Southwest Florida faces fiscal storm as great as Hurricane Ian

A scene from the 2000 movie “The Perfect Storm.” (Image: Warner Bros.)

Jan. 24, 2023 by David Silverberg

In 1997, the book The Perfect Storm told the story of the fishing boat Andrea Gail, which sailed into weather that was a “perfect” combination of three different storms blending into one catastrophic tempest.

Today, Southwest Florida is facing a “perfect” fiscal storm that blends three political squalls into a single horrendous gale that could prove as devastating in its own way as Hurricane Ian.

This storm is not of Southwest Florida’s own making. It’s the result of extreme ideas and doctrines being pursued in the nation’s capital. Nor will it affect Southwest Florida alone; the entire nation and the world will also suffer if the worst comes to pass.

However, Southwest Florida has unique factors that will increase the impact of this fiscal hurricane if it reaches full strength.

It’s a classic case of political passions being blindly pursued without an appreciation for their impacts on the ground or on the lives of everyday citizens. It’s also an illustration of the ways national policy affects an area as remote from the center of power as Southwest Florida.

The trend is dangerous, damaging and needs to be stopped. Fortunately, it’s the result of decisions yet to be made. So it’s not a perfect storm—yet.

Storm 1: The debt limit

On Thursday, Jan. 19, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sent a letter to congressional leaders informing them that the United States had reached its statutory debt limit. Treasury would now take “extraordinary measures” to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States. However, those measures would only sustain the nation until June.

In the US House of Representatives, extreme Make America Great Again (MAGA) Republicans are insisting that raising the debt limit be accompanied by major concessions by the White House. House Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-23-Calif.) has largely followed their direction. President Joe Biden is maintaining that the United States paying its debts is a national obligation that transcends party politics and is refusing to treat it as a political football. If the House doesn’t act, the United States will go into default for the first time in its history. (A fuller explanation of the debt limit is at the end of this article.)

How would Southwest Floridians feel the impact of a US default? In a 2021 paper explaining the issue, White House economists pointed out that: “everyday households would be affected in a number of ways—from not receiving important social program payments like Social Security or housing assistance, to seeing increased interest rates on mortgages and credit card debt.”

In other words, everyone would get poorer—in Southwest Florida and everywhere.

Storm 2: Social Security

The Social Security program has been in Republican crosshairs since it was initiated in 1935. Eighty-eight years later, that hasn’t changed and the threat, if anything, has become more acute.  

Most recently, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) issued a “Commitment to America” plan last year that would have subjected Social Security to five-year reauthorizations, meaning that it could be eliminated at any time. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) proposed renewing the reauthorization every year, making it even more precarious.

Given the age of its population, Southwest Florida’s seniors are particularly dependent on Social Security to maintain their fiscal viability. Some 3,984 Collier County residents and 12,547 Lee County residents were Social Security recipients as of December 2021, according to the Social Security Administration. Nationally, 65 million Americans receive Social Security benefits.

If Social Security is severely cut or eliminated—for example as a result of a federal default or a crippling deal on the debt limit—those seniors would lose a significant chunk of their income. That, in turn, would kick a major pillar out of the year-round local economy, depressing it further after the blow of Hurricane Ian.

Storm 3: Attacks on healthcare

Among the cuts being discussed are those to Medicare and Medicaid, the two major health insurance programs. No Republican has threatened these programs more than Scott, whose Commitment to America would have stripped Medicare of the right to negotiate drug prices and removed a $2,000 cap on out-of-pocket pharmacy expenses.

Given the age of its residents, cuts to these programs would disproportionately affect Southwest Florida’s population. In 2021 Collier County had 109,305 Medicare enrollees and Lee County 210,408, according to the Florida Department of Health.

If Republican-proposed cuts went through, not only would the recipients see an abrupt cut in their benefits but Southwest Florida’s otherwise robust healthcare system would face a sudden, drastic drop in its revenues, which in turn would affect the rest of the regional economy.

This would come on top of the physical devastation of Hurricane Ian—at a time when affected Southwest Floridians need all the help they can get with shelter and the basic necessities of life.

Commentary: Avoiding the storm

At this point there’s no telling how the discussions over the debt limit will play out. Even responsible Republicans are horrified by the prospect of an American default.

“America must never default — we never have, and we never will,” vowed Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the Senate minority leader, in 2021.

Interestingly enough, even former President Donald Trump has warned against cutting Social Security and Medicare.

“Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security,” Trump warned in a two-minute video message posted online on Jan. 19. While otherwise attacking Biden, Democrats, immigrants and advocating cuts in other areas, he emphatically stated: “Do not cut the benefits our seniors worked for and paid for their entire lives. Save Social Security. Don’t destroy it!”

For once, both the former and current presidents are in agreement: “This is something that should be done without conditions, and we should not be taking hostage key programs that the American people really earned and care about — Social Security, Medicare, it should not be put in a hostage situation,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre yesterday, Jan. 23.

Locally, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has warned that cuts are coming. “Newsflash for the admin: We’re going to negotiate, we’re going to have meaningful spending cuts & we can talk about the debt ceiling,” stated Donalds in a tweet yesterday morning, Jan. 23. “We should end COVID-era overspending. We have to get our budget back on track! If they think they’ll be cutting some side deal they’re mistaken.”

Is there anything that a citizen opposed to this cataclysm can do about this? The measures for voter feedback and input are in place: contact lawmakers to make opinions known—in the case of Southwest Florida that’s Donalds and Reps. Mario Diaz Balart (R-26-Fla.), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) (currently laid up due to a fall from his roof and not voting in Congress until he can return to Washington).

Even if e-mails, phone calls and letters don’t change members’ public stances it at least registers the opinions of their constituents and they have to take that into consideration as they stake their positions.

Also, members of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) have a powerful lobbying voice in Washington and active engagement with that organization can help shore up important programs of vital importance to seniors.

The impact of local officials on these matters should not be overlooked either. Officials like county executives and mayors are in contact with Washington lawmakers. If they know the importance of these programs to local residents and the fact that residents—and voters—are watching, that concern will percolate upward to congressional lawmakers. Local officials need to be pressed to make their positions known by issuing public letters to members of Congress stating the importance of programs like Social Security, Medicare and aid to the region and their jurisdictions.

Treasury Secretary Yellen’s “extraordinary measures” run out in June. If an agreement isn’t reached before then, the fiscal storm will hit and Southwest Florida will feel the brunt of it.

And that’s one storm that can’t be mitigated with hurricane shutters and extra bottles of water.

*  *  *

A brief primer on the debt limit

The “debt limit” or “debt ceiling” is the amount of debt that the United States is allowed to have outstanding. The “national debt” is all the money the United States has borrowed throughout its history. It incurs that debt when revenues, for example from taxes, don’t cover its needs and it issues bonds or sells securities to cover the shortfall. These are perfectly legal and well established means that all governments use to meet their needs.

Since its founding in 1776, the United States has always met its obligations. It has incurred debts but it has paid those debts on time and in full. Through war, depression and political change, this reliability and predictability has made the United States the foundation of the world financial system. People, institutions and other governments have been able to count on America honoring its promises (its “faith”) and making its payments (its “credit”).

The US national debt currently stands at $31.381 trillion and it needs to raise its statutory limit to cover payments on its debt. This is not discretionary; the full faith and credit of the United States depends on it meeting its obligations. Its creditors, which include other governments, are depending on its payments. If the United States fails to meet its obligations, the entire global financial system could collapse, setting off an international panic and bringing about a crash as terrible as that of 1929.

The debt limit must be raised by Congress. Since the debt limit was established by Congress in 1917, raising the limit to cover obligations already incurred through legislation has been a relatively routine and non-controversial matter. Congress passed appropriations legislation to spend money that must be covered by borrowing, now the United States would pay the obligations it had freely and deliberately incurred.

It was a practice based on a simple proposition: honorable people pay their debts and they do it on time and in full. As it was for individuals, so it is for the nation. Support for US solvency has been broad and bipartisan throughout its history.

However, because raising the debt limit is essential, it has become a political wedge in an effort to extract concessions, with the ultimate threat of allowing a US default.

This brinkmanship started in 2006 when Democrats—including then-Sen. Joe Biden—threatened to refuse to raise the limit to protest the ongoing war in Iraq and tax cuts for the wealthy by the administration of President George W. Bush. The refusal was meant as a gesture of protest, not an attempt to bring down the United States.

In 2011 and 2013 Republicans threatened to allow a default to force spending cuts by President Barack Obama. This time, the threat was more serious and a faction of Republicans was ready to accept default in order to get its way.

In all these cases compromises were found, the debt ceiling was raised and the United States met its obligations, although in 2011 the US credit rating was downgraded by the Standard & Poor’s rating service from AAA (outstanding) to AA+ (excellent), the first time in history that happened.

In 2023, the extremism, fanaticism and leverage of the MAGA faction in the House of Representatives, as well as the weakness of McCarthy Republicans, makes a default a much more serious and possible prospect than in the past.

Liberty lives in light

© 2023 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Can bill on harmful algal blooms make it all the way this time?

A sign warns of red tide at the entrance to Delnor-Wiggins State Park in Naples during the 2018 Big Bloom. (Photo: Author)

Jan. 17, 2023 by David Silverberg

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has announced that he has reintroduced the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act in the current Congress.

The bill ensures that federal agencies continue monitoring harmful algal blooms (HABs) like red tide even if there is a government shutdown. These agencies include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

In its look at the year ahead, The Paradise Progressive strongly urged that the measure be introduced this year before any kind of government shutdown takes place.

As of this writing, the proposed bill had not yet received a number.

The bill is particularly important to Southwest Florida, which has been plagued with outbreaks of the naturally occurring red tide, which is fed by pollution.

“This bill utilizes federal resources for tackling the environmental and economic challenges brought on by HABs in Southwest Florida and throughout America,” Donalds announced in a Jan. 12 statement. “Over the last 60 years, these events have increased substantially––impacting local economies, our nation’s ecosystems, and the American people’s health.

It continued: “Safeguarding public health and our coastal ecosystems requires the collective collaboration of federal, state, and local governments. This necessary legislation bolsters the federal government’s role in combating HABs throughout the United States.”

The bill amends the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998.

The operative paragraph states: “Any services by an officer or employee under this chapter relating to web services and server processing for the Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecast System of the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shall be deemed, for purposes of Section 1342 of Title 31, United States Code, services for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

The bill is especially important given the increased possibility of government shutdowns by the Republican House of Representatives.

The bill was first introduced in June 2019 by Rep. Francis Rooney who had organized a conclave of federal, state and local officials concerned about HABs, made more urgent by an acute and prolonged toxic bloom in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caloosahatchee River in 2018. (For a fuller account of the issue, see: “Water warning: The politics of red tide, algae and lessons from the Big Bloom.”)

That bill received bipartisan support, with 16 cosponsors, 11 Democrats and 5 Republicans. The Democrats included Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-13-Mich.) and then-Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.). Republicans included Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.). It advanced past the subcommittee stage to consideration by the full Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, in addition to the Committee on Natural Resources. However, it made no further progress.

Donalds reintroduced it in the 117th Congress following his 2020 election. At that time it garnered 9 cosponsors, 5 Republicans and 4 Democrats. However, it did not advance past the subcommittee stage.

Analysis: Looking ahead

Can Donalds actually shepherd this bill from subcommittee to full committee, to full House approval, to Senate consideration, to final approval by President Joe Biden?

Monitoring, preventing and coping with HABs is a vital issue for the health and wellbeing of Southwest Floridians, especially in the wake of Hurricane Ian. This measure is a small action that will nonetheless contribute to more advanced warnings of harmful blooms, even if there’s a government shutdown.

The handling of this legislation will demonstrate Donalds’ legislative capabilities to Southwest Floridians and the rest of Congress. It needs to be watched closely.

Liberty lives in light

© 2023 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Politics in 2023: Looking ahead at Don vs. Ron, MAGA madness and the race to the right

Gazing at a crystal ball on the beach at sunset—a Florida way to discern the future.

Jan. 1, 2023 by David Silverberg

New Year’s parties are celebrations of hope that the year to come will be better than the year past; that problems will be solved, challenges met and new opportunities open.

But just what are the political challenges and events Southwest Florida, the Sunshine State and the nation are likely to face in 2023? As the immortal Yogi Berra once put it so well: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Tough as predicting is, existing trends provide some indication of where things are going and when it comes to politics, it’s wise to be ready for what’s ahead—or at least to brace for it.

Don vs. Ron vs. Joe

Are you already tired of hearing about the rivalry between former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ronald DeSantis (R)?

Well, too bad. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

This is the political story likely to dominate the year. It’s got everything: colorful characters, high stakes, nasty insults, personal rancor, fanatical partisans, absurdity galore, mentor vs. protégé, sorcerer vs. apprentice, and horse-race polling to generate headlines as each candidate pulls ahead or behind ever more exotic and narrow slices of the electorate.

What’s more, the rivalry will fill in the news gap between election years, when there’s usually little happening, so political reporters can always cover the contest when they’re on deadline and there’s nothing else to report.

As a result, every belch, snort and fart from these two will be analyzed and evaluated through a campaign lens.

At issue, of course, is the presidency and with it the future of the United States. That part is serious.

Integral to this story will be the indictment and prosecution of Trump for a long list of transgressions stretching back from before his presidency.

Not only has Trump now officially been accused of actual crimes: obstructing an official congressional proceeding; conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to make a false statement; and aiding an insurrection, but if tried and found guilty, he’s facing punishment. Whether this actually happens is already a major story and it won’t be resolved any time soon.

But beyond that question, the entire political establishment, both Democratic and Republican, the “deep state” and the mainstream media and a majority of voters don’t want him back and genuinely fear his possible return. They will do all they can to stop him. The fate of American democracy hangs in the balance.

Also, while it’s easy to forget the existence of Democrats in Florida, nationally they’re still a force to be reckoned with and the chief Democrat, President Joe Biden, has a big decision of his own to make: will he run again?

Expectations are that an announcement may come in February. If he announces another run, the media will focus on that. But if he chooses to retire there may be another Democratic stampede for the nomination as there was in 2020. If he decides to anoint a successor, the focus will be on the heir apparent, who, like DeSantis, will have to walk a narrow and difficult course for the next two years to preserve his or her viability. Or if he decides not to declare, the speculation will be prolonged for another year.

A more intense and exhausting drama than all this could not have been dreamed up by William Shakespeare. And all next year’s a stage.

Congress and revenge

Had the hoped-for Republican “red wave” materialized, Republican members of Congress would have taken revenge on Democrats in a thousand different ways. They would have pushed legislation to turn back the clock to implement the Make America Great Again (MAGA) agenda. They very well might have impeached President Joe Biden for the high crime of being a Democrat. They would have tried to undo or cover up the felonies of the insurrection and would have done all they could to exonerate, excuse and elevate Trump.

Republicans are still likely to try those things. Expect a cascade of House investigations in an effort to weaken and undermine the administration and Biden’s re-election. It will be a replay of Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails on steroids.

However, when it comes to substantive legislation, Democrats kept the Senate, meaning that no matter how extreme the proposals coming out of the House, none are likely to make it into law.

The United States has dealt with divided government before and some sessions were surprisingly productive. That doesn’t seem likely this time, though.

In the past, reasonable compromise was considered not just respectable but a strength of the American system. Trump, though, brought an absolutist, zero-sum, win-lose approach to government and politics. He infected his party and about half the population with that attitude. Until time passes and that fever burns off, much of the essential functioning of government could be stymied by political intransigence.

This could especially manifest itself in September when the new fiscal year appropriations must be approved. We could see a government shutdown—or shutdowns—at that time if House Republicans dig in.

The possibility of that happening means that measures to protect Southwest Florida need to be implemented before the showdown. In particular, Congress needs to pass the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act, which would ensure that federal activities monitoring and responding to harmful algal blooms like red tide will continue despite any shutdowns.

This legislation needs to be passed early, with bipartisan support. The bill was originally the idea and a priority of former Rep. Francis Rooney, who was unable to advance it.

Unfortunately, the key congressman on this legislation, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who introduced the bill in the last Congress, has shown little to no interest in it. Nor has he shown any legislative ability, so it has few prospects in the 118th Congress.

Unless someone in the Florida delegation is willing to pick up this cause and champion this legislation, Southwest Florida will be at the mercy of a deadlocked, recalcitrant Congress, which in turn will leave the region, literally, at the mercy of the tides.

DeSantis and the race to the right

The most dangerous kind of politician is the kind who actually believes what he says. Ron DeSantis appears to believe a lot of the extremism he espouses.

He has clearly decided that when it comes to policy he cannot allow himself to be outflanked on the right, either at home or nationally. No matter how absurd or illogical the premise he seems convinced that he must be leading the ideological charge—even if it’s headed over a cliff.

This led him to wage cultural war on science, education, vaccines, immigrants, gays and public health during 2022. It won him a resounding re-election in Florida. There’s no reason to expect any change in the next year.

In fact, it’s likely to intensify given his presidential ambitions and the rise of his rivals. For example, in September DeSantis generated headlines by spending state money to fly Venezuelan asylum-seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts without any prior notice or coordination. Potential presidential candidate Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) couldn’t let that go unanswered, so, in December he similarly bused Central and South American immigrants from Texas to Vice President Kamala Harris’ official residence in Washington, DC.

We’re likely to see a lot of such posturing in the year ahead, using people as pawns.

But it won’t just happen at the presidential level. In Florida, given the Republican supermajority in the legislature, the race to the right will be a dominant force there too. State legislators can be expected to prove their MAGA bona fides and curry favor with DeSantis and the far-right base by introducing ever more extreme measures.

One place where this is likely to express itself is in abortion. Last year Florida passed a 15-week abortion restriction. That’s unlikely to stand as state legislators vie to show the depth of their extremism. Anti-abortionists want a complete ban on abortion in the state. DeSantis has coyly stayed uncommitted. Republican legislators have no such restraints. A total abortion ban looms. And who’s going to stop them? Democrats? Certainly not Naples’ own Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Naples), who now presides over the state Senate.

Another area is education. DeSantis reached down into local school boards to endorse his own partisans. In the past year state legislators proposed their own measures and Southwest Florida representatives were in the lead. State Rep. Spencer Roach (R-76-Fort Myers) proposed making school board races overtly partisan. Rep. Bob Rommel (R-81-Naples) wanted to put video cameras in classrooms to monitor the dangerous teachers teaching there. In 2023 not only are we likely to see more such measures introduced, they’re likely to pass and be signed into law.

This kind of extremism is particularly manifest locally in Collier County where MAGA candidates now constitute a majority of the county school board. Jerry Rutherford (District 1) revealed after his election that he wants to impose corporal punishment to enforce more rigid and punitive conformity on students, a MAGA rallying cry.

Despite the outrage from parents who suddenly woke up to what they had elected, Rutherford was officially ensconced in his position as was the rest of the board. The Collier County school system, which was previously ­rated the gold standard for the state, is now likely to crater as dogma, discipline and docility take the place of education, enquiry and enlightenment as priorities for students.

Madness at the margins

One might think that all this success for MAGAism would satisfy its adherents. But exactly the opposite has proven to be true. The level of MAGA anger and rage is absolutely incandescent. Reflecting the fury of their increasingly cornered idol, Trump, MAGAs are lashing out in fury and their first target is the one closest at hand: moderate, traditional Republicans, the so called Republicans in Name Only, or RINOs.

MAGAs blame a less than fervent pro-Trump RINO establishment for the dissipation of the expected red wave. Their hatred is manifested in opposition to electing Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-23-Calif.) as Speaker of the House. In Florida they’ve made a determined push to take over county Republican executive committees.

Will this rage dissipate in 2023? This does not seem likely. In fact, it’s likely to increase.

While DeSantis and MAGAs dominate Florida, in the rest of the country MAGAism is being marginalized as people defend democracy. Trump’s big lie about a stolen 2020 election appears more and more delusional and threadbare every day. Only the truly incredulous can continue to believe it. Election deniers did notably poorly in the 2022 election. More losing conservative candidates conceded defeat than followed the examples of Trump or Arizona gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake in charging fraud. And the conspiracies behind the insurrection were exposed by the January 6th Committee.

MAGAism is gradually being pushed to the fringes of American political life, where it lived before the advent of Trump. For those committed to the creed, however, the sheer frustration, the looming powerlessness, and the futility of their feelings are fueling a bitterness that is truly amazing to behold.

The advance of Republican centrism, the marginalization of extremism and the defeat of MAGAism will be a trend to watch over the coming year, especially as the majority of Americans outside Florida embrace more normal, constitutional politics. But every setback, every defeat, every restraint will fuel MAGA “hatred, prejudice and rage,” as Trump once put it. How that resentment expresses itself, in Florida and elsewhere, will be the other part of this story in 2023.

Storm damage

The dome homes of Cape Romano in 2021. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The 2023 political agenda of Southwest Florida is already set but its creator was not any politician. Rather, it was a storm named Ian.

Hurricane Ian was a force beyond the capacity of any human to alter or stop. Its sheer devastation and destruction will influence Southwest Florida for many years, probably for a generation at least.

In the coming year all Southwest Florida politicians will have to cope with and contribute to the recovery of the region, regardless of their political beliefs. The need is real and continues to be urgent.

Officials at all levels can assist by getting the money for rebuilding that the region is entitled to receive from the state and the federal government and doing what they can to get more. However, the fanatical anti-federal, anti-government, anti-tax, anti-investment ideology most local politicians espouse will not help. Instead it will lead to more actions like the mass resignation of North Captiva firefighters who were denied a reasonable budget increase and so left the service.

Nor will the governor’s line-item vetoes of local funding requests or the refusal of members of Congress like Donalds to request earmarks help the region. Voters and the local mainstream media have to keep watch and ask: who is helping Southwest Florida recover? Who is helping it get the resources it needs? Who is shirking? Names need to be taken and asses kicked when necessary.

Hurricane Ian should have also completely put to rest any residual argument about the reality of climate change. Between ferocious storms like Ian, the Christmas bomb cyclone and fire, flooding and blizzards, climate change is here. No reasonable, sentient human can muster an argument to deny it. Politicians of all persuasions have to acknowledge it and prepare the coastal population for its effects.

Will Florida and its politicians finally acknowledge this? Their sense of reality needs critical scrutiny in the year ahead.

If they need a reminder they need look no further than the famous dome homes of Cape Romano. Built on solid ground in 1982, with every passing year the Gulf encroached and the waters rose around them. This year Hurricane Ian provided the coup d’grace. The homes are now completely under water.

Unless Floridians wake up, the rest of Florida will follow.

The area of the dome homes in Cape Romano after Hurricane Ian. (Photo: NBC2)

Beyond the abyss

If current trend lines are projected outward, Florida’s political future in 2023 looks like a dark, gaping sinkhole of ignorance, illness and intolerance.

But it doesn’t have to be this way and the story that proved it in 2022 took place half a world away from Florida and the United States.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022—a date that will live in infamy—Russian president Vladimir Putin expected the war to be over in two to three days.

The world didn’t have much greater expectations. Ukraine was outnumbered, had less than half the population of Russia, had far fewer resources and a weaker army and appeared to be a rickety, corrupt ex-Soviet colony presided over by a former comedian.

Instead, through patriotism, determination and astonishing courage, Ukraine, its president Volodomir Zelensky and its people fought for their lives and country—and are winning battles and may actually achieve a clear, just victory.

It’s unlikely to occur soon, however. When wars break out people often expect a quick resolution to what is clearly a terrible and painful conflict. That’s what happened at the outset of the American Civil War and the First World War.

However, if history is any guide, Putin’s war in Ukraine may last through 2023 and beyond—as long as Putin is in power. Both sides have too much at stake to give in.

But the Ukrainian case serves as an example to everyone facing apparent inevitability. Determination and courage do make a difference and can hold or turn back a seemingly unstoppable tide of tyranny despite overwhelming odds. It happened in the American Revolution and in Britain’s defiance of Nazi Germany in World War II.

In Florida and the United States in the coming year those who still put their faith in justice and democracy and enlightenment can look to Ukraine’s example for inspiration.

When it comes to human events it’s always wise to remember that humans can affect those events and alter their course. Nothing is set in stone until after it happens.

The San Francisco radio station KSAN used to have a tagline: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!”

So in 2023, to paraphrase KSAN: if you don’t like this future, go out and make one of your own.

Liberty lives in light

© 2023 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

The MAGA Maneuver: The extreme attempt to take over Florida’s Republican Party and what it means—Updated

Alfie Oakes at Mar-a-Lago on Nov. 15 at Donald Trump’s presidential campaign announcement. (Photo: Facebook)

Dec. 15, 2022 by David Silverberg

Updated Dec. 17 with the results of Lake County election, new Michael Thompson election results statement, and correction to Kristina Heuser’s election status.

On Dec. 5, while much of the political world was focusing on the imminent results of the Georgia Senate runoff election, in Florida forces loyal to Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again (MAGA) ideology launched an attempt to take over the state Republican Party at the county level.

Many attempts succeeded—and nowhere more so than in Collier and Lee counties.

As a result, the Florida Republican Party appears to be metamorphosing into the Trump-MAGA Party going into 2023, which was the activists’ aim.

This was not a coup; there was no violence, rules were not broken and votes took place as scheduled in local party executive committees throughout Florida.

It was—and is—however, a determined effort by a Trumpist faction to implant its adherents and take control of the Party machinery. In many cases non-MAGA Republicans, despite long records of Party activism, conservative beliefs, and indeed, support for Donald Trump, were labeled as Republicans in Name Only (RINOs) or more ominously as “enemies” and even “traitors.”

This intra-party contest could perhaps best be described as an “attack-election” using electoral means to pursue narrow ends among a very limited electorate.

What does this mean for Florida’s Republican Party? What does it mean for Republicans nationally and for the nation as a whole as it begins a presidential election cycle? What does it mean for Donald Trump and his opponent, sitting Gov. Ron DeSantis? Most of all, is this an indication of things to come both within the state and nationally?

Collier County was illustrative of the means, methods and motivation for what took place—and is taking place—state-wide.

The Collier County case

The precursor to the Collier County attack-election came on Nov. 13 when Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III posted a screed to Facebook.

At that point it looked like Democrats might retain the US House of Representatives since a handful of races remained undecided.

“In case you’re not paying attention in the last two days….It’s over !!!!There  is not going to be a 2024 election, Forget Trump…. Forget DeSantis and it’s not because there are more socialist in our country…. it is because of blatant theft of our electoral process… they are stealing every necessary seat right in front of our eyes, worse than 2020,” Oakes wrote. “They will now be taking over the house for absolute and full control … meanwhile our disgraceful Republicans are sitting on their hands! We are the majority!  The globalist run main stream media has duped us into believing that we are not!”

For those unfamiliar with Oakes, he is an outspokenly conservative farmer, grocer and Trump activist. He was elected a state Republican committeeman in 2020 and through his Citizens Awake Now Political Action Committee funded and supported the successful 2022 election campaigns of MAGA candidates for county commission and board of education.

Despite his election successes, Oakes was displeased with the results of the 2022 midterms. Oakes’ screed is worth quoting at length because it reveals the attitude and perceptions that drove the attack-election. (Punctuation, capitalization, syntax and spacing are unchanged from the original.)

“It’s sickening how everyone is just sitting back waiting for the cabal  to complete the full takeover of our country with this blatant and massive election fraud ! It’s like WW2 Jews waiting around, hoping things get better.

“Do we not understand this is the final straw? If we don’t stand up now and take whatever measures are necessary our Republic is over… actually it is over!

“I’m sickened by all this bickering between the people in our party arguing about Donald Trump and Ron Desantis it’s a distraction!

“There is only one enemy the globalist cabal using massive voter fraud right in front of our noses!so called Republicans are not doing a damn thing about it..no one is!

“We need a GIANT call to action for EVERY America First Republican in office to stand up… and for the candidates that have been beaten by fraud, NOT to concede and demand an immediate in person hand count with observers of both parties choices. This is insane what is happening. Like in the Bible, we are being mocked by evil forces (the left) and they are going to tell us come Monday, sorry, you lost now go away or take it to court—and we know how that ends. “WE THE PEOPLE must BOLDLY identify the enemy and NAME them! Make lists! Speak plainly and call them out as being “The enemies of the free people of “these” United States. Get others to completely understand that these are not politician and was likely s, but rather enemies to our freedoms!”

Oakes’ local discontent mirrored that of former White House advisor Steve Bannon, who has long called for a “village-by-village” campaign on behalf of MAGAism. It was also shared by fellow Trumpers.

Ultimately Republicans won the House, if with a narrower majority than the party faithful preferred.

On Dec. 5, the Collier County Republican Executive Committee (CCREC) was scheduled to hold its organizational meeting and election at 6:00 pm that evening. This meeting was restricted to Republican Party members. The public and media were excluded.

But before the meeting, fractures in the local Republican Party between MAGAs and non-MAGAs became glaringly and contentiously apparent in dueling e-mails and personal attacks.

Oakes and other MAGA activists prepared a slate of candidates and two messages, one positively endorsing challengers and another, denouncing incumbents. The two messages were sent out twice on Sunday, Dec. 4, and once at 11:45 am on Monday, Dec. 5, all under Oakes’ name, photo and logo.

The positive endorsement message began: “When tyranny becomes law, it is the duty of We the People to alter or abolish it. Like our Founding Fathers, the American people have endured many abuses. As Republicans, it is our responsibility to begin exercising our constitutionally protected rights and take back our country! Our first step is to elect five America First conservatives to the Collier County Republican Executive Committee (CCREC) Board… .”

The message continued: “…we must elect Nick Lichter (Chairman), Dan Cook (Vice-Chairman), Lisa Johnson (Treasurer), and John Krol (Assistant Treasurer) to the Executive Board.”

It asserted: “These patriots will boldly stand against the enemies of freedom, and they will unite the Republican Party by leading with courage and conviction. For far too long and at every level of government, the CCREC has allowed celebrity politicians and self-seeking grifters in Washington DC, Tallahassee, Collier County, and on the School Board to govern in the wrong direction.”

According to his message, Oakes’ endorsed candidates had agreed to govern according to a long list of principles and practices.

Fifteen minutes after the initial endorsements, the second e-mail went out under Oakes’ logo, photo and name slamming opponents with detailed, in-depth critiques of their personalities and performance.

“Kristina Heuser is not the right person for Chairperson,” was one headline in the message, accusing the aspirng CCREC chair of ethical lapses. “Yvette Benarroch is too divisive to serve” as vice chair, stated another headline, accusing her of being “combative and divisive” and “oftentimes disrespectful to the Chairman.” A third headline stated: “Nanette Rivera has a bad track record as Treasurer.”

The message concluded: “We, as a collective Party, that wants to bring back the America First Agenda MUST stand Up and REFUSE to elect these candidates to our Collier County Republican Executive Committee Executive Board!”

Seven minutes after that Oakes sent another message, this time without the header: “Some selected  members of our REC [Republican Executive Committee] have been sent two emails that appear to be from me…they are not!” it stated.

“I am extremely disappointed that [State Committee member] JoAnn [DeBartolo] and Tom [Ravana], [local conservative, pro-Trump Republican activists] took it upon themselves to attach my picture and name to a hit piece email on Kristina Heuser, Yvette Benarroch and Nanette Rivera.

“While it is true that I am not endorsing any of the above candidates… I would NEVER have sent out a hit piece! There is already way too much drama within our REC, I would never add fuel to the fire.”

In the same message Oakes also accused DeBartolo of deliberately omitting his endorsement of incumbent Kathi Meo as secretary.

Oakes told The Paradise Progressive in a telephone interview that neither e-mail came from his personal e-mail address and “I was very upset when they put my name on that second e-mail.” Further, “some of those people were good people who shouldn’t have been trashed.”

Ravana, one of the two people who Oakes stated was responsible for sending out the e-mails, has stated in his turn that Oakes was well aware of the contents and wording of the second message and knowingly approved it prior to its being sent.

At 11:00 am on Sunday, Dec. 4, Oakes texted several poeple about the message, saying: “It looks very good…well put together…where do I get the list to send it out to everyone?”

That evening Republicans gathered at the Naples Area Board of Realtors building. Present were sitting elected officials Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-27-Naples), newly elected president of the Florida Senate, state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-81-Naples), state Rep. Lauren Melo (R-82-East Collier) Collier County Commissioner Bill McDaniel (R-District 5), and incoming Commissioner Daniel Kowal (R-District 4).

During the discussion McDaniel nominated Heuser for chair.

Despite that endorsement and other support for the incumbents, when the voting was held, the MAGA slate swept the balloting.

The victories gave Oakes a 2022 trifecta: his endorsed candidates now sit on two seats of a five seat Collier County Board of Commissioners, three seats on the five-seat county Board of Education and all official seats of the CCREC.

Not only did the midterms and CCREC election result in a near-completely MAGA Collier County, they made Oakes its de facto political boss. He had a far more successful record of endorsements than Donald Trump had nationwide in the congressional midterms.

Oakes doesn’t see himself as a boss, however. “I did help facilitate America First candidates to get exposure,” he told The Paradise Progressive. “I was helpful in vetting people. Yeah, I helped a lot but really, the people spoke and they spoke overwhelmingly.”

A near coin-toss in Lee County

In Lee County the outcome was not nearly as clear and decisive, as detailed by reporter Jacob Ogles on the newssite, Florida Politics.

On Dec. 11, three candidates contended for Lee County Republican Chair, which was being vacated by Jonathan Martin, who was just elected to the state Senate from the 33rd District.

One contender was Andrew Sund, president of the Cape Coral Republican Club. The second was Missi Lastra, former president of Lee Republican Women of Cape Coral and a regional field director for the Trump campaign. The third was Michael Thompson, a long-time conservative activist, founder of a conservative website and fervent Trumper from eastern Lee County.

Thompson won the largest share of votes (88) on the first ballot compared to Sund’s 71 and Lastra’s 36 but not enough for a majority.

In the second round, Lastra endorsed Sund but the tally deadlocked at 96 to 96. According to Ogles’ account, members debated whether to flip a coin for a winner or hold another vote and decided to vote again.

On the third ballot, one Sund supporter gave up a vote and Thompson won by a single ballot, 96 to 95.

Prior to the election Thompson called for a shakeup of the Party. “We have no committees available for volunteers to work on, we have a tired board who want to keep things the same and the two sides are trying to figure out the direction the REC will go moving forward,” he told Florida Politics.

Thompson’s election was not universally welcomed. The vote outcome was “a dark day for the future of the Lee GOP,” said state Rep. Spencer Roach (R-76-Fort Myers), a staunchly conservative representative.

The reaction to his statement was emblematic of the tenor of the executive committee races.

“Apparently Spencer Roach has just jumped the proverbial shark and is now a full-on establishment RINO,” posted a MAGA supporter named Ragnar Danneskjöld on Facebook.  “He really doesn’t like it that you ‘holocaust deniers’ (aka America First  folks) won the Lee county REC .  There has always been doubts as to his ‘conservative’ bonafides, now he’s let us all know the real Roach.  That’s one of the benefits to the America First movement…these RINOs just have to expose themselves, like moths to a flame, or bugs to a roach motel.”

Flynn defeat in Sarasota and other races

In Sarasota County former national security advisor and lieutenant general Michael Flynn, a resident of Englewood, guided the attempted takeover. Here, the MAGA drive failed.

It was, however, a close-run thing. Flynn backed Conni Brunni, a MAGA Trump activist for Republican Party chair. She lost by a mere 33 votes to Jack Brill, 57, the sitting chairman who has been active in Republican politics since he was 17 and who was endorsed by most Republican county officials.

The defeat was ironic because Flynn had made local action a keystone of his message to fellow MAGA believers, telling them that “Local Action = National Impact.” After moving to Englewood last year, he volunteered as a precinct captain and involved himself in the county Republican executive committee. He is widely seen in MAGA circles as a master strategist in light of his brief service in the Trump administration and his key role in trying to overturn the 2020 election.

In other counties, MAGA candidates succeeded. In Alachua County near Gainesville, Tim Marden, a Newberry city commissioner and fervent John Birch Society member, was elected county Party chairman by two votes.

In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, Dana Galen, who characterizes herself as “a strict constitutionalist and America First Republican,” won her election for county chair.

In Lake County, west of Orlando, Anthony Sabatini won as chair of the REC, ousting incumbent Walter Price.

“It’s time to make the State and National GOP a true party of the grassroots and the America-First movement,” Sabatini tweeted  after his election. “And that starts right here in Lake County.”

Other Republican county executive committee elections will be taking place in the days ahead.

Analysis: What it means and where it’s going

To partisans of any political organization or cause, the opposition always seems to have all the advantages. They always appear disciplined, organized, united and crafty. One’s own side, by contrast, always seems fractious, contentious and disorganized.

Opponents of this year’s Florida MAGA maneuver see a diabolically sinister plot unfolding. For many MAGAs, though, the executive committee election results were hairsbreadth victories in the face of long odds, numerous mistakes, and fierce RINO opposition

That said, the attempted MAGA takeover of local Florida Republican executive committees is certainly an effort guided by common goals and a common ideology even if not executed with military-style precision or always successful results.

One of the most striking elements of the MAGA maneuver is its attack on people who might otherwise be regarded as loyal Trumpers and deeply committed conservatives, the so-called RINOs. As in any ideological movement, the believers’ fiercest hatred is directed at those who supposedly know the truth but choose to ignore it; the heretics, rogues and apostates.

To an outside observer, however, in this case the supposed RINOs under attack seem like fanatics under fanatical attack by other fanatics for supposedly insufficient fanaticism.

The MAGA maneuver and its success to date raise two political questions for the future. One is practical and immediate. The other is principled and long term.

Practicality: The MAGA maneuver and the presidential race

Oakes may regard the rivalry between former President Donald Trump and sitting Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as a mere “distraction” but in fact it is fundamental to the political future locally, statewide and nationally.

If viewed through the prism of that 2024 presidential rivalry then the MAGA maneuver is clearly a Trump strike against DeSantis.

Capturing county Party executive committees may not be a decisive blow but it will certainly make DeSantis’ presidential effort a lot harder. His campaign will have to slog through county after county to get the state united behind him and it may not succeed if the MAGA committeepeople stay committed to Trump’s nomination.

It seems unlikely that DeSantis could lose his own state two years hence, but there’s no end to the mischief that could be made by grassroots Trump partisans, especially if they’re in control of the Party machinery throughout Florida.

That, of course, could affect the outcome of the Republican nominating process nationally and the ultimate 2024 general election contest.

What is more, the 2022 election results, the lack of a “red wave” and the Republican failure to take the Senate, seems to indicate that the majority of Americans reject MAGAism and that it’s a losing proposition at the polls and would be so in 2024.

Principle: MAGAism, constitutionalism and democracy

The principles put forth by “America First” candidates ostensibly include supporting the US Constitution and accurately counting elections.

As an example of this, two of the principles listed in the Collier County REC endorsements included commitments to “Hold elected representatives accountable for their unconstitutional actions” and “Lead Florida’s 67 Republican Executive Committees by passing meaningful resolutions – instructing our elected representatives to fulfill their oaths to the Constitution.”

All this is well and good. However, overall the MAGA movement remains in service to Donald Trump and Trump has overtly called for termination of the Constitution. MAGA partisans remain supportive of the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 that tried to overthrow the US government and they repeat Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

The bottom line is that as long as MAGAism is devoted to Trump it is committed to unconstitutionality, untruth and autocracy.

Can MAGAism exist without Trump? It’s the dilemma faced by every political movement ever launched by a single, charismatic leader. So far, the answer seems to be “no.” Today, MAGAism is Trumpism.

From obscurity to autocracy

Ordinarily, elections to party executive committees are very obscure contests, the focus only of a handful of party activists and politicians.

But in light of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the ongoing overall threat to democracy, the public needs to pay attention to this year’s attempted takeover of the Florida Republican Party by MAGA forces.

After all, as history has shown, sometimes what starts with a handful of people in the back of a beer hall can metastasize into something much bigger, much badder and much, much more dangerous.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

The DeSantis dilemma

Florida’s governor has to turn the other cheek for the next two years

Gov. Ron DeSantis (Illustration: Donkey Hotey/Wikimedia Commons)

Nov. 19, 2022 by David Silverberg

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida wants everyone to just chill.

“We just finished this election, okay?” an exasperated DeSantis told a crowd during an appearance Wednesday, Nov. 16, in the devastated Lee County community of Matlacha. “People just need to chill out a little bit on some of this stuff, I mean seriously. We just ran an election.”

DeSantis was addressing the agitation caused by former President Donald Trump’s announcement of his 2024 presidential candidacy the night before.

DeSantis would certainly like everyone to chill out; it’s in his political interest. But that’s not likely for a number of reasons.

The terrible twos

Anyone who has ever been in the position of anticipating a future promotion contingent on someone else’s departure or retirement knows the feeling.

Imagine that you’ve been anointed the next chief executive or manager (or editor) of a business. The promotion seems nearly certain but there’s the tortuous interval until it occurs. Anything can upset the apple cart: you might screw things up with a dumb remark; your enemies or competitors are circling to stop you; your boss may change his mind; the whole situation may alter; or the company could go completely belly-up. What’s more, you still have to do your existing job well without any mistakes or foul-ups while carefully maneuvering toward your goal.

For DeSantis, the opportunity to be the Republican nominee—not president, nominee—is two years away and that is an agonizingly long time in politics.

Right now DeSantis is riding high off his undeniably overwhelming election victory. He’s being hailed as the leader of the national Republican Party, he’s being praised and lauded; he’s the golden child of the donor class.

DeSantis is at a peak. The problem is that the peak is two years too soon.

Because of his prominence, DeSantis is now everyone’s target: Democrats, Republicans, members of Congress, partisans of all kinds and just about anyone who doesn’t want to see him become president has him in their sights. He’s the guy to beat.

And there is one person who looms above and beyond all other rivals and impediments and lives a mere 420 miles away from Tallahassee in the same great sun-drenched state.

Donald vs. Ronald

No matter how much the media may dismiss him, Rupert Murdoch may diminish him, Ivanka may avoid him and Merrick Garland may indict him, it’s clear that in Donald Trump’s head he’s a real, serious and viable candidate for president in 2024.

For Trump, DeSantis appeared as a rival for a long time and he began taking potshots early, culminating in his “Ron DeSanctimonious” insult delivered on Nov. 5. Trump has threatened to release damaging information and called him “an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations,” [capitalization, of course, his] which to Trump is a killing blow right there.

Given that a leopard can’t change his spots and Trump can’t tame his tongue, the public can expect Trump to keep intensifying his insults, his threats and his attacks as he tries to tear down the man who was once his apprentice but who now looms as his overlord. In fact, his fulminations are likely to intensify the more desperate he becomes. Indeed, Trump may succeed in peeling away some of DeSantis’ luster and turning some of the most fanatical Florida Trumpers against the governor.

No doubt DeSantis would like to answer in kind but he can’t, for several reasons.

One is that DeSantis is not an announced candidate for president and likely won’t be until the summer of 2024, when he formally gets the Republican nomination for president. Florida has a “resign to run law” that would require him to step down.

Title IX, Chapter 99, Section 99.012 of the Florida Statutes states:

(2) No person may qualify as a candidate for more than one public office, whether federal, state, district, county, or municipal, if the terms or any part thereof run concurrently with each other.

(3)(a) No officer may qualify as a candidate for another state, district, county, or municipal public office if the terms or any part thereof run concurrently with each other without resigning from the office he or she presently holds.

(b) The resignation is irrevocable.

Under current law, DeSantis can’t be both governor and presidential candidate, no matter how obvious his intention to seek the presidency.

However, given the long lead time to the presidential race and DeSantis’ absolute and unrestricted rule over a supine Florida legislature, it is not inconceivable that the legislature could change the law to benefit DeSantis before 2024.

Until that happens, though, DeSantis has to remain unannounced and just take the slings and arrows that his enemy hurls at him. No wonder he wants everyone to chill: it’s in his interest to avoid a presidential contest until the moment he steps onto the stage of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee to accept the nomination in the late summer of 2024—and irrevocably resigns as governor of Florida.

Additionally, the presidential race will be a huge distraction from doing his day job for the next two years. As it stands, Trump is going to be throwing brickbats and abuse every hour of every day or at least whenever his attention turns to the governor. No matter how low Trump’s own status goes, DeSantis has to deal with Trump’s unrelenting efforts to seize the media spotlight and block his path to the presidency.

But DeSantis has his comforts. Trump will be tied up in investigations and possible criminal indictments, so he will be distracted by that. If DeSantis is lucky, Trump will self-destruct or implode or—rather unlikely—actually be punished for his transgressions. At the least he’ll be mired in legal proceedings. If all goes well, DeSantis will only have to sit back and watch.

So if DeSantis had his druthers, everyone would forget about the presidency until the most propitious possible moment in 2024.

Why wait?

George Conway, husband of Trump White House advisor Kellyanne Conway and a fierce Twitter critic of the president his wife served, has suggested that DeSantis just sit out the 2024 race and run in 2028. After all, DeSantis would only be 50 years old then, still in the prime of life.

While that makes sense from a purely political calculation, it overlooks several factors.

One is momentum. DeSantis right now is on a roll. He’s the great white hope, the favored alternative, the triumphant warrior and MAGA knight in shining armor. He’s Trumpism with a human face. For him to suddenly declare his disinterest in the coming contest would be to squander and dissipate all that energy and hope—which he might never recover. American history is littered with politicians who waited to seize their opportunity only to see their chances pass by.

Second, at the moment his likely presidential opponent is President Joe Biden who will be 81 years old in 2024. Biden has never achieved high approval ratings and is not likely to do so in the future. He will be further weakened by two years of unremitting investigations and attacks from House Republicans. If Biden is the candidate in 2024, he’s someone DeSantis has a reasonable chance of defeating. If DeSantis waits until 2028, there’s no telling who his opponent might be. Furthermore, given a volatile and increasingly unpredictable world, it’s difficult to anticipate the circumstances of the 2028 election.

Third, DeSantis won reelection with a massive war chest of $200 million. The donors who contributed to that fund weren’t just contributing to a governor of Florida; they were investing in the next president of the United States. Nor were they investing in a 2028 president, they were investing for two years from now. These donors are a powerful force in DeSantis’ base, if one that’s out of public sight. It’s hard to imagine that these donors aren’t encouraging and, when necessary, pressuring DeSantis to run—and those are voices DeSantis can’t ignore.

Lastly, DeSantis himself is not a wait-around kind of guy, no matter how calm he’s trying to be. He’s aggressive and impatient and willing to test boundaries.

For all these reasons, a DeSantis delay appears unlikely. It’s safe to bet that the contest is on for 2024.

The physical threat

Given Trump’s propensity for excusing, encouraging and inciting violence, this is an issue that has to be seriously considered in evaluating a Trump-DeSantis rivalry.

After all, Trump incited an insurrection at the US Capitol and encouraged a mob to try to lynch his Vice President. One of his adherents nearly killed Paul Pelosi with a hammer when he couldn’t break the kneecaps of the Speaker of the House. He’s also the man who said he could get away with shooting someone in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters.

It is not beyond the realm of serious possibility that Trump could attempt to have DeSantis murdered or inspire his more ardent followers to attempt to kill the governor. Physical violence is always a danger in heated political contests but not since the Civil War has the threat been so immediate and real, with a prominent public individual encouraging it.

Clearly, DeSantis could be removed by physical means to Trump’s benefit. Until Trump makes a seemingly sincere, unambiguous and very public statement condemning and abhorring all violence, DeSantis and his entire family will be in danger from Trump and his extremist followers.

Given that he created a state military force answerable only to himself, one presumes that DeSantis’ “Flaetorian” Guard will keep him safe and whole for the next two years. But that safety and security is not to be taken for granted.

Taking the hits

So for the next two years DeSantis may have to be a bit of a punching bag rather than a boxer. He has to take the hits his main rival delivers without hitting back as an announced candidate. For a vigorous and aggressive politician, that’s hard to do. No doubt he’ll land some snide and snarky punches of his own. However, delivering a real knockout blow might offend the Trumper fanatics who will otherwise come to DeSantis’ corner if they have no other choice.  

It also bears remembering that while Trump may be the most prominent DeSantis rival he’s far from the only one. There’s also Gov. Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, with whom DeSantis has dueled using migrant asylum seekers as pawns. In his own state there’s the badly damaged Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), whose presidential ambitions could flare at any time. When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) isn’t being booed at New York baseball games he’s either flying to Cancun or running for president. And there are others, hovering in the background like a swarm of mosquitos on a warm Florida evening.

It’s more than likely that DeSantis will be very active during the next two years. He won’t be overtly campaigning but expect him to be flying all over the country making speeches, raising money, building connections, endorsing candidates and campaigning without officially campaigning.

But it may not come to a knock-down, drag out battle. One plausible scenario is that Trump will give up his presidential ambitions and endorse DeSantis in return for a promise of a full presidential pardon of all crimes if DeSantis becomes president. However, that would require a rational calculation by Trump, for which he has not shown a proclivity to date.

All this also supposes some pretty big assumptions: that the United States will retain its current constitutional order; that elections will happen on time; that America will stay a democracy; that Florida won’t wash into the sea; and that war, famine, plague and death won’t end the world as we know it.

No one can really know for certain in advance. But it is fairly safe to say that in days to come Donald Trump will be as vile and bitter and vicious as he has always been and that Ronald DeSantis will still be as ambitious and dismissive and arrogant as he has proven so far.

At the very least it will make for a colorful fight card and give Floridians a ringside seat.

Although maybe, for once, DeSantis is right. Maybe it’s better to chill.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

When elephants battle: Trump, DeSantis and the future of the MAGAverse

Two elephants battle. (Photo: Tharindu Somarathna, Wikimedia Commons)

Nov. 12, 2022 by David Silverberg

There’s an old African proverb: “When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”

In Florida the elephants are braying and stomping. They’re about to clash in mortal combat. When they collide, it’s going to be painful to be underfoot.

One elephant, of course, is Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who resoundingly won his reelection bid as Florida governor and has done nothing to disguise his 2024 presidential ambitions.

The other is former President Donald Trump who may announce his own bid for the presidency on Tuesday, Nov. 15. He began disparaging his one-time protégé as “Ron DeSanctimonious” at a campaign rally on Saturday, Nov. 5.

Actually, the battle won’t be hard at all for Democrats, liberals and progressives who already reject both men. But Florida Republicans, MAGAts and Trumpers, especially in the deeply conservative far-right southwest corner of the state, are going to have to make a very tough decision.

Sen. Rick Scott

One Florida Man appears to have already made his choice. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), had presidential aspirations of his own. However, his less than stellar performance as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee overseeing the election of a Republican Senate seems to have dampened or extinguished that aspiration.

The evidence of this came when Trump endorsed Scott to be Senate Majority Leader in an interview Trump did on his airplane, which was published on Election Day.

Trump is seeking revenge against Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who had the temerity to fix responsibility for the Jan. 6 insurrection on him.

“McConnell has been very bad for our nation,” Trump said. “He has been very bad for the Republican Party. I would be in favor of somebody else — McConnell has done a very bad job.”

Scott, said Trump, is a “likely candidate” for McConnell’s job in the event of a Trump 2024 victory.

“I think Rick Scott is a likely candidate — he hates the guy,” Trump said of Scott’s feelings towards McConnell. “He’s tough — he’s tough, and I think he would probably go for it. He’d have a lot of support.”

Scott’s presidential ambition only glowed in light of the possibility of Trump not seeking the presidency. Trump’s endorsement seems to indicate that Scott has put that ambition in abeyance.

As of this writing Scott had not issued a public statement regarding Trump’s remarks. He was still awaiting the results of the last nail-biting Senate races and faced the Dec. 6 Senate runoff election in Georgia.

But given Scott’s well-documented friction with DeSantis it certainly seems that this Florida Man has made his choice.

Rep. Byron Donalds

Rep. Byron Donalds, President Donald Trump and spouses in Naples, Fla., at a private fundraising event in December 2021. (Photo: Office of Rep. Byron Donalds)

Perhaps no one faces a bigger choice with more consequences than Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.).

Donalds was endorsed by Trump in December 2021 for his congressional reelection bid. From the beginning of his congressional campaign he made his loyalty to Trump part of his tagline: “I’m everything the fake news media says doesn’t exist: a Trump supporting, liberty loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man.”

At the same time, Donalds has been a supporter of DeSantis and has been sure to appear behind the governor in numerous photos and events. He has praised DeSantis’ handling of the COVID pandemic and his response to Hurricane Ian.

Donalds has ambitions of his own. Having won reelection, he now has his eye on the third slot in the Republican House caucus, head of the conference, and has formally announced his bid for the position. Ironically, the election for the position is scheduled on the same day as Trump’s expected announcement, Tuesday, Nov. 15.

In seeking the seat he is going against the current holder, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-21-NY), who is widely seen as overwhelmingly favored by her fellow Republicans, including the entire congressional leadership.

In this inside-player election, Trump’s endorsement carries considerable weight. Trump has snubbed Donalds before and once again, despite Donalds’ slavish loyalty he did it again in his airplane interview.

“I think she’s fantastic,” Trump said of Stefanik without mentioning Donalds, either forgetting or ignoring him.

To date, Donalds has not issued any statement reacting to Trump’s endorsement.

He did, however, issue a tweet on Saturday, Nov. 12, denying a report that he favored DeSantis over Trump in 2024. That came from Fox News personality Jacqui Heinrich who quoted a “House GOP source” as saying Donalds was saying that to Republican members of Congress in his bid to win the conference chair.

“I’m a big fan of Jacqui Heinrich’s reporting, but her ‘GOP source’ is lying,” Donalds tweeted in reply. “My only focus is Tuesday’s vote to become the next Chair of the GOP Conference.”

Alfie Oakes

Officially, the only public position that Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III, the grocer and farmer holds is that of Collier County Republican Party committeeman. However, following the midterm election, he is effectively the political boss of Collier County, Florida, since all his endorsed and funded candidates won their elections. They will likely follow his dictates in their policymaking when they take office in January.

Oakes has always been an ardent Trumper. After talking to Trump on a phone call on Dec. 22. 2020, Oakes posted: “I love our president and his family with every bit of my being! I love all that he has given for our country and all that he stands for! May God bless our great President Donald Trump, his family, his team and all of the 75 million patriots that support him!”

Oakes has also been a DeSantis supporter and has praised his performance as governor.

So which way will Oakes go this time? As of this writing, none of Alfie’s social media postings have made this clear. He also did not respond to a phone call from The Paradise Progressive.

Once Alfie makes his preference known, it should have an impact among his followers, both on social media and among his customers.

Whichever way he goes, one thing is certain, though. He can’t have it both ways.

A land with two capitals and two popes

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the capital of the United States shifted to the great state of Florida—and that’s where it’s likely to stay for the next two years.

Of course, the regular, permanent seat of government and official capital is right where it has always been, in Washington, DC.

But the United States actually has two capitals.

Washington is just one. The second is the campaign capital. It’s wherever the hottest political action is at the moment. In presidential election years it’s wherever a caucus or primary or other event is deciding the next president of the United States.

For the next two years, Florida will be the campaign capital of the United States. It’s where the battles will take place. It’s the launching pad for two plausible presidential campaigns (or two-and-a-half if Rick Scott is included) and it’s where the media spotlight has turned and is likely to stay until the Republican nomination is clinched.

As of right now, the complete Republican dominance of the governorship, the legislature and the judiciary makes Florida a single-party polity under the absolute rule of Gov. Ron DeSantis (something The Paradise Progressive has characterized as “Florumpia”).

But like the supposedly universal Catholic Church in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Florumpia now has two popes. One is certainly bent on destroying the other for the heresy of being more popular, actually winning his election and failing to pay proper homage. The other pope is not going to accept this lying down.

For true believers in MAGAtism, this presents an enormous dilemma. It is one that is scheduled to culminate at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisc., in the summer of 2024.

But in the long time before then, true believers have to choose sides. Given Donald Trump’s unyielding, absolutist, demand for obedience, there is no middle path.

That’s what total fanaticism gets a true believer: total submission to another’s will or excommunication from sunshine into the eternal fires of Hell.

Or put another way: that’s what it feels like to be trampled by an elephant.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Election 2022: Red tide sweeps state, Southwest Florida—and what it means

Cartoon by Andy Marlette. (Creators Syndicate)

Nov. 8, 2022 by David Silverberg

On Election Day, Nov. 8, a red tide swept Florida and its Southwest region.

As of this writing, 11:00 pm, the national results for the House of Representatives and US Senate were not yet available.

In Southwest Florida, in what was hardly a surprising result, Republicans took all seats that they contested.

In the emotional, hotly-contested non-partisan election for Collier County School Board, incumbents Jory Westberry (District 1), Jen Mitchell (District 3), and Roy Terry (District 5) were all defeated, according to unofficial results from the county Supervisor of Elections.

Statewide, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) defeated Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.). Republicans also took all state Cabinet positions. In the contest for the US Senate seat, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) defeated Rep. Val Demings (D-10-Fla.).

Congressional contests

In the 19th Congressional District along the coast from Cape Coral to Marco Island, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) kept his seat, winning Collier County by 70 to 30 percent for Democrat Cindy Banyai and Lee County 67 percent to 33 percent.

In the area that includes Charlotte County, incumbent Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), retained his seat, defeating Democratic challenger Andrea Doria Kale by 70 to 30 percent.

In the newly renumbered District 26, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart beat Democratic challenger Christine Olivo 72 to 28 percent in Collier County.

Collier County

Come January, Collier County will be governed by two commissioners backed by extreme farmer and grocer Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III, who helped fund their campaigns through his Citizens Awake Now Political Action Committee.

In Collier County District 2, Oakes-backed Republican candidate Chris Hall defeated Democrat Barbara “Bebe” Kanter by 70 to 30 percent. In District 4, Dan Kowal won his seat in the August primary.

Republicans took all seats for the state legislature and Senate.

Lee County

In Lee County Republicans swept the county commission seats they sought. In the one contested race, District 5, the winner was Republican Mike Greenwell by 69 percent to Democrat Matthew Woods’ 31 percent.

Collier County School Board

In the unusually hotly contested Collier County School Board election, incumbent school board members Jory Westberry in District 1, Jen Mitchell in District 3 and Roy Terry in District 5 were all defeated. Jerry Rutherford won District 1 by 65 percent, Kelly Lichter won District 3 by 58 percent and Tim Moshier won District 5 by 60 percent.

Lee County School Board

Lee County will begin choosing its school superintendents through a popular vote under an initiative that passed 63 to 37 percent.

In the non-partisan School Board election, Sam Fisher won in District 1, Debbie Jordan won in District 4, and Jada Langford Fleming won in District 6.

Judges and amendments

All judges up for a vote retained their seats.

Statewide totals for the three constitutional amendments were not available at posting time.

Analysis: What’s likely next

The Trump-DeSantis Florida fight

The opening skirmishes of an epic battle between two vicious, disparaging and domineering personalities began just before the election.

On Sunday, Nov. 6, DeSantis was snubbed from attending a Trump rally with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in Miami.

At that rally, Trump gave DeSantis the nickname “DeSanctimonious,” a sure declaration of war (although one unlikely to resonate with MAGA followers who don’t know the word.)

But now, with DeSantis resoundingly returned to the governor’s mansion, it will be all-out war between the maestro and the protégé as they both struggle for the Republican nomination in 2024. As a World Series played between two New York teams is called a “subway series,” so this battle will be a “Florida fight” as the two state-based personalities vie for dominance.

This is likely to be the conflict the media focuses on for the next two years. Every move, every utterance, and likely every fart and burp from these two will be scrutinized and analyzed for its effect on the presidential race. Any other political news will be eclipsed. More importantly for Floridians, the fight will distract from the governing of the state as DeSantis gives his real attention to the presidential race.

It’s worth noting that Trump will be 78 years old on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2024 but he seems so full of bile and hate he’s unlikely to die before then, possibly the only thing that could head off this clash. He’s unlikely to be stopped by indictments, investigations or even convictions. He and fellow miscreants will be protected by Republicans in Congress and the states.

Southwest Florida’s swamp stomp

The DeSantis-Trump rivalry will reverberate throughout Florida as their respective adherents choose sides. Until now both men largely represented the same ideological agenda but the time has come to choose sides.

Beyond that rivalry, however, Florida’s extreme MAGA state legislators will likely lock in their advantages with further voter suppression, more voter restrictions and efforts to narrow the franchise in every way possible, aided by a completely politicized judiciary. The legislature, already a DeSantis rubber stamp, will become even more submissive, with Republican supermajorities that will do more than just uniformly endorse any DeSantis demand. They’ll be trying to boost his presidential chances and also ensure that neither Democrats nor any other party that might arise ever have the remotest chance of attaining office again. Florida will so effectively be a one-party state that even Kim Jong Un will be envious.

This is to say nothing of state legislative efforts to outlaw all abortion, which will likely happen regardless of the fate of a national ban.

Drilling down to local specifics, in Collier County, politics and policy are firmly in MAGA hands at the county level.

This could mean that MAGA radicals may try again to nullify federal law as they did with an ordinance originally introduced in July 2021. Then, the proposal failed by a single vote of the Board of Commissioners. If that ordinance or a version of it passes, Collier County would be cut off from all federal grants, aid and funding. In the event of another hurricane it would get no help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose assistance was essential in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

County budgets will be facing mindless, unnecessary ideologically-driven cuts that will erode the quality of life and the efficiency of county services and infrastructure.

More particularly, county policy will likely reflect the preferences and priorities of Alfie Oakes. That will mean no public health restrictions regardless of circumstances or assistance in the event of a public health crisis like that of the COVID pandemic. It will also mean reduced to non-existent enforcement of county rules, regulations and ordinances he opposes.

The standard of education in Collier County is likely to take a nose-dive, driven by ideological and religious priorities, its budgets cut and new ideological restraints imposed on teachers and curriculum.

Also, with the School Board firmly in Oakes-backed hands, it is entirely possible that major school food contracts may be awarded to Oakes Farms, probably on a non-competitive basis.

Hard but not good

The voters have spoken and in Southwest Florida, the demographic preponderance of Republicans voting their registration ensured a sweeping victory.

Notably, given the results, no one who denied the results of the 2020 presidential election is yet arguing that this election was rigged or a sham or a fraud.

As the “Bard of Baltimore,” journalist HL Mencken, put it back in 1915: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Indeed. The majority of Southwest Floridians and other Sunshine State voters seem to know what they want. They’ll be getting it “good and hard” for the next two years.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Southwest Florida can build back better—if it chooses

A Naples resident looks out over the pier after Hurricane Donna in 1960. (Photo: Collier Museum)

Oct 12, 2022 by David Silverberg

Even weeks after Hurricane Ian stormed ashore in Lee County it’s still shocking to see the debris and destruction all along the Paradise Coast. New victims are being found and new stories of survival are coming to light.

But as stunning and disorienting and overwhelming as the storm’s impact continues to be, it’s not too soon to begin thinking about building back—better.

A disaster is awful but it’s also an opportunity. With a blank slate and a clear field, post-disaster periods can also be a time for grand plans and sweeping visions.

That may seem illusory as people just find places to live, food to eat and get back basic utilities like electricity and water. But it would be a mistake to overlook the chance to reinvent, reform and uplift communities that seem at the moment to have lost everything.

The rebuilding process can be tricky, though. The inclination of people is to try to rebuild exactly what went before and to do it as quickly as possible. There is always a clash between those who want to restore and those who want to renew and getting to one or the other of those destinations can be a winding and uncertain road.

Southwest Florida is hardly the first place to face such a dilemma.

Past examples

To reach back in time and space to an example long ago and far away, this is what happened in London after the Great Fire of 1666. This immense conflagration leveled much of the ancient city, including its crowded medieval streets and tenements. In its wake, planners and architects like Chistopher Wren envisioned a new, clean and fresh London rebuilt in the latest style and according to rational principles.

However, property owners and landlords wanted to rebuild their buildings on their holdings as quickly as possible and as closely to the previous plans as they could.

What resulted was a jumble of claims and counter-claims that was so chaotic and complex that Londoners created a special court to sort through them all. It took many years to resolve them. Meanwhile, what was rebuilt was a hodge-podge of the old and the new. Christopher Wren never got his sweeping new city but he was able to design and oversee the construction of a new St. Paul’s Cathedral, the one that stands today.

Closer to home in time and location, in 1960 Hurricane Donna swept into Naples, Florida and wiped out what was largely an undistinguished and utilitarian downtown. Naples rebuilt but its retail center, Fifth Avenue, declined in the face of suburban mall competition. In 1992 local merchants brought in Miami architect and urban planner Andres Duany to take a holistic view of the town.

“The key to reviving Fifth Avenue is not solely to make it work competently from the point of view of retail,” Duany told the city council, businesspeople and community leaders in 1993. “…Fifth Avenue must be made into a community space, a civic space, a place where neighbors can come to know each other.”

Duany’s detailed planning and vision not only revived Naples’ downtown, it made it a tourist destination and created a consistent, themed urban landscape that supported vibrant retail businesses and restaurants.

This year Naples took its own hit from Hurricane Ian, with storm surge flooding Fifth Avenue. Some stores and restaurants remain closed and some will no doubt not reopen. But it’s also likely that it will revive and attract new businesses—and that revival will build on the planned concept already in place.

Another town that sought to build back better after a disaster was Greensburg, Kansas. On May 4, 2007 an E-5 tornado swept into the small town of 1,400 people, killing 12 and virtually wiping it off the landscape.

The town’s council, meeting in a parking lot, decided that when they rebuilt they would do it in as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly a way possible.

When Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) visited a few days later and learned of the plans, she told them “‘It sounds like you’re going to build it green,’” then-city manager Steve Hewitt recalled to The Washington Post in a 2020 article. “Then we walked out to a press conference and Governor Sebelius said we were going to put the green in Greensburg. We were already talking about it, but she helped brand it and gave energy to what we were trying to do.”

It should be noted that Greensburg was not the home of tree-hugging hippies. It was a conservative Republican town. But city leaders could see a reality beyond political orthodoxy.

As of 2020, according to the Post, “…Greensburg draws 100 percent of its electricity from a wind farm, making it one of a handful of cities in the United States to be powered solely by renewable energy. It now has an energy-efficient school, a medical center, city hall, library and commons, museum and other buildings that save more than $200,000 a year in fuel and electricity costs, according to one federal estimate. The city saves thousands of gallons of water with low-flow toilets and drought-resistance landscaping and, in the evening, its streets glow from LED lighting.”

Greensburg has had its challenges (among others, at one point a wind turbine collapsed in a field). Its green rebuilding was not a panacea and did not result in an economic boom. But it put the town on the world map as a visionary municipality and made it stand out among all the other places on the plains. It also attracted $120 million in disaster relief funds from Kansas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and US Agriculture Department. To this day it remains an American touchstone in disaster recovery and rebuilding.

A coastal Renaissance?

It may seem premature to note this but towns like Sanibel, Matlacha and most of all, Fort Myers Beach now have similar opportunities to plan their rebuilding along rational, visionary lines.

As Greensburg chose to build back better emphasizing energy efficiency and environmentalism, the towns of the Paradise Coast now have an opportunity to be world leaders in climate resilience and protection, rebuilding to take into account climate change and sea level rise—and anticipating its effects.

They have the potential to update their water management practices and systems and have an unparalleled resource in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Water School.

Like Greensburg, they can also rebuild in an environmentally and energy-efficient way.

Like Naples, the rebuilt towns can be made more esthetically pleasing and pedestrian-friendly, perhaps with waterside boardwalks or promenades and a re-built Times Square in Fort Myers Beach, where “neighbors can come to know each other,” as Duany put it.

To rebuild in this fashion would attract federal support and funding that is sorely needed now. Unfortunately, before Hurricane Ian, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) line-item vetoed $1 million for Times Square renovation in Fort Myers Beach. Perhaps that state money can be restored and increased for rebuilding.

The alternative is to allow a haphazard scramble. In this case, the likely scenario is that developers and speculators swoop in and buy up distressed beach properties from desperate owners for pennies on the dollar. Building commences in a chaotic, uncoordinated way and the result is an unsightly and inefficient mish-mash of commercial and residential buildings.

Better rebuilding will take a lot of discipline, cooperation and coordination. Naples’ 1994 revival was done by the city council, business owners and residents all working together guided by a common vision. To successfully rebuild Hurricane Ian’s communities will take similar unity.

But the time to start doing this is now. The potential rewards justify the effort. If people are willing to be cooperative and patient, Hurricane Ian may be the precursor to a Paradise Coast renaissance—but only if Southwest Floridians are willing to build back better together.

______________________

To learn more about past disasters and responses, see the author’s book: Masters of Disaster: The political and leadership lessons of America’s greatest disasters.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Rick Scott meets the Peter Principle

Has Florida’s junior senator reached his ‘level of incompetence?’

What has become the iconic photo of Rick Scott, taken in 2012. (Photo: Joe Skipper for Reuters)

Oct. 8, 2022 by David Silverberg

In 1969, Canadian educator Laurence Peter published the book The Peter Principle. In it he put forward the idea that capable people in hierarchical organizations tend to be promoted until they reach what he called their “level of incompetence.”

The Peter Principle has been a management byword ever since.

Today Floridians can see the Peter Principle in action in their junior senator, Richard Lynn “Rick” Scott.

After repeatedly laying out massive amounts of cash to win election as governor and senator in Florida, Scott has now reached a position in the United States Senate and the Republican Party where his judgment, his ideas and his results are questionable, to put it mildly. He’s proposing very extreme measures for the country that are being roundly rejected by his fellow Republicans, his prospects for success in guiding Republicans to a Senate majority dim by the day, and in the wake of Hurricane Ian he’s not even voting to help his state.

It certainly has all the markings of the Peter Principle in action, Florida Man version.

What’s more, despite all this, he clearly has his eyes on the presidency in 2024, which also marks the last year of his Senate term.

So, has Rick Scott reached his level of incompetence?

The cash cushion

Like so many Floridians, the 69-year-old Scott is a Midwestern transplant, having been born in Bloomington, Ill. He received his Bachelor degree at the University of Missouri and his law degree at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

After a stint in the Navy in the early 1970s he worked as a lawyer. In 1989 he was a co-founder of the Columbia Hospital Corporation to provide for-profit healthcare. With Scott as its chief executive officer (CEO) it merged with another company to become Columbia/HCA, the nation’s largest for-profit healthcare company.

But in 1997 Columbia/HCA became mired in scandal when federal agencies accused it of defrauding Medicare, Medicaid and other federal programs. Scott was questioned and invoked the Fifth Amendment 75 times. As a result of a federal lawsuit, Columbia/HCA admitted to the fraud and was forced to pay $1.7 billion in fines to the government. It was the largest settlement of its kind in American history. Although there were no criminal charges against him, Scott was forced to resign as CEO four months after the charges became public.

After a period as a venture capitalist Scott ran for governor of Florida in 2010 after Charles “Charlie” Crist chose to run for the US Senate rather than seek another term as governor.

Scott’s spending on his first political race broke all previous state campaign records. He poured $85 million into the race, more than $73 million of which was family money. The prior record had been held by Crist himself, when he spent $24.6 million in his 2006 gubernatorial bid, a sum that now seemed like a pittance.

Yet for all that spending Scott only narrowly defeated his primary opponent, then-Attorney General Bill McCollum, by 46.4 percent of the vote. His general election victory was even closer: Scott garnered 48.92 percent to Democrat Alex Sink’s 47.67 percent, a difference of only 61,550 votes. It was the closest Florida gubernatorial race since 1876.

In 2014 Scott’s re-election race against Crist cost him $12.8 million of his own money. Campaign finance laws in Florida changed after the 2010 race and so had national campaign finance laws in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unrestricted issue-oriented campaign spending.

Between Scott’s contributions and outside spending groups, a study, “Campaign Spending and the 2014 Florida Gubernatorial Race” in the Journal of Florida Studies estimated Scott’s spending at $79 million, or $27.58 per vote, while the Crist campaign effort cost $47.74 million or $17.04 per vote.

Scott won this race too, by a narrow margin: 48.1 percent to Crist’s 47.1 percent, a difference of 64,145 votes.

“While this [spending] would win Scott the election, it would not do so by a larger margin than he won in 2010,” notes the study’s author, Harold Orndorff.

A full policy review of Scott’s term in office is beyond the scope of this essay but suffice to say it featured mostly extreme Republican conservative orthodoxy with a few Scott idiosyncrasies thrown in. Most notable was Scott’s absolute rejection of the idea of climate change to the point where the term was informally banned from use in his administration—and this in an environmentally sensitive state subject to the worst effects of global warming. The full impact—mostly deleterious—of his tenure is a book yet to be written.

Limited to two terms, Scott decided to run for the US Senate against incumbent Bill Nelson in 2018. Once again, he brought out the big bucks to do it, spending a record $64 million of his own money.

After an election so close it was in dispute for weeks and took two recounts, Scott was declared the winner by 50.1 percent to Nelson’s 49.9 percent, a hairsbreadth difference of 10,033 votes.

The lesson of this electoral history is that while Scott has won, it has always been at great expense and by very narrow margins.

Scott is not a natural politician. He doesn’t evoke feelings of warmth or goodwill. He doesn’t inspire great loyalty or allegiance. His policy prescriptions can be idiosyncratic but are mostly conventionally far right. In the days before Donald Trump he was the Donald Trump of Florida, winning over fringe conservatives but also getting enough votes of dutifully traditional mainstream Republicans to just barely put him over the finish line.

A flawed Florida model

There’s no denying or disputing Scott’s victories, no matter how narrow or expensive. He won the elections he entered. But these victories also seem peculiar to Florida, with its fragmented media markets and its distance and popular alienation from the federal government. It’s a land where most people are indifferent to policy, where retirees want to freeze time and where, as political consultant Rick Wilson once said, “everything north of I-4 is just Alabama with more guns.”

As Scott has shown through his vast cash outlays, a politician can buy elections in Florida. But now he’s also showing that his Florida model doesn’t necessarily translate into national success.

In 2020 Republican senators elected Scott to be chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He was charged with managing all the mechanics of electing a Republican Senate including finding candidates, raising money and aiding their campaigns.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Minority Leader, was looking to Scott to make him Senate Majority Leader in 2023. With the party holding the presidency traditionally losing congressional seats in its first midterm election and with President Joe Biden having a low approval rating, Scott seemed to have the wind at his back and an easy path ahead.

Instead, as of this writing, Democrats are narrowly favored to keep the Senate (the website FiveThirtyEight.com puts their odds at 68 percent). Republican Senate candidates are foundering (every day seems to bring a new scandal or gaffe to Georgia’s Herschel Walker).

Even McConnell has complained. “I think there’s a probably a greater likelihood that the House flips than the Senate,” he said at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Kentucky in August. “Senate races are just different—they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.” It was widely seen as a swipe at Scott’s performance.

Scott for his part seemed to see the NRSC as just a springboard to the presidency. Wags have joked that NRSC really stands for National Rick Scott Campaign.

In defiance of McConnell, Scott, in consultation with Donald Trump, unveiled his own 12-point agenda in February called the “Commitment to America.” It would impose taxes on the poorest Americans and subject Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to five-year reauthorizations, with the possibility of termination. This directly threatens Florida’s many seniors dependent on these programs.

At a time when American states, counties and cities are still recovering from the COVID pandemic and natural disasters, Scott’s plan would cut off their federal funding. It would slash jobs for police, firefighters, teachers and other local public employees. Nationally, there are an estimated 795,000 police, 317,200 firefighters and 3.2 million teachers. All their jobs would be jeopardized. Ironically enough, Scott’s plan would defund the police.

At a time when pro-choice forces are energized and alarmed over the loss of the right to choose and are flocking to the Democratic Party, Scott dodged questions about his support for a proposal to impose a national abortion ban introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

But beyond the national campaigns and the future of the presidency, Scott has actually turned on his own state—and in its greatest hour of need.

After capably handling the onslaught of Hurricane Irma as governor in 2017, Scott failed abysmally as senator after the catastrophe of Hurricane Ian in 2022, which made landfall in Southwest Florida on Sept. 28.

Just two days later, on Sept. 30, when the Senate voted to fund the government until Dec. 16—which included roughly $20 billion in disaster relief funds for the country as a whole—Scott voted against the measure.

Not only was Scott’s vote striking given Florida’s distress, it was at odds with the rest of the Senate’s Republican caucus. The measure, the Continuing Appropriations and Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2023 (House Resolution 6833), also known as a continuing resolution or CR, was endorsed by McConnell and the Senate Republican leadership. Along with all the Democrats, 22 Republicans approved it and it passed the Senate by a lopsided vote of 72 to 25. (Florida’s other senator, Marco Rubio, was absent for the vote. The bill also passed the House by 230 to 201, with all 16 House Republicans from Florida voting against it. Biden signed it into law that day, just before the end of the federal fiscal year.)

It’s worth considering what would have happened had Scott’s negative vote succeeded. The federal government would have shut down. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would have halted operations just as it was getting into gear to help Southwest Florida. There would have been no urban search and rescue teams from other states flying into Florida to save people trapped under the rubble. There would have been no Coast Guard operations to help victims stranded by storm surge. There would have been no federal aid for housing, food, safety, security, or communications.

This is the kind of apocalypse Scott was voting for with his negative vote.

On Sept. 7, well before Hurricane Ian made landfall, Scott forcefully urged Republicans to reject the continuing resolution.

“Today I am urging every Republican to demand that Congress pass a clean CR that simply maintains current federal spending levels,” he declared in a statement. “We cannot cave to the demands of the Democrats carrying out an agenda led by a raving lunatic in the White House.”

That “raving lunatic” visited Southwest Florida on Wednesday, Oct. 5, to see the damage for himself. He pledged the full faith, credit and resources of the United States to help Florida—and especially Southwest Florida—recover and aid the people hurt by the storm.

Revealing the man

Now, all the doubts and criticism of Scott may be rendered moot by a smashing Republican Senate victory on Nov. 8 that vindicates his senatorial efforts.

Perhaps Republicans will win the Senate. Perhaps McConnell will become majority leader.  Perhaps Scott will be hailed as a political genius. Perhaps 2022 will pave the way for Scott’s 2024 nomination as president and his ultimate election to the White House. Perhaps Florida and Southwest Florida in particular will fully recover and rebuild without any federal help at all. Perhaps the disgrace and stigma of the Columbia/HCA fraud will be flushed down the river of history and Scott will be washed clean by the purifying waters of political power.

It could happen.

However, with exactly one month to go until the election that’s not the way it’s looking.

Instead, what appears to be happening is that a man who bought his elections in Florida has now come up against a much more complex political task than he ever faced before. Rather than easily manipulating a disinterested Florida electorate through television ads, Scott is fumblingly trying to juggle diverse and aroused populations throughout a vast country that he doesn’t really understand.

First Lady Michelle Obama once observed: “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”

The same could be said for any high office. Each step up the ladder reveals a bit more about the person you are. With each step upward there are more people scrutinizing your flaws, more people critiquing your moves, and more people watching to see if you fall.

Rick Scott has climbed pretty high. Each step has revealed more about his capabilities and character. It’s been a very enlightening ascent for those bothering to watch. Scott obviously hopes to climb higher. But the ladder is swaying and there’s the pesky possibility that at his current step he may have reached as far as he’s able.

Has he reached his “level of incompetence?” It certainly seems so. However, on Nov. 8, with every vote for every Senate seat throughout the nation, Americans will decide for themselves.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Can Florida’s politicians meet the test of Hurricane Ian?

Hurricane Ian, photographed yesterday while a tropical storm. (Photo: NOAA)

Sept. 26, 2022 by David Silverberg

Politicians can strike any poses they want, maneuver any way they like, fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time—but they can’t avoid, evade or disguise a natural disaster.

Hurricane Ian will be a major test of the leadership and management abilities of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the entire slate of incumbent office holders seeking election this November. It could make them or break them—and DeSantis’ performance will be judged in light of his 2024 presidential ambitions.

Generally, a natural disaster favors an incumbent. An official in charge can display leadership, command and competence that win favor and respect in a way no challenger can match.

It’s hard to remember now but a sterling response to a disaster was shown by Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Throughout a day of chaos and terror, including times when he was physically in danger, Giuliani never broke down, never disengaged, never cowered, never panicked, and never abandoned or betrayed his responsibilities or his role as a chief executive and leader. That performance won him a place as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” and the sobriquet “America’s Mayor.” It was arguably the best response by any elected leader to any major disaster in American history.

By the same token, while people may not necessarily remember a good response, they never forget a bad one.

A classic example of this was the response of another New York mayor, John Lindsay, to an unexpected blizzard in 1969. His failure to dig the city out and keep vital services running essentially put an end to his political career.

When Hurricane Irma struck Florida in 2017 then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) acquitted himself relatively well, issuing updates and successfully managing evacuations and then the post-storm clean-up. There were no major or glaring failures in his decisionmaking and response.

The same could not be said of his response to the Big Bloom of red tide that tormented Florida’s Gulf coast in 2018. Then, his bumbling response and public frustration led to him actually being hounded from a rally by an angry crowd in Venice and fleeing in his campaign bus.

His successful handling of Irma was no issue in his 2018 Senate bid, while his red tide response hurt him, if not sufficiently to keep him from winning.

Hurricane Ian will be DeSantis’ first real big test. Until now he was dealing with human events that he could fudge, spin or manipulate to his advantage. Putting migrants on a plane did not take a genius of organization.

But natural disasters are forces beyond the ability of politicians to bend to their will. They are relentless and pitiless. Politicians can fail spectacularly in confronting them.

One of the most glaring examples of such a failure came in February 2021 when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) abandoned his state for a vacation trip to Cancun, Mexico. He left behind savage winter storms and freezes that knocked out electric power and cut off drinking water to millions of suffering Texans. Recognized at the airport, he became the target of fury and mockery, leaving a blot on his career that will likely never be erased.

So what should Floridians look for in their elected officials now and how should they be judged? Some criteria are:

Engagement: Are the officials fully engaged, alert and aware of events and developments?

Communication: Are officials communicating vital information effectively to constituents and citizens?

Presence: Are officials present where they are needed and where they can most effectively respond?

Decisionmaking: This may be hard for citizens on the ground to judge in real time but are officials making clear, rational, effective decisions given the information in their possession? These decisions must withstand scrutiny after the event.

Compassion: This is a very subjective quality but it’s one that is very important both for political careers and for the morale of disaster victims. Do officials seem to care what has happened to people as a result of the disaster? This requires walking a very fine line between genuine sympathy and blatant exploitation of tragedy.

Effectiveness: Executives, especially top elected officials like governors, county executives and mayors, need to not only weather the storm, they have to successfully manage the cleanup and recovery. Do they marshal the forces and obtain the resources and funding to do that?

It’s also in the post-disaster phase that legislative officials like members of Congress have a vital role to play. For example, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) made no effort to get any funding for his district when he had the chance to submit earmark requests to Congress. Will he similarly ignore his district’s people this time should they need assistance in the wake of Hurricane Ian?

A disaster—or even a threat short of a disaster—tests everyone. People have a right to expect the best from leaders they have elected who are seeking their next vote.

Hurricane Ian is coming at a politically sensitive time in Florida. The response could have a major impact on the future of the state and the country. Every citizen should be alert not only to the storm and its dangers but to the way it is handled by those in office.

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To learn more about past disasters and responses, see the author’s book: Masters of Disaster: The political and leadership lessons of America’s greatest disasters.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

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