passion, doctrine and ideology. The latter seem more focused on restricting students’ minds than broadening them.
One has to wonder what kind of people Collier County’s public schools would produce if the ideologues have their way.
These will be the underlying—and overt—issues that can be expected to be aired at the forum tomorrow night.
Whatever else that forum may be, at the very least, it shouldn’t be boring.
—Updated June 17 with Tarrio’s Seed to Table speech and photo and newly revealed congressional occupation plans.Also explanation of t-shirt in photo caption.
The Proud Boys have gotten a lot of publicity and are getting more right now as the January 6th insurrection conspiracy comes to light. They’ve been active in Southwest Florida for some time. But how much political influence do they currently have and what is their potential future impact on the region?
Events like the hearings of the US House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, an indictment of the organization’s leader for seditious conspiracy and the prosecution of East Naples resident, Christopher Worrell, are putting the organization in the spotlight.
The Proud Boys were literally at the forefront of the Jan. 6 insurrection and attack on the US Capitol, according to the Committee. The Committee’s first hearing on Thursday, June 9, revealed that it was members of the Proud Boys who deliberately and according to a pre-set plan, first breached Capitol Police barriers, leading to the general assault on the Capitol Building.
The hearing also revealed that the Proud Boys and the similarly extreme Oath Keepers organization coordinated their efforts on Jan. 6 to deliberately stop the peaceful transfer of power. The leaders of both organizations, Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys, and Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, met in a parking garage to discuss their plans.
Rhodes was arrested on Jan. 13, 2021 and charged with seditious conspiracy. His trial is scheduled for this September, tentatively the 19th or 26th. On June 6, Tarrio was also charged with seditious conspiracy.
Court filings have also revealed the existence of a detailed plan given to Tarrio, called “1776 Returns,” for Proud Boys to occupy congressional office buildings and the Supreme Court to stop the election certification.
In the past Proud Boys recruitment and activity found some favorable response in Southwest Florida. Even at recent events like a pro-choice march in Fort Myers on May 14, Proud Boys were present.
A Proud Boys primer
The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, one of the founders of VICE News. McInnes decided on the name based on the song, “Proud of Your Boy” from the 2011 Disney musical Aladdin. He despised the song and its sentiment as Aladdin tries to win his mother’s approval but couldn’t stop playing or thinking about it.
McInnes did not stay at the helm of the organization for long, leaving in 2017 in large part because he was advised by his lawyers that his quitting might help Proud Boys indicted in a street brawl. By that time the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had characterized the organization as “an extremist group with ties to white nationalism.”
Enrique Tarrio, a Miami native, was made leader in 2018. Although another Proud Boy, Kyle Chapman, claimed to be president in 2020, his presidency never seems to have been recognized by the organization.
The Proud Boys gained media attention for their extremism, racism and propensity for violence and apparent endorsement of President Donald Trump’s policies and positions. By the time of the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, 2020, they had achieved national prominence.
Debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he would urge white supremacist groups that inflamed violence at nationwide protests to “stand down.”
“Give me a name,” said Trump and the first name supplied by candidate Joe Biden was Proud Boys.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem,” Trump said.
The mention on national television catapulted the Proud Boys to the forefront of media attention and Tarrio said it prompted a tripling of memberships.
Enter Naples and Southwest Florida
After the election, Tarrio was in Naples on Dec. 3, 2020 to address a fundraising dinner for the Republican candidates in the Georgia Senate runoff elections. The dinner was at The Counter in the Mercato in Naples and was organized by Christine “Christy” McLaughlin, a Republican candidate for Congress who was defeated in the party primary that August (and is now running for the Republican nomination in Florida’s 22nd Congressional District).
Although John DiLemme, founder of the Conservative Business Journal, was the featured speaker, Tarrio was the unannounced speaker. Pre-event publicity for the gathering never mentioned that Tarrio or the Proud Boys would be present.
Wearing a t-shirt that stated: “Kyle Rittenhouse did nothing wrong,” Tarrio spoke to the gathering for about five minutes.
Tarrio’s speech did not call for violence and simply explained the public aspect of the Proud Boys philosophy and went some way toward explaining their appeal, which makes it worth reprinting in its entirety:
“There is something good that has come out of the contested—in air quotes, contested—election.
“There was obvious voter fraud. They’ve practically stolen this election. But we’re not going to let them. We’re not going to go quietly.
“But there is something good that has come out of this contested—to use air quotes, contested—election and it’s shown us what’s important.
“Something beautiful that has happened…But before that, it’s so frustrating when we’re putting together events for the past four years. It takes me months of planning, months of marketing to get 500 conservatives out on the street when they could put together four to five thousand people at a moment’s notice. But the beauty of this contested election is that we’ve been able to put thousands of angry Americans on the streets. (Applause) And why are they angry?
“Because how far the Left has gone. Put together in DC with over 750,000 people on the street, we made some noise. And we’re going to do it again on December 12th. And where they mess up, where the Democrats mess up, is not that they’re attacking the President, they’re attacking the people. They’re attacking our constitutional values and that is something that we are passionate about.
“Proud Boys is just a regular group of guys. There’s nothing special about regular men. But there is something when those men have, this passion and this love for this country. Because we don’t get in the front lines because …it really pains me that it takes something like this to unite us. But they’re probably the bravest men that I’ve ever met in my life.
“One thing that we can’t forget is that we can never let evil take root. We can never give up and we can never give up on the president.
“We’re together here, today and we should continue to do this and we should continue to take the inspiration that we’ve been given to continue going out on the streets, not maintain this from the couch. We cannot maintain this from our phones. It’s unrealistic. We need to make noise, we need to be …If you can make it, if you can get to DC on Dec. 12th I ask you guys, I beg you to please come out. Because there’s so much to fight for. There’s so much work to do.
“I’ve been an activist for about 18 years and I never, I never thought that I would ever see an election as electric as 2016, or as important as 2016. But here we are in 2020 and boy, was I wrong.
“1776 will commence again. We need, we need as many people as active as possible and it’s beautiful that we’re here today at a bar because this country was started—a lot of people forget—this country was started at a tavern called the Green Dragon Tavern by a regular group of people who drew a blueprint of what our country is today.
“Our forefathers didn’t envision all this view, this is not what they wanted, this is all just a plus. All they wanted was to create a country where they could practice their religion freely, be free from tyranny and a place to raise their kids with their own values and not be bothered. And I’m thankful for that, thankful for that every day. Those ideas are under attack right now.
“So one thing that people tell me is what does it take to be a Proud Boy? So in the past I would give them the West Side, I’d tell them where to go but I think this has become more than an organization, this has become a movement.
“When does standing up for your country become something wrong? So we, right now, regardless of anything, I want you guys to repeat after me. I’m going to induct you guys right now.
“I’m a western chauvinist. And I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world. We’re all Proud Boys. Thank you so much.”
(At the time The Paradise Progressive reached out to the management of The Counter, Kahala Management in Scottsdale, Ariz., to determine whether it was aware of Tarrio’s attendance and had any involvement in it. No answer has ever been received.)
Following the speech and the campaign event, Tarrio and McLaughlin posed for a group photograph (seen above). There are six Proud Boys in the photo, with Tarrio and McLaughlin in the center. Three of the Proud Boys are making a “white power” gesture with their hands. (The pinky, ring finger and middle finger up to signify a “w” and the thumb and forefinger meeting to signify a “p” in what used to be the “OK” gesture.)
In the back row on the right was Proud Boy Christopher “Chris” Worrell (more about him later).
The following night, Dec. 4, Tarrio addressed a crowd at Seed to Table, the market owned by outspoken conservative Alfie Oakes, and a frequent venue for far-right personalities.
Tarrio was introduced by McLaughlin, who said she had met him and the Proud Boys during the Million MAGA March on Nov. 15, 2020 when, she said, the Proud Boys had protected marchers from Antifa, the anti-fascist movement.
In this speech Tarrio revealed some personal history when he said that relatives of his in Cuba had been killed during the Cuban revolution by Communist guerrillas on the orders of Che Guevara when they refused to allow their farm to be used as forward position. Tarrio accused Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14-NY) and President Joe Biden of concealing their socialist and Marxist intentions as Guevara did in Cuba.
“In order to save the West we must replicate the minds of those who have its best interests at heart,” he said. “We must inspire more. We must inspire more people to follow us, inspire more people to lead us, inspire more people to do the things that are necessary to save this country. To make America great again.”
This speech was also more explicitly pro-Trump than in his Mercato appearance. In a foreshadowing of what would come, he said the Proud Boys were not going to allow the theft of the election.
“The most important thing we can do is stand by him,” Tarrio said of Trump. “So when he said ‘stand back and stand by,’ we didn’t take it as ‘stand by at the ready,’ we took it as ‘stand by me’ and we have. We’ve stood by the president since day one.”
Welcoming Roger Stone
Proud Boys were next in evidence locally on Jan. 3, 2021 when Roger Stone was welcomed to Naples in an event organized by McLaughlin.
Roger Stone is a far right activist and political operative whose political involvement goes back to the 1970s. He was an ardent supporter of Trump’s candidacy.
In 2018 Stone approached the Proud Boys for personal security and announced in a Facebook video: “Hi, I’m Roger Stone. I’m a Western chauvinist. I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” making him a “first-degree” member, according to some Proud Boys, although he subsequently announced he was not a member.
Stone was arrested by the FBI in January 2019 on seven counts connected with the investigation of Russian election interference by Robert Mueller. He was convicted in November. His 40-month sentence was commuted by Trump in July 2020 and he was fully pardoned on Dec. 23, 2020
Stone had lived in Florida since 2014, first in Miami, then in Fort Lauderdale but he traveled across the state, first in August 2020 after his commutation and then on Jan. 3, 2021 when, post-pardon, he was welcomed with a street corner rally organized by McLaughlin that took place at the corner of Rt. 41 and Pine Ridge Rd.
One of the purposes of Stone’s visit was to encourage a demonstration at the Naples home of Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to demand he oppose the certification of “fraudulent electors” who would certify Joe Biden’s election as president on Jan. 6.
Another purpose of the Stone event was to exhort people to attend the big “Stop the Steal” rally scheduled for Jan. 6 in Washington, DC. As Trump so notoriously told his followers: “Be there. Will be wild!”
Proud Boy Chris Worrell, 53, a resident of East Naples, may have been in the back row when he attended the Tarrio speech in Naples but he was very much on the front line of the rioters when they attacked the Capitol.
As revealed by the Jan. 6 Committee, about 200 to 300 Proud Boys left the rally on the Ellipse before Trump spoke to march to the Capitol, where, as they had planned, they breached the first police barriers at the Peace Circle, opening the way for the general assault.
In the newly released video from the Committee, Worrell plays a prominent role at the Capitol grounds. As police equip themselves in a staging area, Worrell, in a heavily equipped combat vest, screams at them: “Don’t make us go against you!” and “These are our streets!”
Worrell’s alleged involvement in the riot was extensively documented in a 2021 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warrant for his arrest on charges of illegally entering a government building, impeding and interfering with government business, carrying “a deadly or dangerous weapon” (chemical spray) while committing acts of violence, for “willfully and knowingly utter loud, threatening, or abusive language” in the Capitol building to disrupt or impede congressional business and using or carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon in the Capitol.
On June 1, a new, superseding indictment was filed against Worrell by a grand jury in Washington, DC. It added charges of obstructing, impeding and interfering with a law enforcement officer in the conduct of his duties, using the spray against government officials, and added charges against another rioter, Daniel Scott.
Worrell’s lawyer, Alex Stavrou, the third to handle the case, told the Naples Daily News that “The video showing Mr. Worrell is an untruth and incomplete edit purposely done for the purposes of spreading misstatements and falsehoods and trying to control public opinion about Mr. Worrell and others who were at January 6 so as to portray them in a false light.” He added: “He has not been charged with sedition, nor is there any expectation he will.”
Worrell was arrested by the FBI on March 12, 2021 and was initially jailed in Washington, DC, in part due to threats he issued on Facebook against potential witnesses against him. However, he pleaded that his medical conditions, including an alleged case of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, major dental problems and a broken hand he said was improperly treated while in federal custody, merited his release. After some dispute he was placed under house arrest in Naples under a variety of restrictions.
On April 26, he appeared before the Collier County Commission at one of its regular meetings to ask commissioners’ assistance.
“Good morning, Commissioners,” he began. “I am Christopher Worrell, Political Prisoner 377183.”
Worrell emotionally recounted the arrest: “They deployed flash-bang grenades, parked a SWAT tank at the front of my entrance to my door, and held my wife at gunpoint for hours and I wasn’t even home,” he said.
Several times he choked up and wept.
“Due to my blatant civil rights violations I am now not just fighting for my rights and the rights of others, I am fighting for my life,” he said.
When he finished, Commissioner Rick LoCastro, District 1, applauded and said he would meet with Worrell and direct him to the proper officials, since his was a federal indictment beyond the scope of the county commission’s authority.
Worrell is scheduled to be arraigned on the superseding indictment charges on Friday, June 17.
Analysis: Past their peak?
In Southwest Florida, the most recent public appearance of Proud Boys as a group came on May 14 when several Proud Boys came to counter a pro-choice Bans Off Our Bodies demonstration in Fort Myers.
That spasm of protest notwithstanding, overall, it appears that the Proud Boys movement and organization may have peaked and be in decline—for the moment.
It appeared most formidable after its founding in 2016 when it was a shock troop on the leading edge of President Donald Trump’s cult of personality. The fact that it was mentioned by name during a presidential debate and essentially endorsed by Trump himself established its place in the media firmament. There seemed no limit or restraint on its activities—or the threat it presented.
But the group no longer has the sanction and support of a president of the United States. Its top five members have been indicted for seditious conspiracy. The Jan. 6 Committee is exposing its leading—literally—role in the Capitol attack and other activities, violence and even sedition. In Canada it has been designated a terrorist group.
Despite its claims of racial inclusion its members keep putting up those “white power” hand signs, revealing their racism.
In general, the Proud Boys now appear to be outside the cultural zeitgeist and their positions and attitudes seem outmoded and obsolete.
They’re even being mocked on late-night comedy shows. (Stephen Colbert: “I gotta tell you: seeing those guys arrested makes this boy proud,” he said in a monologue on June 8. As for a Proud Boys rule limiting masturbation to once a month, “that’s going to make those 20 years in prison seem pretty long. But I do understand why they’re so angry.”)
To be an overt Proud Boy now is to invite public mockery, law enforcement monitoring and potential arrest rather than inspiring the fear and respect they crave—both nationally and locally.
In a local context, the weeping, self-pitying performance of Christopher Worrell before the Collier County Commission hardly exemplified the masculinity and strength the Proud Boys attempt to project. (And it is worth noting that Worrell’s desire for clemency based on his health concerns hardly extended to his concern for the health or well-being of the police he allegedly attacked on Jan. 6.)
Nor were the current Proud Boys who appeared in Fort Myers on May 14 exactly the most impressive specimens of the species.
What usually happens to extreme ideological movements during periods of decline or eclipse is that they fracture and factionalize. In its short history, the Proud Boys went through multiple chairmen and even its founder has disavowed it. Now this very small group will likely engage in blame and recrimination and fragment around competing extremist would-be leaders as it faces new challenges.
Could it revive? Certainly. But that revival appears far off. If Trump runs for president in 2024 Proud Boys could mobilize again. They may even revivify if there’s a conservative wave at the polls this year. Even then, though, establishment politicians are unlikely to identify with them the way Trump did in 2020. The media will be merciless in exposing and condemning them. They’ve become an electoral liability rather than an asset.
If anything, the Proud Boys resemble the Nazis who were disgraced and demoralized after their failed 1923 putsch. Though the subsequent Nazi movement built the undisciplined, street-brawling Brown Shirts organization in the years afterwards, they became inconvenient and even threatening to Adolf Hitler’s leadership. As a result, they were eliminated in the purge that became known as the Night of the Long Knives in 1934.
Such is often the fate of violent, extremist, fringe organizations. Once they’re no longer useful they’re discarded by the people who use them for their own ends. Further, if past is any prologue, no one discards those who proved loyal in the past but are inconvenient in the present more than Donald Trump.
Perhaps the truest verdict on the Proud Boys is best contained in the biblical proverb: “Pride goeth before a fall.”
The first hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, held last night, June 9, evoked starkly different reactions—though hardly surprising ones—among Southwest Florida Democrats and Republicans.
“This hearing was shocking. We knew so much, but the details are amazing,” tweeted Cindy Banyai, Democratic candidate for Congress in the 19th Congressional District. “My heart is aching and I am so angry at those who deny the severity of this clearly planned attack.”
“These hearings are a microcosm of the division in our country – some define what happened as seditious conspiracy, some as legitimate political discourse,” stated Annisa Karim, chair of the Collier County Democratic Party in a message to The Paradise Progressive.
Despite Republican characterization of the attack on the Capitol as “legitimate political discourse,” Karim pointed out that such discourse doesn’t include members of Congress fleeing for their lives, nooses displayed, or incitement to violence.
“We need to take our partisan hats off and watch these hearings as Americans to understand that our Democracy is fragile and it needs to be protected and defended against all enemies foreign and domestic,” she wrote.
On the Republican side, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) agreed in a tweet with Republican colleague Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-21-NY) that the hearings were a “witch hunt” but “I’ll add something else—[Americans] aren’t going to watch.”
Why wouldn’t Americans watch? “1. Tonight is Game 5 of the NHL playoffs. 2. Most Americans are more concerned with $5+ gas prices & skyrocketing grocery prices. 1/6 is for the history books, not an MSM [mainstream media]-sponsored DNC [Democratic National Committee] ad.
Rep. Mario Diaz (R-25-Fla.) was similarly dismissive. “Tonight’s J6 committee hearing is the most blatant attempt to distract the American people from the disastrous and failed policies of the Democratic Party,” he tweeted.
Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) also followed the Party line, tweeting: “Rather than addressing all of the crises that Biden created for the American people, House Democrats will be putting on a professionally produced show tonight. This is a desperate attempt to shift attention away from the real issues.”
To come: More on the Jan. 6 committee investigation and Southwest Florida
Last night, June 8, Southwest Florida’s congressmen voted against the Protecting Our Kids Act, intended to reduce the incidence of gun violence.
The bill, House Resolution (HR) 7910, passed by a vote of 223 to 204. It now goes to the Senate where a small, bipartisan group of senators are negotiating the terms of their own gun safety bill.
The vote on the House bill was complex because there were separate votes on each of its seven clauses, or titles, to determine if they would stay in the bill. This allowed members of Congress to reveal on the record which anti-violence measures they supported or opposed.
The vote followed a day of dramatic testimony from 11-year-old Uvalde, Texas massacre survivor Miah Cerrillo, Uvalde parents and the mother of a victim wounded in the Buffalo, NY massacre.
All seven titles in the bill passed with majority votes, as did the bill itself.
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who does not live in his district, voted against Title I, which raised the age for sales of semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21. He then sat out votes on Title II, which prohibits straw purchases of firearms and firearms trafficking, and Title III, which prohibits untraceable or “ghost” guns. He voted against Title IV, which requires safe storage of guns to protect children; Title V, which prohibits “bump stocks,” that allow semi-automatic weapons to function as automatic weapons; and Title VI, which prohibits high-capacity magazines.
He did, however, vote in favor of Title VII, which requires the Justice Department to file an annual report on the people who have been denied gun permits. The reports will include their “race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, age, disability, average annual income, and English language proficiency, if available.”
He then voted against the bill in its entirety.
Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), voted against all titles except Title VII, which requires the annual report. He also voted against the entire bill.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), like Steube, voted against all titles except Title VII, which requires the annual report. He too voted against the entire bill.
At an appearance Tuesday morning with Everytown for Gun Safety activists, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) asked: “Why would someone be against raising the age so that teenagers do not have AK-47s? Why would someone not want protection in their home so that the children cannot have access – dangerously – to guns in a deadly way? Why would we? Why would we not side with our law enforcement and say these ghost guns are a danger to all of us in our society?”
She continued: “So, for the children, I say to our colleagues: we really don’t want to hear about your political survival. Your political survival means nothing compared to the survival of our children.”
Immediately following the vote Donalds, who has a long record opposing gun safety and anti-violence bills in both the state legislature and Congress, issued a statement saying: “The knee-jerk proposals we are voting on today will do little to nothing to curb the infliction of heinous violence plaguing America committed by lawless maniacs hellbent on devaluing innocent life.” He called the effort to curb gun violence “an unabashed crusade on our Second Amendment” that “exposed the Democrat’s [sic] disdain and lack of respect for our fundamental rights established in our founding documents.”
Steube, an ardent gun possession advocate who waved a loaded pistol during a remote appearance at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, tweeted, “Why are we punishing law-abiding Americans and taking away their Constitutional right to protect themselves because 0.3% of the population commits violent crimes? I won’t stand for it.” He joined Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-3-Colo.) and host Laura Ingraham on Fox News to denounce the measures.
As of this writing, Diaz-Balart, who has switched positions on gun-related issues in the past, had not issued a statement on his votes.
Another gun violence measure, The Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act (HR 2377) is expected to come up for a vote as early as today. This is essentially a national “red flag” law establishing procedures for “federal extreme risk protection orders” and is similar to Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Act, which was passed into law in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., massacre in 2018. These prohibit arms sales to people deemed a risk to themselves or others. Such people will be prohibited from possessing, shipping, transporting or receiving firearms.
“There are serious Fifth Amendment, constitutional issues with red flag laws because essentially your property can be taken from you by a court of law without you being able to defend yourself in said court of law. Those are the constitutional issues with red flag laws,” he said.
Updated June 4, with addition of Sanibel, Venice, Charlotte County Utilities and new totals
On Thursday, June 2, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) vetoed $7.825 million for projects in Southwest Florida communities.
The vetoes were part of an overall line-item cut that sliced $3.1 billion from the $109.9 billion state budget that takes effect on July 1 for the next fiscal year. The budget was the product of extensive legislative work and negotiation. (The full list of vetoes can be seen here.)
Of all of Southwest Florida’s communities, Cape Coral lost the most with $1.625 million in cuts. Those cuts were:
$1,000,000 for North Wellfield Expansion, a project to improve water treatment;
$375,000 for a Tactical Intelligence and Analytics Center to improve police response times and fight crime;
$250,000 for boardwalk replacement at the Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve along the shore of the Caloosahatchee River, so residents can enjoy the wild local environment.
Fort Myers Beach lost $1 million for Times Square renovation, a project to improve and upgrade the town’s prime gathering place, commercial center and tourist attraction.
Marco Island lost $1.5 million for the Marco Island South Water Treatment Plant West High Service Pump Station, which processes brackish well water into potable water for residents.
Bonita Springs lost $750,000 for Phase 2 of the Bonita Springs Community Park Baseball Complex, which builds on prior upgrades to landscaping, storm water management and pedestrian access.
Sanibel Island lost $100,000 for slough dredging and muck removal.
Venice lost $850,000 for a water treatment plant 2nd stage membrane phase 1.
Charlotte County Utilities lost $2 million for improving communications and cybersecurity.
Another regional recipient was not tied to a specific community: Fakahatchee Strand State Park lost a $3 million appropriation.
Some $350 million was taken from appropriations for unspecified grants and aids to local governments for water quality improvements and Everglades restoration.
The region may also feel indirect impacts from a $750,000 cut to training for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and a $250,000 cut for teacher retention.
When DeSantis unveiled the vetoes at a press conference at The Villages, a retirement community northwest of Orlando, he did so in front of the Republican House and Senate leaders who had constructed the initial budget. He told them “that’s just the way it goes” as they applauded his vetoes of projects for the communities they represent.
The decision announced yesterday, June 1, by the Naples Daily News to cease running weekday opinion pages in its print edition—and, apparently, online—removes an essential public forum from the citizens of Southwest Florida. By doing this the newspaper is failing democracy, its community and most of all, its readers. It’s an action that smacks of cowardice, abandonment and flight.
As the editors explained on the front page yesterday, June 1: “Recently, our company conducted research on how residents view opinion material published by our news outlets. What we learned is that our readers don’t want us to tell them what to think. You’ve grown weary of divisive political commentary that has no bearing on local issues, and as a result, we have worked to eliminate ‘one-sided editorials’ and syndicated national columns. But there is a healthy appetite for thoughtful local commentary, as well as respectful discussion on truly local issues in the form of letters to the editor.”
Frankly, that’s garbage. Of course there are strong opinions and divisiveness on both national and local issues. But it’s precisely in the pages of local newspapers—and media outlets of all types—that these opinions need to be aired and discussed.
And opinion pieces do not tell people what to think. They provide outside perspectives of what other people think so that readers can make up their own minds. Opinion pieces seek to inform and persuade, not dictate. Anyone who feels that a printed opinion is dictating what he or she should think is probably too feebleminded to be reading a newspaper in the first place.
Such feebleminded readers may think when the opinion pages are no longer published they’re not being indoctrinated by op-ed writers. But ceasing to publish opinion also cuts off the outlet for local voices, institutions and agencies that may have urgent or compelling messages for the community—or who simply inform readers of their good works.
What really appears to be behind this is a continuing cutback in the size and cost of the newspaper. It’s what’s behind the smaller size of the newspaper itself and its thinner stock. It’s what’s behind moving the printing to Sarasota and the design out of Florida. It’s what’s behind reducing the comics to two pages from three. It’s behind ceasing to publish on holidays (and so completely missing the big local story of the death of Eko the tiger at the Naples Zoo as it happened at New Year’s.)
Now management is eliminating two pages of opinion in the weekday edition. That means not having to pay for syndicated columnists and cartoonists or having to write original editorials or editing letters to the editor, or, for that matter, having to take a stand on any issue, local or national, that might make some readers uncomfortable.
As for eliminating “one-sided editorials,” that happened some time ago when Allen Bartlett retired as editorial page editor and the newspaper stopped publishing original editorials. Instead it substituted columns and op-eds, including one time a verbatim essay from the conservative Cato Institute, presented as an original editorial.
While saving costs and skirting controversy, ending original editorials was not a cost-free proposition. The newspaper no longer functioned as an independent, informed voice on local events and issues, surrendering its role as a knowledgeable outside observer.
At one time the letters to the editor page seemed absurdly broad. Virtually every letter submitted was published and covered every imaginable subject from the ordinary to the outrageous, from people giving thanks that their cats were rescued from trees to calls to impeach the president, no matter which one was in office. They could be ridiculous; they could be monotonous—and they could also be amusing and enlightening.
But an unfettered, daily letters to the editor column also provided the community with a safety valve and a connection that made readers feel it was their newspaper.
Importantly, the letters to the editor have provided a neutral, non-partisan forum for the airing of concerns, grievances, and most of all, reader opinion. If the concerns have become more national and even global in recent years, if they seem “divisive political commentary that has no bearing on local issues,” well, that’s what’s been on the minds of readers as driven by outside events. A letter to the editor in the Naples Daily News is indeed unlikely to move a president or deter a dictator but it’s at least an expression of a reader’s thinking and together these opinions can show the pulse of the community on important public topics.
Beyond providing a neutral ground for community expression, the opinion pages served as an open forum unbound by the stovepipes of digital media. There’s a huge cascade of opinion in digital and social media, from opinion-based websites to individual comments on Facebook and Twitter but the chief value of a generalized forum like the newspaper is that readers are exposed to opinions they might not otherwise see on their narrowly selected social media feeds or cable TV channels.
The decision to end the daily opinion pages promotes ignorance, prejudice and blinkered thinking—the exact opposite of responsible media’s mission in a democracy. And while there may be letters to the editor on the weekends, the daily ebb and flow of popular thought will be cut off, to the detriment of all, including the newspaper itself.
As it is, over the years the Naples Daily News has chosen not to cover politics in any way. Its last dedicated political reporter was Alexandria Glorioso, who left in 2017 to cover healthcare for Politico in Tallahassee. She was never replaced. The newspaper has simply ignored or avoided doing any original political reporting even while critical debate raged nationally, American democracy was nearly crushed and Southwest Florida was treated to one of the biggest brawls in local politics as a dozen candidates at one point fought for its congressional seat in 2020.
But nature abhors a vacuum. If the major, established media institution in Naples failed to do its job of informing the public of vital news of governance, representation and elections, others would take up the slack.
That’s what sparked creation of The Paradise Progressive, as it says in its About page. It also engendered a conservative counterpart. These digital outlets provide news, analysis and interpretation—as well as polemics and propaganda—from their partisan perspectives but the community is healthier intellectually and politically when there’s a neutral, objective institution defining the middle. If the right and left are to be balanced, there has to be a fulcrum at the center.
So what should the Naples Daily News do?
First, rescind the decision and restore the daily Opinion pages, including an open letters to the editor policy.
Secondly, if page count is the problem then drop the Business section and make it a daily Perspective section instead, even if it’s just a four-page folio. As it is, original local business and real estate reporting usually appears in the front news section. What appears in Business these days are weak syndicated feeds that have little or no local connection—and don’t attract advertising.
Third, get some backbone and restore original locally-oriented editorials, written and/or overseen by an Editorial Page Editor rather than a committee.
Fourth, invite some of the regular letter writers to become columnists to add locally-oriented, regular op-ed columns.
There’s no doubt that the Naples Daily News is in the same economic crunch as its print counterparts across the country. Print advertising is eroding in the face of cable and digital competition and the medium is declining. The prospect is in sight when a print edition won’t be published at all and the newspaper, if it survives in any form, will go all-digital.
But even with that prospect, the answer is not to become less relevant by cutting off an important public forum and weakening Southwest Florida’s already beleaguered democracy—especially on the eve of a critical election. The answer, rather, is to become more vital and more relevant, so that if the Naples Daily News does become just a website it will be an essential one in which the community has a voice and a stake.
As the Washington Post says, “democracy dies in darkness.” And as The Paradise Progressive says…