2022, Florida and the future: Anticipating the political year ahead

A vision of Florida’s future? The dome homes of Cape Romano off the coast of Southwest Florida. When built in 1979 they were on solid land. (Photo: Andy Morfrew/Wikimedia Commons)

Jan. 3, 2022 by David Silverberg

At the end of every year, most newspapers and media outlets like to do retrospectives on the year past. They’re easy to do, especially with a skeleton crew: just go into the archives, pull out a bunch of the past year’s photographs or stories, slap them together, throw them at the readers or viewers and then staff can relax and party for the New Year. Or better yet, when it comes to a supposedly “daily” newspaper, don’t print any editions at all.

What’s much harder to do is look ahead at the year to come and try to determine, however imperfectly, what the big stories will be.

That takes some thought and effort but it’s much more valuable and helpful in setting a course through the fog of the future.

Although there will be surprises and any projection is necessarily speculative, there are a number of big issues in the nation and Southwest Florida that are likely to dominate 2022.

Democracy vs. autocracy

Donald Trump may no longer be president but the impact of his tenure lives on. Just how much will he and his cultists continue to influence events this year?

Although the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and coup failed, the effort to impose autocratic, anti-democratic rule continues at the state and local levels as Trumpist politicians push to create mechanisms to invalidate election results they don’t like.

Nowhere is this truer than in Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is playing to the most extreme elements of his base as he tries to ensure his own re-election and mount a presidential bid in 2024. He also has to outdo his other potential presidential hopefuls, most notably Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

In Florida, the race is on to produce the most extreme, radical right measures both by DeSantis and members of Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature.

Examples of this include DeSantis’ 2022 $5.7 million budget proposal for an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State to investigate election crimes and allegations. In another time and in other hands, this might seem like a politically neutral and straightforward law enforcement agency, if a redundant and unnecessary one. However, given the past year’s efforts in Florida to narrow voting options and the continuing influence of Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, it could have more sinister purposes, like invalidating or discarding legitimate election results.

DeSantis is also proposing creation of a Florida State Guard, which would be wholly subject to his will and authority. The Florida National Guard, by contrast, can be called up for national duty and is answerable to the US Department of Defense in addition to the governor.

These efforts, combined with DeSantis’ past assaults on local autonomy and decisionmaking and his anti-protest legislation, are moving Florida toward a virtual autocracy separate and unequal from the rest of the United States.

The question for 2022 is: will they advance and succeed? Or can both legislative and grassroots opposition and resistance preserve democratic government?

The state of the pandemic

The world will still be in a state of pandemic in 2022, although vaccines to prevent COVID and therapeutics to treat it are coming on line and are likely to keep being introduced. However, given COVID’s ability to mutate, new variants are also likely to keep emerging, so the pandemic is unlikely to be at an official end.

Globally, vaccines will be making their way to the poorer and more remote populations on earth.

In Florida and especially in Southwest Florida, vaccination rates are high. However, there’s no reason to believe that anti-vaccine sentiment and COVID-precaution resistance will slacken. Further, as President Joe Biden attempts to defeat the pandemic by mandating and encouraging vaccines, Republican states are trying to thwart mandates in court. At the grassroots, as rational arguments fail, anti-vaxxers are resisting COVID precautions in increasingly emotional and extreme ways, potentially including violence.

In Southwest Florida the political balance may change in favor of science as anti-vaxxers and COVID-deniers sicken and die off. This will reduce their numbers and their political influence. As their influence wanes that of pro-science realists should rise—but it’s not necessarily clear that realistic, pro-science sentiment will automatically translate into equal and opposite political power.

This year will reveal whether the DeSantis COVID gamble pays off. He has bet that resisting and impeding COVID precautions in favor of unrestrained economic growth will result in political success at the polls.

Will Floridians forget or overlook the cost in lives and health at election time? It’s a result that will only be revealed in November.

Choice and anti-choice

Abortion will be a gigantic issue in 2022. Anti-choicers are hoping that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade and abortion will be outlawed.

A Supreme Court ruling on a Mississippi law outlawing abortion is expected in June. There may be a ruling on Texas’ ban on abortions before then. If Roe is overturned, a number of Republican state legislatures are poised to enact their own bans based on the Texas model and Florida is one of these.

If House Bill 167 passes the Florida legislature, it will inaugurate an environment of civil vigilantism as individual citizens sue anyone suspected of aiding or performing abortions. It’s hard to imagine anything more polarizing, more divisive or more destructive both at the state level and grassroots, as neighbor turns on neighbor.

By the same token, the threat to safe abortion access may galvanize political activism by pro-choice supporters regardless of political party. That was the situation in Georgia in 2020 when a fetal heartbeat bill was passed and signed into law, only to be thrown out in court. Politically, the issue helped turn the state blue.

This year, if Roe is struck down, millions of women may turn against an anti-choice Republican Party and mobilize to enact reproductive rights legislation.

What will be the reaction if Florida follows Texas’ lead and enacts an abortion ban?

Whichever way it goes, abortion will be a sleeping but volcanic issue this year. It will erupt when court decisions are announced. It has the potential to completely reshape the political landscape.

Elections and redistricting

All other issues and debates will play out against the backdrop of a midterm election. Nationally, voters will be selecting 36 governors, 34 senators and the entire House of Representatives.

The national story will center on whether Democrats can keep the House of Representatives and their razor-thin majority in the Senate. In the past, the opposition party has usually made gains in the first midterm after a presidential election. That is widely expected to happen again this year.

In Florida, DeSantis is up for re-election as is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), all state senators, all state representatives and county and municipal officials.

DeSantis is a base politician, in every sense of the word “base.” He doesn’t try to appeal to all Floridians but has clearly decided that his victory will be won by pandering to his most extreme and ignorant supporters—including Donald Trump. His actions reveal that he is calculating that this will give him sufficient support to keep him in office and provide a platform for the presidency in 2024.

Trump, however, is a jealous god and has lately been denigrating his protégé, whom he apparently sees as a potential threat for 2024 and getting too big for his britches. DeSantis may face a Trump-incited primary on the right from Roger Stone, the previously convicted and pardoned political trickster and activist, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

If the Stone primary challenge does indeed materialize, it will make for one of the great political stories of 2022.

The primary action on the Democratic side will be between the three candidates for the Party’s gubernatorial nomination: Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.), a former governor; Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide Democratic officeholder; and state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-40-Miami.). This battle will be resolved on primary election day, Aug. 23.

On the Senate side Rep. Val Demings (D-10-Fla.), is currently the leading contender to take on Rubio, although Allen Ellison, who previously ran in the 17th Congressional District, is also seeking the Party’s nomination.

In Southwest Florida Democrat Cindy Banyai is pursuing a rematch with Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.). Currently, no other Democrat is contesting her candidacy.

The congressional and state elections will be occurring in newly-redrawn districts and the exact boundaries of all districts, congressional, state and local, will be a major factor in determining the political orientation of the state for the next decade. The Republican-dominated legislature, which begins meeting on Jan. 11, must finalize the state’s maps by June 13, when candidates qualify for the new districts.

If the maps are overly gerrymandered they will be subject to court challenges. In 2010 court challenges were so numerous and complex that maps weren’t finalized for six years. This year state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Fort Myers), who heads the Senate redistricting committee, has publicly stated that he wants to avoid a repeat of that experience by drawing fair maps at the outset.

Whether the final maps approved by the legislature are in fact fairly drawn and meet the terms of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment, will be a major question in 2022.

Battle over schools

School boards were once sleepy and relatively obscure institutions of government and education was a quiet area of governance.

That all changed over the past two years. With schools attempting to keep students, teachers and employees safe with mask and vaccine mandates despite vocal opposition from COVID-denying parents as well as right-wing hysteria over the teaching of critical race theory, school board elections have become pointed ideological battlegrounds. Frustrated Trumpers are determined to impose ideological restrictions on teaching and curriculum and use school boards as grassroots stepping stones to achieving power.

In Virginia the 2021 gubernatorial race turned on the question of parental control of curriculum, resulting in a Republican victory. Across the country Republicans will be trying to duplicate that success by making education a major focus of their campaigns. The resulting battle is already fierce and poised to become fiercer. It has erupted at the grassroots as school board members have been physically threatened and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s mobilization of law enforcement assets to protect school board members was denounced by right wing politicians and pundits as threatening parents.

This is prominently playing out in Florida. DeSantis has proposed the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees [WOKE] Act to prohibit critical race theory teaching and allow parents to sue school board members and teachers. Locally, state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples) has proposed putting cameras in all classrooms to monitor teachers. Local grocer, farmer and conservative extremist Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes, has demanded that teachers’ unions be “taken down” by “force.”

The school board elections of 2022 will not be what were once considered normal, non-partisan contests. They will be extreme, passionate, heavily politicized, bare-knuckled ideological battles. The outcome of these elections will determine whether students, teachers and school employees are kept safe from the pandemic, whether teachers are able to teach free of surveillance and liability, and whether the lessons imparted to students encourage open inquiry and critical thinking or narrow, ideologically-driven indoctrination.

Climate change—natural and political

The past year was one that saw some of the most extreme weather on record, clearly driven by a changing climate. Biden’s infrastructure plan had some measures to address these changes and build resilience in the face of what is sure to be climatic changes ahead. However, a major initiative to halt climate change is stalled along with the rest of his Build Back Better plan.

Climate change is the issue that undergirds—and overhangs—every other human endeavor. That was true in 2021, it will be true in 2022 and it will be true for the rest of the life of the human race and the planet.

Florida was extraordinarily lucky last year, avoiding the worst of the storms, wildfires, droughts and heat waves that plagued the rest of the United States.

Locally, Southwest Florida got a taste of climate change-driven weather when an EF-1 tornado touched down in Cape Coral on Dec. 21, damaging homes and businesses.

Nonetheless, on Dec. 7 at a Pinellas County event, DeSantis accused climate activists of trying to “smuggle in their ideology.”

“What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We’re not doing any left-wing stuff,” DeSantis said to audience cheers.

“Be very careful of people trying to smuggle in their ideology. They say they support our coastline, or they say they support, you know, some, you know, difference, our water, environment. And maybe they do, but they’re also trying to do a lot of other things,” he said.

This does not bode well for the governor or legislature addressing climate change impacts this year. Still, even the most extreme climate change-deniers are having a hard time dismissing it entirely.

Reducing or resisting the effects of climate change will be the big sleeper issue of 2022, providing a backdrop to all other political issues as the year proceeds. If there is a major, catastrophic event like a very destructive hurricane—or multiple hurricanes—DeSantis and his minions may have to acknowledge that the urgency of climate change transcends petty party politics.

Beyond the realm of prediction

It is 311 days from New Year’s Day to Election Day this year. A lot can happen that can’t be anticipated or predicted.

In past years a midterm election might seem to be a routine, relatively sleepy event of low voter turnout and intense interest only to wonks, nerds and politicos.

But the stakes are now very high and the dangers considerable. As long as Trumpism continues to threaten democracy and the future of the United States, nothing is routine any more.

The world, America, Florida and Florida’s southwest region are facing unprecedented perils. But as long as America is still an election-driven democracy, every individual has a say in how those perils are addressed.

That precious vote is a citizen’s right and obligation—and it can no longer be taken for granted.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Virginia, Florida and the road ahead for 2022

Nov. 4, 2021 by David Silverberg

When it comes to elections, winners tend to generalize while losers tend to specify.

That’s what’s happening as a result of the Virginia election where Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe by 51 to 48 percent.

But does what happened in the Commonwealth of Virginia necessarily translate into a precursor for the State of Florida?

Republicans, nationally and locally, are generalizing the vote as a referendum on President Joe Biden and portraying it as a harbinger of the 2022 election.

“…I do think this wave is building. I think it was strong last night. But I think it’s going to keep building all the way into 2022,” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said in an interview on the program Fox & Friends yesterday.

“I think people are rebelling against what the Democratic Party stands for nowadays,” he said. “The never-ending mandates and restrictions because of COVID, using our school systems for leftist indoctrination rather than high-quality education, and then the Biden regime’s failures from Afghanistan to the southern border, gas prices, inflation, supply chain.”

Local Republican Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who initially tweeted a mocking message to the Democratic National Committee that he subsequently deleted, later settled on a blander pronouncement: “Virginians sent a clear message to Democrats: Parents belong in the classroom, stop teaching division, enough with the radical spending, & no more mandates!”

There’s no sugarcoating this defeat for Democrats nationally: It was a big, unexpected blow and it hurt.

As the Republicans generalized its implications, so Democrats tried to focus on the specific reasons McAuliffe lost.

During a candidate debate in which Youngkin questioned McAuliffe’s veto of legislation banning “sexually explicit” content in school curriculum (Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved) “out of McAuliffe’s mouth tumbled these words: ‘I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they can teach.’

“And that’s what done it,” writes Michael Tomasky in The New Republic. “A day later, those words became an attack ad, and McAuliffe was forced to play defense from that moment on.”

DeSantis on a roll

As DeSantis pointed out, the Youngkin victory is a good omen for him.

DeSantis is undeniably in a strong position as he conducts his primary race for gubernatorial re-election and his—at this point—secondary race for president in 2024.

So strong is DeSantis’ position, given his $60 million war chest and subservient legislature that the news platform Politico Florida headlined an October 31 article: “Florida Democrats anxious as DeSantis seems unbeatable.”  

That Democrats are anxious is indisputable; that DeSantis is “unbeatable” is overstating the case.

In fact, Democrats do have some resources and determination, as the article pointed out.

“The election’s not happening tomorrow, there is still time for the tide to turn,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-47-Orlando) told Gary Fineout, the article’s author. “But obviously it needs to be an all-hands-on-deck situation right now.”

Manny Diaz, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, took issue with the article’s premise. “We’re in Florida. We lost the last governor’s race by 30,000 votes against the same character,” he said. “In politics, a year is an eternity. There’s nothing that leads me to believe DeSantis is unbeatable.” He also noted that it’s “unbelievable we’re having a conversation a year out” about a DeSantis victory.

Against DeSantis’ advantages are his liabilities: strenuous, determined efforts to block all forms of COVID protections; attacks on local school boards that have tried to protect schoolchildren, and the resulting COVID death toll in Florida—currently at 59,670, according to The New York Times, despite all the governor’s attempts to conceal or obscure state statistics.

Also, it’s being widely noted that a key to Youngkin’s success was his keeping Donald Trump at arm’s length, something noted in another Lincoln Project video, “Ungrateful.”

Another observer who emphasized Youngkin’s distance from Trump was Rep. Liz Cheney (R-at large-Wy.), who tweeted: “Congratulations to @GlennYoungkin for a great victory last night. Winning back suburban moms and independent voters, he demonstrated Republican values and competence, not conspiracy theories and lies, win elections.”

Ironically, DeSantis’ slavish Trumpism may prove a disadvantage next year. His difficulty may come from—of all people—his idol and mentor, Donald Trump. Trump is a jealous god and DeSantis’ popularity among the Republican faithful is already bringing down the divine wrath. He seems to feel a need to cut him down in his youth before he can really mount a challenge to Trump’s own nomination bid.

The anti-Trump Lincoln Project noted this in one of its cutting videos, called “Sad!

Other than Trump’s jealousy of DeSantis, there’s little to no daylight between the maestro and the apprentice. Floridians would be getting a committed Trumper if they re-elect DeSantis in 2022, although that would certainly give some Floridians joy.

Weirdly, DeSantis may face a primary challenge on the right from Roger Stone, the convicted and then Trump-pardoned political trickster and activist who told Dave Elias of NBC2 in Fort Myers that he might run in order to conduct an audit of the 2020 election in Florida. He could be a surrogate for Trump himself in the 2022 Florida race.

But the final arbiter of the 2022 election may not be human at all: COVID is still active and deadly even though the numbers are declining, thanks to widespread vaccinations. DeSantis is on record and running as an anti-mandate, anti-precaution candidate.

If, however, DeSantis and the anti-vaxxers block vaccination mandates for schoolchildren and there is an outbreak that kills large numbers of them, Florida parents might—just might—put the blame at the feet of DeSantis and anti-vaxx Republicans. It is a horrible outcome but one being invited by the anti-vaxxers’ gamble.

Finding a strategy

Still, expecting victory based on an opponent’s stumbles is not a strategy.

The problem for Democrats in Florida and nationally is that they are a political party competing with a cult.

A cult, when it’s strong, has some decided advantages: it has a single leader, its followers obey unthinkingly, and it has a clear, simple message based on a few unmistakable tenets.

This is the state of the Republican Party today. Even with Trump somewhat sidelined, the Republican Party is still a cult of personality, worshipping Trump and his clear, simple message of, in his words, “hatred, prejudice and rage.”

Nowhere is this truer than in Florida, where the man resides and the governor is his closest acolyte.

In comparison to this Democrats, as is more characteristic of a political party, are diverse, contentious and sometimes chaotic. While they entertain a wide spectrum of ideas there’s no one personality imposing intellectual uniformity. Sometimes that can be a disadvantage at the voting booth.

Actually, the Democratic Party does have some clear tenets: inclusion for all, concern for humanity, determination to forge a better future and commitment to democracy. But while the Democratic Party stays within the law and argues policies, Trumpist Republicans pursue power at all costs. There is no hypocrisy too great, no mental gymnastic too convoluted, no legal barrier too high to impede this raw pursuit of power. And if elections don’t go their way they’re willing to overturn them through violence and then condone it, as the January 6th insurrection demonstrated.

Trumpist Republicans also have the advantage in that theirs is an emotional movement, riding on hatred, prejudice and rage but also fear and outrage, much of it generated by pandemic restrictions but finding expression against their long-time targets of Biden, Democrats and governing institutions like school boards.

This is neither new nor surprising. After every disaster there is a search for human scapegoats, sometimes very strange ones. For example, after the Johnstown Flood of 1889, survivors scapegoated Hungarian immigrants; after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 city residents’ wrath fell on a tiny Japanese community; after the great 1927 Mississippi flood there was a horrendous wave of lynchings and murders of Black people in the affected southern states. It is as though people, having suffered at the hands of nature, must find human victims.

We are now coming through the disaster of the pandemic, which, though receding, is still with us. After four years of Donald Trump’s routinely lying, scapegoating and deflecting blame as a standard operating procedure, his cult is now primed to channel all its pandemic frustrations against Biden and the government working so hard to defeat the disease. The resulting program is clear: hatred of Biden and opposition to all restrictions, rules or Democratic ideas.

As of right now, the political landscape is decidedly headed in the Republican direction, boosted by the victory in Virginia and the close call in New Jersey.

For Democrats who stay within the bounds of law and the Constitution the solution will always be the same: more and better organizing, more energetic campaigning, greater voter registration, sharper messaging, more programs and policies that benefit people and an appeal to reason and good sense.

There is also this to remember: a victory is sweet but a defeat sharpens the mind and energizes the effort.

As Thomas Paine put it in the darkest days of the American Revolution after a string of Continental defeats: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Liberty lives in light

(c) 2021 by David Silverberg

New Facebook group aims to boost Democratic businesses in Southwest Florida

Sept. 29, 2021 by David Silverberg

Mimi Lamb remembers the moment the idea came to her.

“There was a young lady who was looking for a service person in one of the Democratic chat groups,” she recalls. The woman was seeking a reliable handyperson whom she could allow into her home who was also a Democrat.

But in an overwhelmingly conservative area where many businesses are vocally and conspicuously defying COVID precautions and opposing vaccinations, her quest wasn’t just a political statement; she was also looking for someone who could be trusted to keep her safe by following anti-COVID guidelines and practices.

“I said, ‘That’s it!’” Lamb related. Inspiration had struck. On Facebook Lamb started a poll of people who were similarly looking for Democratic vendors. She learned that people were especially seeking dependable physicians, healthcare providers and beauty salons where customers could be assured of friendly service, sympathetic views and hygienic practices.  

So a week and a half ago, on Sunday, Sept. 19, Lamb launched the Facebook group Democrat Owned Businesses of Southwest Florida. A private group, as of this writing it has 59 members and 30 who have applied to join.

A political journey

Mimi Lamb

Beverly Lamb, known to her five grandchildren and the rest of the world as Mimi, has followed a political journey taken by many people who feel the need to find a new political home. “It’s been a journey of discovery of what works, what matters to me,” she said of her exploration of the political spectrum.

Originally from Pennsylvania, she started her political life as a Republican. However, she voted for Bill Clinton in 1992.

But voting for Clinton didn’t make her a Democrat and she disagreed with aspects of the Clinton presidency. “It’s like you don’t get enough of what you want for Christmas,” she says of her initial apostasy and then disillusionment.

She became an independent.

At the same time her political journey was accompanied by a physical move from Pennsylvania to Florida, initially to Orlando and then Miami. Her son-in-law was in the military and so she followed him and one of her two daughters on their different assignments, moving steadily southward before arriving in Fort Myers in 2004.

She switched her party affiliation to Democratic in 2014. But then, in 2016, “Trump lit a fire under me,” she says. She became not just a Democrat but a committed activist.

“I just got really involved as a Democrat,” she related to The Paradise Progressive. During the 2020 election campaign, “We were seeing all these Trump signs and flags but no one was marching on the other side. People were too afraid.”

Teaming up with another local activist whom she met online, she began organizing people to hold pro-Democratic signs and wave flags on Fort Myers street corners.

“We started marching and got other people to march,” she said. Initially they attracted around 15 people but with each event that grew until they were joined by 40 or 50 people.

“The first time, we faced a lot of threats and had to get police protection,” she says. Angry opponents told her: “We know who you are and know where you live.”

But she persisted.

After the election, she initially became involved in Facebook when she wanted to post pictures of her grandchildren. But as she explored the platform she became aware of people seeking assistance.

“Every other week I’d see someone asking for help,” she related. “They’d need a handyman or someone to put down sod but they’d say, ‘I don’t know who to ask for.’”

Political affiliations could usually be determined for big corporations and companies. But that wasn’t the case with small businesses, independent contractors and local service providers.

What was more, she became aware of a Republican Facebook group called Boycott Democrat Businesses. As of this writing it has only 37 members and its location is unclear. It sees Democratic businesses as enemies and was created the day Joe Biden was declared the election winner, Nov. 7, 2020.

Staying positive

A self-employed independent contractor who specializes in marketing educational software, Lamb is still professionally active and works remotely. Her new Facebook project is more than a hobby but less than a full-time occupation.

She reached out to a group supporting Democratic businesses operating in the Orlando area for ideas but has not yet heard back.

She emphasizes that the local Democrat Owned Businesses Facebook group is not against anyone.

The Democrat Business logo.

“This should be a positive environment where we can support each other, not stress each other out,” she states in the “About” section.

“This is a place for Democrats to find local businesses led and operated by Democrats. Acceptable posts: Businesses promoting their products or services, Customers searching for referrals, general public recommending a Democratic- owned business.”

It warns that negative posts will be removed: no business bashing, political ranting or political posturing is allowed.

At this time the group does not list any businesses—and that’s deliberate.

“I recognize there is some risk in sharing info about Dem-led businesses,” it states. “We live in a very ‘red’ area of the state. That is likely why there has not been a group like this for our area until now. And that is why this page is private. We will make every reasonable effort to protect Dem-led businesses here and admins caution you not to share that information publicly.”

It continues: “I recommend you invite any Dem-led businesses you patronize to join our group so they can make that decision [to go public] for themselves, and ask their permission first before sharing them with the group.”

Right now, Lamb is scrupulously vetting applicants who want to join the group. Anyone wishing to join must fill out a questionnaire and be approved. It takes time.  “Please be patient with admin activities while I get this up and running, as I work a full-time job and may not always be able to respond immediately,” she states.

Writing from a personal perspective, Lamb writes on the page: “I am a businesswoman myself; I’ve owned or operated several companies in the past, and I always strove to serve everyone with the same grace and dignity. I expect any Dem-led business who joins our group will want to do the same.”

Right now, Lamb is cautiously finding her way forward, experimenting with what works and what does not and adapting the group to the needs of Southwest Florida.

“I would really like for this to be a very positive and safe place,” she told The Paradise Progressive. “If it becomes uncomfortable, I won’t do it.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Could Gov. Ron DeSantis face a recall in Florida?

Gov. Ron DeSantis (Caricature: Donkey Hotey via Wikimedia)

Sept. 17, 2021 by David Silverberg

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s smashing victory in California’s recall election has sparked hope in the hearts of some Floridians that a similar effort can be mounted in Florida to recall Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

As the New York expression goes: “Fuggedaboudit!

Florida has no constitutional recall provision. What you get in a Florida election is what you’re stuck with until the end of the term.

Florida is hardly alone in this. Only 19 states have gubernatorial recall provisions.

Nationally, the US Constitution has no provisions for recalls of any kind. A president can be removed following impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors but otherwise he’s in office for the length of his term.

It’s not as though Floridians are not expressing their displeasure with DeSantis’ governing. A Change.org petition to recall DeSantis had 93,609 signatures as of this writing. A MoveOn.org recall petition had 8,913 signatures.

However, the next real opportunity to recall DeSantis comes on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022.

The silly season that isn’t

The days before an election are often referred to as “silly season.” It’s when politicians say and do strange and often outlandish things to get elected.

While the election is still a year and nearly two months away, “silly season” is well under way, only right now there’s nothing funny about it due to the COVID pandemic.

A sensible, center-governing politician of any party or persuasion might ordinarily be expected to throw some rhetorical bones to the more rabid dogs in his following, sometimes tossing some real red meat as well. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of ensuring the health, welfare and prosperity of those in his jurisdiction, decisions have to be driven to some extent by reason, reality and logic.

That’s not happening in Florida. In rhetoric and action, DeSantis is proving a hard-right, extreme, Trumpist governor who is matching extreme rhetoric with extreme action. At every level he appears to be governing for the sake, and at the direction, of a hard-core, fanatical, minority base. In matters of life and death he’s not only offering up COVID-denying rhetoric, he’s actively impeding and obstructing science-based measures like masking and vaccinations and attacking those who do try to implement them, like local school districts.

This includes his ban on school mask mandates, on vaccination “passports,” threats to withhold salaries of school officials who defy his ban in order to protect children, appeals of a court order challenging his ban, threats to fine Florida cities that impose a vaccine mandate on their workers, attacks on federal COVID-prevention mandates and silence in the face of false claims and disinformation about vaccines and COVID precautions.

In a Sept. 14 editorial, The Washington Post characterized his actions as “a jaw-dropping level of cynicism.”

It stated: “Mr. DeSantis harbors national political ambitions. But what he’s displaying here is crass opportunism and disregard for the greater good. As he stokes the ignorance and misguided impulses of some in the Republican base, he is acting against the very tools needed to save lives and stop the pandemic.”

The former president may not be directing DeSantis but DeSantis is closely following the Trumpist playbook, from threats and intimidation to impose his will down to the denial and dismissal of the COVID-19 threat and indifference to its consequences.

Leaching down to Lee County

The DeSantis method and Trumpist playbook are not only playing out in the state capital but like Trumpism itself, are leaching down into local nooks and crannies at the local level.

Case in point is the Lee County School District. When Judge John Cooper of the 2nd Judicial Circuit of Florida overturned the governor’s school mask ban on Sept.  2, Lee County School Superintendent Ken Savage was free to impose a mask mandate to last the month of September.

However, when the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Cooper’s order and left the ban in place, Savage felt he was compelled to allow parents to opt out and so he did beginning on Sept. 14.

“Given the legal landscape, I am appealing to your humanity and sense of community,” Savage wrote in a letter to the community. “With approximately 500 COVID-19 patients isolated within our local hospital system, and a 101 percent staffed bed capacity over the weekend, remember that these aren’t just numbers. These are people. These are your neighbors, your family, your friends, your co-workers. I choose to believe that the vast majority of our community are reasonable, caring people who want this surge to end as quickly as possible and would willingly volunteer to wear masks as an additional measure to protect each other from harm.”

He concluded: “I implore you to prove your commitment to each other by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, and following other safety protocols to help us get through this surge together. I will never underestimate our community’s ability to show love and compassion for each other.”

Savage’s civilized faith in the love, compassion and reason of his community was admirable but hardly reciprocated. Demonstrations against the mask mandate brought out shoving matches by mask opponents in front of the School District headquarters and heated rhetoric inside its council room.

On a political basis it provided an opportunity for state Rep. Spencer Roach (R-79-Buckingham) to send a letter to Savage demanding an end to the mask mandate or face a Roach call to DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran for his firing.

In fact the Lee County School District had to allow a temporary, court-imposed, opt-out option. As Savage wrote in his letter to parents: “…last Friday, the 1st District Court of Appeal instituted a stay, which means the Florida Department of Education can continue to enforce its interpretation of the parental opt out until this matter is ultimately resolved.” As a result, an opt-out provision had to be instituted for students, although not for employees.

The Lee County retreat was hailed by local conservatives and anti-maskers as a huge victory for their cause.

Roach’s gesture certainly rebounded to his benefit with the anti-mask constituency, prompting them to credit him for the change in Lee County policy. As a bit of political sleight of hand, it was deftly done.

Roach’s grandstanding is just one example of the kind of maneuvering that will be increasing across the board in Florida as the clock ticks toward Election Day.

Why are they acting this way?

Florida is now in the grip of a governing party for whom the lives of Floridians are not even a secondary consideration. The clear calculation is that serving the extreme anti-vaxx, anti-mask, COVID-denying base is the formula for success at the polls.

But is that true? In California it clearly was not. Californians overwhelmingly rejected the Trumpist mantra.

So far, the polling—at least the publicly available polling—is paltry in Florida but it would seem to indicate that the silent majority of Floridians support mask and vaccination mandates and COVID precautions.

That was the result indicated by the most recent poll on the topic, conducted by Quinnipiac University from August 17 to 21 and released on Aug. 24. Quinnipiac polling is highly respected, getting an A- rating from the FiveThirtyEight.com website. This poll was based on responses from 997 Florida adults.

The poll found that by 60 to 35 percent, Floridians supported requiring masks in schools. By 68 to 27 percent they believed that local school officials should be free to make the decision. What was more, 69 percent to 25 percent thought DeSantis’ withholding of school salaries to force compliance was a bad idea—and that finding applied across the political spectrum.

“As COVID-19 makes a frightening resurgence, it’s Tallahassee vs. the teaching institutions,” stated Tim Malloy, a Quinnipiac polling analyst. “Thumbs down from Floridians on DeSantis’ ban on mask requirements in public schools. Thumbs down on DeSantis’ call to freeze pay of administrators who mandate mask wearing. And he gets scant support from fellow Republicans on penalizing the school leaders who defy him.”

Regrettably, more granular data from Southwest Florida is not publicly available.

If most Floridians don’t approve of the DeSantis/Trump approach to handling the pandemic and this could prove politically damaging, why are DeSantis and other Florida Republicans sticking so stubbornly to policies and positions that are killing Floridians and endangering their children?

Five reasons immediately suggest themselves:

They’re true believers. DeSantis, Roach and other Republicans truly believe the anti-mask, anti-vaccination, disease-denying ideology. This is not just an act, it is not just a pose, and it is a real, heartfelt opposition to COVID precautions. In this it mirrors Donald Trump’s own reaction to the COVID pandemic as president. As for the deaths and infections resulting from this stance, in their minds that’s just collateral damage. In some ways a true-believing politician is more dangerous than a cynical one—at least a cynic can be swayed by reason, self-interest or constituent needs.

It will help them win the next election. DeSantis and the Republicans believe that the strength of the COVID-denying base is sufficient to help them win the election in 2022 and possibly 2024. This also applies down the line in congressional, county and municipal elections. As result they’re pandering to its prejudices and extremism.

It will all be forgotten by next November. Politicians and the public know that voters have short memories. No doubt DeSantis and the Republicans are calculating that by November 2022 the pandemic will be a bad dream that voters are eager to forget—at least the ones that are still alive.

There’s a presidential race on. Certainly at the gubernatorial level, DeSantis has long been running for the presidential nod in 2024. In the Republican Party he has to compete with the likes of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in a race to the rim of reason. These candidates must prove themselves sufficiently fanatical to win over the hard-core militants and walk in the footsteps of Donald Trump—who might himself overturn their calculations by demanding the Party’s nomination in 2024.

The extremists are louder. Without data, sense or logic, COVID-deniers and anti-vaxxers are using volume to fight efforts to stem the pandemic. They’re loud, threatening and they turn out in numbers at demonstrations like the ones at the Lee County School Board. It makes an impression on television and certainly impacts school board members and local officials. It is also what some politicians heed and fear to contradict.

The COVID-deniers, anti-vaxxers and Republican politicians frame the debate over masks and vaccinations as one of personal choice versus government overreach. But what they overlook or ignore is the nature of the disease itself. They regard this as one more political issue that can be dealt with on a human timetable and at human discretion.

However, COVID is not subject to human whims or desires. It is literally a force of nature that operates on its own timetable and according to its own imperatives. As humans—and especially as Americans—we’re accustomed to imposing our will on nature; this is a case of nature forcing us to adapt to it. DeSantis and the Republicans have not made that mental adjustment.

Politically, all this will play out in the next election. It’s clear: those Floridians who believe in science, who don’t want their school-age children used as pawns, who prefer to adapt to real-world conditions rather than impose comforting delusions on reality, will have to be more active, determined and mobilized than their opponents and show up in greater numbers.

And that is the only way to recall a governor of Florida.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

White House vaccine mandate for contractors puts Oakes Farms in crosshairs

Clouds are gathering over the Oakes Farm’s Seed to Table market. (Photo: Author)

Sept. 10, 2021 by David Silverberg

A new executive order issued by President Joe Biden requiring federal contractors to vaccinate their workforces will put pressure on “Alfie” Oakes, the fiercely anti-vaccination farmer, grocer and extreme conservative activist based in Naples, Fla., to protect his workforce from COVID-19.

Francis Alfred Oakes III claims to have 3,200 employees.

The order, Executive Order on Ensuring Adequate COVID Safety Protocols for Federal Contractors was issued yesterday, Sept. 9. (The full text of the order in a downloadable PDF is available at the end of this article.)

The order seeks “to promote economy and efficiency in procurement by contracting with sources that provide adequate COVID-19 safeguards for their workforce… .” This is being widely interpreted as mandating vaccinations for all workers on federal contracts.

While the order takes effect immediately, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, a government group providing federal agencies pandemic guidance, has until Sept. 24 to issue the terms, explanations of protocols and guidance to federal contractors. Federal agencies have until Oct. 8 to implement the guidance.

Oakes Farms has extensive and lucrative federal contracts, according to a Jan. 19, 2021 Naples Daily News article “Despite criticism and protests, Oakes Farms does big business with federal government,” by reporter Laura Layden.

According to the article, the company was awarded $70.2 million in the first quarter of the 2021 federal fiscal year based on contracts with the Agriculture, Defense and Justice departments. In 2017 it won a contract worth $40 million with the Defense Logistics Agency, a second contract with the same agency worth $46.8 million in 2018 and a third contract worth $45 million. In 2018 it won a contract to supply produce to the Bureau of Prisons in the Justice Department. It supplied boxes of produce to needy families under the 2020 Farmers to Families program of the Agriculture Department.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 Oakes has dismissed the virus as a “hoax” and a “sham.” He fought masking in Collier County, defying a county mandate and ignoring regulations. All fines for COVID violations were dismissed by an order of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), on Sept. 25, 2020.

Since the arrival of vaccines Oakes has been a prominent and vocal anti-vaxxer.

“…Our employees, no one died, zero of them died,” Oakes said in a speech to the conservative “We the People Fight Back” conference on Aug. 20 at the Naples Hilton, in Naples. “Very few of them got sick! The people that did get sick were only sick for four or five days. We did have a few people that were sick for a couple weeks but every flu season I get people that are sick for a couple of weeks.”

He continued: “So this is what I’ve seen. I’ve got no reason to lie about it. But we all did the right thing. We got plenty of sunlight, we didn’t obstruct our breathing, and we loved and had a good time. The government’s telling you, to go and stay in your house, stay out of the sun, put a mask on, take this vaccine that’s really nothing and it’s just beyond sad.”

Oakes has characterized vaccines as “Fauci’s poisonous cocktail” and stated that “plenty of sunlight, healthy eating and not stressing out” would result in a “100 percent success rate when you get the proper treatment Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin. The odds have not changed… anyone with a healthy immune system are [sic] much more likely to die getting struck by lightning.”

Oakes’ retail market, Seed to Table, gained national prominence in February for its anti-mask and COVID-denial policies.

Unmasked customers and cashiers in Seed to Table, February 2021. (Image: Twitter)

The new executive order requiring COVID precautions applies to all new federal contracts. However, it states that when it comes to existing contracts, “agencies are strongly encouraged, to the extent permitted by law, to ensure that the safety protocols required under those contracts and contract-like instruments are consistent with the requirements specified in section 2 of this order,” section 2 being the one providing guidance on safety measures and protocols.

The order’s requirements also apply to all of a business’ locations, so that would presumably also apply to retail as well as production sites: “This clause shall apply to any workplace locations (as specified by the Task Force Guidance) in which an individual is working on or in connection with a Federal Government contract or contract-like instrument…” it states.

(Editor’s note: Oakes’ reliance on “plenty of sunlight, healthy eating and not stressing out,” is an eerie echo of one response to the Black Death, the bubonic plague of the 14th century that took the lives of a third of Europeans. In her book A Distant Mirror, historian Barbara Tuchman writes that in one village: “villagers were seen dancing to drums and trumpets, and on being asked the reason, answered that, seeing their neighbors die day by day while their village remained immune, they believed they could keep the plague from entering ‘by the jollity that is in us. That is why we dance.’” Tuchman does not say if the village remained immune.)

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

After an awful August, can September be better?

Pro and anti-maskers make their battle over a Lee County mask mandate physical at the Lee County Public Schools headquarters in Fort Myers on Monday, Aug. 30. (Image: NBC-2)

Sept. 1, 2021 by David Silverberg

Starting today Lee County students and teachers will be required to wear masks for the next 30 days, a mandate imposed by that county’s school superintendent, Kenneth Savage.

It comes after a judge’s ruling against the governor’s mask mandate ban and a tumultuous school board meeting at the School District of Lee County headquarters in Fort Myers on Monday, Aug. 30, that resulted in violence and arrests.

It’s just part of a changed landscape—biological, political and environmental—in Southwest Florida and around the nation following an awful August.

Might September be better? What are the prospects politically and environmentally?

It’s time to take a survey, or a “tour d’horizon,” to use a French military term, of the challenges likely to confront us in the month that now looms ahead. Forewarned is forearmed.

COVID and consequences

In August, COVID-19 and especially its Delta variant took the lives of 25,408 Americans, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. Of those, 4,900 were Floridians.

The change of the calendar will not alter the challenge of COVID. What is more, with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) executive order banning mask mandates having been overturned in court (although under appeal) the battle over school mask mandates will likely rage on.

A handful of significant local September dates loom as this situation proceeds.

  • Sept. 8: The Collier County Public School Board will hold its regularly monthly meeting. If a mask mandate has not already been imposed, the subject is likely to be discussed.
  • Sept. 14: The Lee County School Board will hold its regular monthly meeting and the mask mandate is likely to be debated again.
  • Sept. 30: Lee County public school officials and Board members will have to decide whether to renew the mandate.

Increasingly it appears that school authorities, simply cannot indulge and accommodate anti-mask and anti-vaxx parents and activists. With the danger to school-age children clear and present, mandates are being imposed by necessity regardless of the opposition by anti-mask parents—and the governor.

Another September date has significance beyond just Southwest Florida schools:

  • Sept. 20: Vaccination booster shots are expected to become widely available.

Climate and consequences

September is the most active month for hurricanes and tropical storms. Louisiana and the western Gulf coast are still digging out from Hurricane Ida and will be for months.

To date Florida has been spared the worst of the weather but there’s no telling if that will hold. It has been a very active Atlantic hurricane season.

Politically, natural disasters tend to favor incumbents if they handle them well. Floridians—in the Southwest and throughout the state—should watch their state and local officials’ response if the worst happens here. Are they focused, responsive and credible when the storm approaches? Do they sound the alarm responsibly with sufficient time for residents to prepare and evacuate? When the storm passes do they take action to aid the afflicted and work effectively with other governments (state and federal) to assist impacted areas?

In addition to the threat of storms, this year there is a red tide bloom that appears to be drifting southward from Tampa Bay. As of this writing it was reaching northern Lee County beaches and barrier islands.

Will the tide reach further south in September? There’s little that residents can do to stop it but business owners, restauranteurs and tourism-based enterprises need to prepare to cope with a blooming September. Local officials and representatives can prepare now to assist Lee, Collier and Charlotte county businesses if they’re hurt by the bloom.

Congress and consequences

For the US Congress, September is going to be a jam-packed month.

President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan and a $3.5 trillion budget already passed in the House will be moving toward final approval.

As part of its efforts to clean up the environment and combat climate change, the infrastructure bill holds promise of resources for Southwest Florida.

Southwest Florida Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) oppose both measures.  Donalds, who sits on the House Budget Committee, was particularly vocal in his opposition.

Two larger elements will complicate all congressional deliberations.

One is the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal. There is no doubt that the scenes of chaos and retreat will hurt Biden and impede passage of his domestic agenda. They have already created an opening for Republicans to attack him. Donalds and Steube joined a group of Republicans calling for Biden’s resignation, a publicity stunt that will go nowhere. (Interestingly, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) did not join the resignation movement.)

The other is the work of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack. As it proceeds with its investigation and hearings it will throw a spotlight on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, former President Donald Trump’s role in it and the role of his congressional allies.

None of the Southwest Florida congressmen appear to have played significant parts in the insurrection and attack on the Capitol, so they’re unlikely to be in the spotlight as enablers or accomplices. However, the involvement of other Southwest Floridians could emerge as the investigation continues.

Analysis: A better September?

For Southwest Florida, which is so far both intellectually and physically from Afghanistan and Washington, DC, the single overriding issue going into September is surviving and containing COVID. It is literally a matter of life and death.

A doctor attempting to attend the Lee County School Board meeting (right, in laboratory coat and mask) is shoved by an anti-mask protester. (Image: NBC-2)

As COVID has taken its relentless toll, the intensity and volume of COVID-precaution opponents has grown louder and more emotional. Ironically, as COVID-deniers are less able to rely on reason or data to oppose mask mandates, COVID precautions or vaccinations, they’re dialing up the fury to compensate. Instead of logic, they’ve offered rage; instead of argument, they’ve offered rants; instead of masking, they’re infecting.

If it were only their own lives at risk they could take their chances without harming others but they can’t. In ten days of school, 600 cases of new COVID infections were reported in Collier County, according to the Naples Daily News. A Lee County school system dashboard showed 2,655 cases, according to NBC-2 News.

The soaring rates of infection and the obstinate and increasingly emotional refusal of so many local residents to accept simple precautions like masks or vaccinations make the area a COVID Delta hotspot. In addition to the tragedy of the people who are going to be killed or permanently impaired by the disease, the area’s national reputation as a dangerous location is going to grow.

That reputation will have real, on-the-ground implications for the area’s businesses, tourism and hospitality.

September is usually a time when full-time residents flee the area. The heat is hottest, the storms are most likely and tourist season hasn’t started yet, so streets, restaurants and shops are largely deserted. For businesses, though, it’s also a time to start preparing for season.

If, under DeSantis, COVID continues to ravage Florida and if Southwest Florida’s COVID-deniers continue making as much noise as they are, the attractiveness of the Paradise Coast is likely to precipitously decline as a tourist destination and a place to do business.

On top of that, the hostility toward immigrants and efforts to curtail immigration that were begun during the Trump administration are bearing fruit, manifesting themselves in the labor shortage the area’s businesses are experiencing.

Add to that the likelihood of a major red tide bloom, the result of the Piney Point mining waste stack being pumped into Tampa Bay in April.

As of right now, far from a better September, Southwest Florida seems headed for a perfect storm of COVID, climate and controversy that will combine to hurt the area going into 2022.

But Southwest Florida residents and their leaders have some options: If they ignore the naysayers and anti-vaxxers, get vaccinated and receive booster shots, they might just flatten the COVID curve and at least make the region less of a hotspot.

If officials and local governments acknowledge the reality of climate change—which they are increasingly doing—they can prepare for the storms and algal blooms that are part of life in Southwest Florida. Preparedness, resilience and realism can go a long way toward mitigating the worst impacts of environmental instability.

If Southwest Florida’s representatives in Tallahassee and Washington, DC cease acting like two-dimensional, rigid, ideological cartoons and instead work for the actual good of their people and the region, they may actually win the state and federal support and assistance that the area needs to cope with the challenges ahead.

It’s a tall order and a lot of ifs. But hope springs eternal.

Liberty lives in light.

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The Donalds Dossier: Anti-vaxxer or not?

Rep. Byron Donalds in an Aug. 10 Fox News interview, denouncing vaccination distinctions. (Image: Fox News)

Aug. 15, 2021 by David Silverberg

With the COVID-19 Delta variant rampaging through Florida and with urgent efforts to get the vulnerable vaccinated to halt the spread of the virus, “influencers” of all stripes and positions have taken on new importance, especially public figures and elected officials.

Nowhere is this truer than in Southwest Florida and the 19th Congressional District along the Florida Gulf coast from Cape Coral to Marco Island. Here, vaccination has become an acutely intense and impassioned political act. A vocal, hardcore anti-vaccination (anti-vaxx) constituency is demonstrating against vaccinations and especially fears vaccine mandates.

In all this Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) plays a particularly prominent role. He represents nearly 700,000 people in Congress and has special access to a media megaphone. What he says and does can sway many people in this community.

So is he an anti-vaxxer or a pro-vaxxer? It’s a question that should be easy to answer.

He’s…

Well, let’s examine the context, the politics and the record first.

Summertime

Donalds started off the summer very strongly and looked set to cruise through to Labor Day on top of the world.

There’s no denying that his second-quarter fundraising numbers were impressive: His political campaign took in $1.1 million for his re-election effort, an astounding sum for the otherwise sleepy beachfront district.

His staunchly far-right political positions were playing well with his white, conservative base in the district and gaining him national prominence with conservative elites, aiding his fundraising. The money came in from all over the country. If properly managed, some of it could be used to donate to other candidates, building his support in Congress.

He played the conservative martyr when the Congressional Black Caucus ignored his application to join. He had a greatly exploitable issue in opposing critical race theory, on which he had particular credibility. His adamant denunciations resonated with his base and his donors on the eve of a new school year. He stoked paranoid fear of liberal radicalism, driving donations and advancing the Republican agenda.

He was getting plenty of softball publicity in the right-wing media sphere and when he was critically scrutinized by traditional, mainstream media, he could discredit or dismiss the results. He had some useful pictures showing himself being blessed by Donald Trump, presumably making Trumpers happy.

He was at last showing concern about the district’s water issues, sending out letters to the Army Corps of Engineers regarding Lake Okeechobee releases and participating or hosting conferences on water management solutions. It was gaining him local environmental credibility, or at the very least, publicity.

His longstanding anti-masking efforts seemed justified as COVID receded and the pandemic appeared to be over. He had staunchly supported Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) opposition to masks, mandates or lockdowns and Florida was booming economically.

What was more, he could piggyback on DeSantis’ popularity. The governor’s polling numbers were very high among Republicans and might provide Donalds some nice coattails to ride in the next election.

Senate seats might also be opening up that Donalds could pursue. Then, who knows? Perhaps Donalds, currently age 42, could reach the presidency as the conservative Obama in 2028 or ’32 or ’36 or ’40—provided, of course, that the elections took place as scheduled.

A smooth and sunny summer stretched before him.

What could possibly go wrong?

From summer to bummer

Donalds won the 2020 Republican nomination for Congress in the 19th District after a strenuous nine-person primary that saw the candidates scrambling to out-Trump each other.

As they competed to be Trumpier than Trump, they aped the former president’s casual and dismissive approach to the COVID outbreak.

Donalds was particularly active in this regard. He opposed masking and took the time and made the effort to show up in person to oppose mask mandates whenever they arose. This included appearances in Cape Coral and before the Collier County Commission.

“You have no authority to mandate what people can put on their body. The fear people are having doesn’t justify it,” Donalds said when he spoke before the Cape Coral City Council on July 6, 2020. “As a council, you have the solemn duty to vote this down and get back to common sense.”

On July 14, when the Collier County Commission first debated a mask mandate, Donalds argued it would put “extensive burdens” on local law enforcement.

“How are you going to have them enforce such a mandate?” he asked commissioners. “Who are they going to decide to enforce it on and who are they not going to enforce it on? There are major issues with such an order.” The commission ultimately voted in a mask mandate.

He also argued against mask mandates when he debated Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai on Sept. 28.

Candidate Byron Donalds during his October 2020 COVID quarantine. (Image: Byron Donalds for Congress campaign)

Given all this, it was richly ironic that Donalds tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 16, 2020 when President Donald Trump came to Fort Myers.

Donalds quarantined at home for two weeks and seemed none the worse for wear when he emerged. In videos he made from his back yard his chief focus was on the different exercise workouts he was trying.

Presuming his personal immunity, Donalds continued taking an anti-mask position through his primary and general races, winning the congressional seat he now holds.

Once in office, Donalds continued to denounce mask mandates and COVID precautions and attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, for his warnings.

“When has the media or Dr. Fauci ever been right?” he asked in a tweet on June 2.

 Unsurprisingly, he also praised DeSantis’ executive order banning mask mandates in schools.

“PARENTS must choose what is best for their child, NOT the federal government!” he tweeted on July 30, starting a petition to “tell the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] they have no right to mask our kids!” He also praised DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools, which he stated was “putting the power back into the hands of parents––but we must continue our fight!”

All the fulminations against masking went over well enough in July until the current COVID Delta variant spike could no longer be ignored. Not just Fauci but virtually the entire medical community, the mainstream media and the whole weight of the federal government starting with President Joe Biden began urging and pushing Americans to get vaccinated.

But fighting COVID precautions didn’t just curry favor with the base for Donalds, it was fundraising gold.

“Biden and the radical Left are coming for your freedom,” he wrote in a fundraising e-mail on Aug. 12, which warned that Biden might intervene against DeSantis’ mask mandate ban. “They’re trying to use the federal government to FORCE Anthony Fauci’s anti-scientific mandates and lockdowns on Florida and take away our ability to make our own decisions.”

Some politicians might have considered their previous anti-precautions positions a problem given the magnitude of the COVID threat. But Donalds decided to double down in opposing protections.

On July 27, he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo during a contentious interview: “You’re saying that everybody has to get vaccinated to protect everybody. What I’m saying is that if Americans want to get vaccinated, if they want to be protected from COVID-19, whether it’s the Delta variant or the new Lambda variant that’s coming across our southern border as we speak, if you want to be protected, go get the vaccine, I fully promote your doing that. At the same time there are Americans that don’t want to get it; they shouldn’t be forced to do so.”

He also provided some personal perspective.

“I chose not to get vaccinated because I chose not to get vaccinated,” he said. “I already had COVID-19 once, I’m 42 years old, I’m in very good health, I actually get checkups regularly and do all those things. That is a personal decision for myself; members of my family, my wife and three kids, they’ve all had COVID. They’re not getting vaccinated, they’re all healthy. That is a decision they’ve chosen to make.

“If people in the United States are concerned about contracting and being hospitalized and dying, of course, from COVID-19, please go get vaccinated. I will never tell you not to get vaccinated. What I’m saying is: I made a decision not to get vaccinated and it doesn’t matter if it’s you or Joe Biden or anybody else that’s going to stress or want me to get it…I made that decision as a free person.”

The CNN anchor was having none of it: “Everybody should know that about you, Byron Donalds: you’re not telling people to get the vaccine, you are not pushing it and you’re not saying it’s the right choice. You’re saying you’re not doing it and your family’s not doing it and you’re leaving that out of the equation that you can make other people sick as though that doesn’t matter.”

Then, in a head-spinning act of projection, in an Aug. 10 Fox News interview with host Lawrence Jones III, Donalds went on to accuse Democrats of racism and trying to reintroduce segregation based on vaccination status.

“So when you look at what’s going on in the country, yes, the largest percentage of our population has vaccine hesitancy is the Black community,” said Donalds. “At this point I will tell anybody: go talk to your doctor, get the information; if you feel comfortable enough, then go get the vaccine. But the way the Democrats are going is typically what they always do. You see they have no problem choosing segregation; it’s their history. Their way of maintaining power is no different today.”

Then he accused Democrats and the federal government of not giving people sufficient information to make informed decisions whether to get vaccinated.

As he put it: “And so, when you give people credible information, you break it down for them people will actually see: Is their risk of infection higher? Yes. Is their risk of hospitalization higher than someone who is vaccinated? Yes. But the risk of death is still significantly lower than somebody who was in the vulnerable population, whether with the original strain or now with the Delta variant. The White House doesn’t want to give that information ‘cause their entire goal is zero COVID, so Joe Biden can run around saying that he solved the pandemic. Give people real information, they will make decisions for themselves in their own lives.”

Editor’s note: A new study released on Aug. 6 revealed that even those with a previous bout of COVID like Donalds’ should get vaccinated.

“If you have had COVID-19 before, please still get vaccinated,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, stated at that time. “This study shows you are twice as likely to get infected again if you are unvaccinated. Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others around you, especially as the more contagious Delta variant spreads around the country.”

Commentary: Is Donalds an anti-vaxxer?

It’s clear that in his vaccination positions, Donalds is trying to thread the needle between hard-core, fanatical anti-vaxxers who make up a significant part of his political base and the rest of humanity that’s trying to survive.

In his public statements, Donalds argues that he isn’t anti-vaccine per se. He just thinks vaccinations are a personal choice.

That may be true enough. But as he perfectly well knows, the unvaccinated are not only endangering their own lives but those of their families and everyone around them. Defeating the virus is an all-or-nothing effort.

While Donalds may parse his opposition to vaccinations, in fact his actions speak louder than words—but his words are pretty powerful too.

By refusing to vaccinate himself and his family, he is setting a prominent, public example of vaccine resistance. By not verbally endorsing vaccinations, he’s encouraging vaccine hesitancy. These failures to act or speak are helping spread the virus in Southwest Florida.

His criticism of Democrats—and by extension the CDC and the entire government—for somehow not providing the hesitant with enough information is mind-boggling. Since taking office President Joe Biden, his administration and his team have been inundating the airwaves and public spaces with the kind of data, facts, studies and conclusions that were never shared under President Donald Trump. This is an administration of transparency, frankness and encouragement that is trying to defeat the pandemic. It’s people like Donalds who are making that more difficult.

His attacks on Democrats for somehow displaying racism and renewing segregation based on vaccination status are simple, absurd projections that aren’t even worthy of refutation. They’re just pages from Donald Trump’s well-worn book of distractions, projections and narcissistic mind tricks.

What is more, his personal example of getting vaccinated might encourage people in the Black community who might be vaccine-hesitant to get the shot. Instead, he’s giving legitimacy to vaccine resistance that could take Black lives—while turning around and accusing Democrats of racism.

But politically, Donalds is trying to have it all ways: he’s anti-vaxx while not specifically denouncing vaccinations. He is, however, denouncing those, like Fauci, who are desperately attempting to protect people from the pandemic. He presents himself as standing for individual freedom while at the same time standing in the way of public health measures that might preserve lives, especially those of school-age children.

He appears more concerned with protecting his political future and pandering to the most extreme and ignorant elements of his base than saving lives and protecting the public.

This balancing act on the edge of the precipice is not working. Instead, it smacks of moral cowardice and a failure—or inability—to lead.

Ultimately, when the chronicle of this plague is written, Rep. Byron Donalds will go down in history as an accomplice of Death.

That’s not the way anyone should want to be remembered.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The angst of August: Anti-vaxxers versus the ‘sensible center’ in Southwest Florida

Demonstrators protest a vaccine mandate for employees by the Naples Community Hospital on Aug. 1. (Image: WINK News)

August 12, 2021 by David Silverberg

August is the cruelest month in Southwest Florida. Every year there’s heat, humidity and hurricanes. For school-age children there’s the prospect of returning to drudgery in hot classrooms.

This year, though, there’s also the COVID Delta variant stalking the region, attacking the unvaccinated and driving a spike in severe hospitalizations.

For students, while entering a classroom might be a welcome relief from remote learning, there’s the added danger of COVID infection, heightened by resistance to masking by COVID-denying parents and an anti-mask governor. In one instance, one local parent of an 11-year-old left a school orientation that took place in a crowded cafeteria full of coughing, unmasked parents.

There’s no doubt that current stresses will change the politics of Southwest Florida. But what is the likely final result?

Deadly denial

Delta, Delta, Delta—it’s the one dominant story. But then, it’s literally a matter of life and death.

With the Florida Department of Health only issuing statistics weekly and those being highly suspect, local media and concerned citizens have to hunt for something resembling reliable numbers to see the extent of the contagion in their communities. (Two reliable sources are The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID Data Tracker).

It’s fair to say, though, that the state of Florida is experiencing a roaring contagion that, as of this writing, has led to it being widely characterized as the epicenter of the current outbreak.

Though the available vaccines have been shown to be effective, Southwest Florida remains a stubborn stronghold of anti-vaccine (anti-vaxx) sentiment.

That sentiment was in evidence at the beginning of July, when the Naples Community Hospital (NCH) sent a letter to employees encouraging them to vaccinate. That brought a strident anti-vaxx reaction.

“Look at this disgraceful letter that is being sent out by communist NCH to all of the employees that did not take Fauci’s experimental cocktail…” Alfie Oakes, the extremist conservative farmer and grocer stated in a July 9 Facebook post.

At the end of July NCH changed its encouragement to a requirement for employees.

On Aug. 1 anti-vaxx demonstrators gathered outside NCH in North Naples to protest the hospital’s mandatory vaccine policy.

Rather than cowering before the protests, NCH hit back in a defiant riposte:

“The NCH Medical Executive Committee unanimously endorsed NCH Healthcare System’s new vaccination policy on Friday. NCH leads the region in implementing this policy in order to take steps to further safeguard the health and wellbeing of our staff and patients. The new COVID variants are much more transmittable and at least 5x more contagious than previous COVID variants. Over 90 percent of COVID inpatients are unvaccinated and 100 percent of ICU patients are unvaccinated. We are seeing younger people sicker and this has become an unvaccinated pandemic.

“NCH is a leader in SWFL with this decision. However, we are seeing the vaccination support among large employers outside of healthcare like Google, Publix and Disney. NCH joins more than 75 health systems nationally who now require employees to be vaccinated. The Mayo Clinic is requiring all employees to be vaccinated by September 17.”

NCH’s dismissal of the anti-vaxxers and the rising defiance of the Lee and Collier County school districts to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) prohibition of mask mandates indicate a quiet determination by Southwest Floridian officials to respect science and follow health protocols. They are taking stands regardless of opposition, no matter how emotional the protests or how highly-placed the political dictates from Tallahassee.

For a politically conservative region it’s a rare instance of dissent that may have a lasting impact.

Desperation and fragmentation

Alfie Oakes takes aim: “I pray we have election integrity in 2022…. if we don’t we must prepare for the worst!
Our second amendment right is specifically to revolt against a a tyrannical government!
Prepare for the worst and pray for the best.” (Photo: Facebook)

As the Delta variant proves its reality and the country forges ahead under President Joe Biden, the pronouncements and protests of local Trumpers and anti-vaxxers are sounding more strident and desperate.

The next local Trumpist event takes place on August 20 and 21 in Naples—the days before what has been a rumored reinstatement of the former president on Aug. 22.

The event is the “We the People Fight Back Event” scheduled to be held at the Naples Hilton Hotel. Twenty-five far-right conservative speakers are on the program, although unannounced speakers have been known to show up for such occasions.

“America is in a state of emergency with a radical Democrat leading us further into the dark abyss as he rips out every thread of Conservative values that is woven into the fabric of our nation,” proclaims the event’s website. “Cowering to the liberal left isn’t an option and hiding in fear of cancel culture will not save the future of our country.”

The event is organized by former Republican congressional candidate Christy McLaughlin of Ave Maria, along with John DiLemme, founder of the Conservative Business Journal. It promises 25 speakers including McLaughlin and Oakes. It also has 10 business sponsors.

But despite being listed as a speaker at the Hilton, Oakes also felt the need to organize his own one-day “Patriot Fest” to do essentially the same thing—or perhaps the Hilton event wasn’t extreme enough. His Fest is scheduled for Sept. 18 at his farm in Naples and has four business supporters and 10 speakers including Shemane Nugent, wife of extreme conservative musician Ted Nugent. In April Nugent announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 a week after playing before an unmasked crowd at Seed to Table.

The Hilton event charges $247 to attend and $124 per night to stay at the hotel. Oakes is charging $200 for VIP tickets and $25 general admission for his one-day event.

Oakes, however, faced a unique problem: “the liberals at eventbrite [sic] just unpublished our Patriot Fest and refunded everyone’s tickets because apparently a bunch of patriots getting together doesn’t follow their ‘community standards,’” he complained on Aug. 6 —leaving him to scramble to find a new way to collect admission fees.

Oakes has called vaccines “Fauci’s poisonous cocktail” and guests at such gatherings are unlikely to have been vaccinated.

While not explicitly stated, neither the Hilton conference nor the Patriot Fest is likely to require masks, distancing or take any other COVID precautions.

They should be the superspreader events of the season.

Analysis: The rising sensible center

In the short term, given the transmissibility of the Delta variant and its lethality, much of the hard-core anti-vaxx population is likely to self-select itself out of existence in the coming days.

From a strictly political calculation, this will mean fewer conservative voters and a diminution of extreme anti-vaxx agitation as these voices are permanently silenced.

But the really interesting phenomenon in Southwest Florida is seeing relatively apolitical people and officials who might have previously acceded to the passion and insistence of extremist activists begin to resist, however quietly and subtly.

This was also in evidence in July when the Collier County Commission voted down a “Bill of Rights sanctuary” ordinance that sought to nullify federal authority in the county, despite vocal support by a small core of residents.

All these are indications that the old Trumpist trinity of denial, dismissal and delusion is being demolished.

The stakes are so high and the consequences are so dire that thinking people simply can’t go along to get along any more. After all, going along with a far-right, extremist anti-vaxx agenda is a death sentence.

Bit by bit, mask by mask, shot by shot, vote by vote, decision by decision, what former general Colin Powell once called “the sensible center” is reasserting itself.

All this will find political expression at the voting booth in 2022. Will this sensible center have enough heft, enough persistence and enough memory to vote for sane and science-supporting candidates and parties?

DeSantis, his political allies, the Trumpers and the anti-vaxxers are betting that in the year, two months and 27 days before the 2022 election the pandemic will be over and the vast mass of voters will forget the death and disease currently ravaging Florida. Instead, like amnesiacs, voters will celebrate anti-science, anti-health policies as great economic successes.

It is as though Florida is a casino and DeSantis and the COVID-deniers are playing a poker game with Death as the dealer, using Floridian lives as chips.

They may think the odds are in their favor. But more likely, as in any casino, the house always wins.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

How many hard-core anti-vaxxers are in Southwest Florida?

A Collier County, Florida resident receives the second shot of the Moderna COVID vaccine in February 2021. (Photo: Author)

July 23, 2021 by David Silverberg

The COVID-19 Delta variant has begun its grim swing through Southwest Florida as it has throughout the rest of the nation and the world, taking aim at the unvaccinated.

“The Delta variant is more aggressive and much more transmissible than previously circulating strains,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters at a briefing yesterday, July 22. “It is one of the most infectious respiratory viruses we know of, and that I have seen in my 20-year career.”

In Collier County, Florida, as of July 22, the COVID infection rate was running at 8.4 percent, according to the Naples Community Hospital (NCH), well above the 5 percent considered safe for reopening.

In Lee County, Florida the 14-day rolling average positivity rate is at 22 percent, approaching last July’s peak, according to NBC-2 News. Lee Health, the county’s largest health provider, has re-activated its COVID-19 Incident Management team due to the spread and influx of new cases.

(Unfortunately, since the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) stopped issuing daily COVID statistics, the Florida Department of Health is no longer the prime authoritative source of the latest information regarding the spread of the disease.)

Getting vaccinated is the best defense—and yet, despite all the convincing, cajoling, coercing or complaining, the media coverage and the pronouncements of doctors and health care experts from the top of the government pyramid to grassroots family practitioners, there is a hard-core, die-hard population who absolutely will not get shots.

Why they’re so adamant is less important than trying to determine how large a population they represent because as the summer wears on and the Delta variant spreads, they are likely to start filling the hospitals and the intensive care units (ICUs) and spread the disease to other unvaccinated people.

How many of these hard core anti-vaccinationists (anti-vaxxers) are in Southwest Florida? How many are likely to need urgent care? How can the health systems of Southwest Florida prepare for what is already an influx of cases?

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of scientific polling and surveying in Southwest Florida. Hospitals and health care systems can only measure the number of cases that come in already infected. So making a determination has to rely on more anecdotal indicators.

Fanning the flames

Perhaps the region’s leading and most vocal anti-vaxxer is Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III, a farmer and owner of the Seed to Table market in North Naples. From the beginning of the pandemic he characterized COVID as a “hoax” and a “sham.”

A sign on the front of Seed to Table. The pictures are of Collier County commissioners who voted for a mask mandate in July 2020. (Photo: Author)

Oakes is now well-known throughout Southwest Florida for his extreme political positions and his adamant resistance to masking and vaccinations. He has written Facebook posts that have created enormous controversy on a variety of issues and led to canceled contracts for Oakes Farms.

But whatever one thinks of Oakes’ anti-vaccine posts, his following and the responses to his posts do provide a potentially useful snapshot of the possible size of the anti-vaxx population, although this is, of necessity, a very rough estimate. Oakes’ Facebook page is followed by 14,520 people, according to Facebook, and lists 4,939 friends

A prime example of Oakes’ following came on July 9. Oakes cited a letter sent to employees of NCH by the hospital’s vaccination administrator encouraging employees to get vaccinated and listing places in NCH where vaccines were available.

“Look at this disgraceful letter that is being sent out by communist NCH to all of the employees that did not take Fauci’s experimental cocktail…” Oakes wrote on his Facebook page. The post received 192 comments, most supportive of Oakes.

A posting yesterday, July 22, displayed a banner: “Imagine if there was a 99.7% chance you wouldn’t get cancer, But you were forced to go on chemo just incase…” [sic]. That post received 184 comments.

(When reader James Snyder pointed out: “Taking medical advice from a produce salesman is probably not a good idea FYI!” Oakes responded: “Taking advice from someone who has 3200 employees with over 8000 patrons coming through daily and not a single employee dying… and very few getting sick for more than a few days.. Everyone eating healthy and living happy without fear and without masks loving one another enjoying their lives for the last year and a half may be someone you should consider taking advice from….Just sayin’.” It is also worth noting that musician Ted Nugent tested positive for COVID a week after playing a packed, unmasked performance at Seed to Table.) 

Another potential indicator of the anti-vaxx population’s size came during the Collier County Commission debate on July 13 over a failed “Bill of Rights sanctuary” ordinance. The proponents claimed to speak for 5,000 residents, based on a petition in favor of the ordinance.

While the ordinance concerned the Bill of Rights, it was based on an earlier petition launched in April by The Alamo gun range and store to pass a “Second Amendment Preservation Act.” As of this writing, that petition attracted only 1,338 signatures.

While worry over guns and rights is hardly the same as fear of vaccinations, the concerns overlap somewhat among these residents, so it may be something of an indication of the size of the anti-vaxx population in Collier County.

While Lee and Charlotte counties also have anti-vaxx populations there are fewer indicators for the size of their anti-vaxx cohort.

Based on these extremely rough and unscientific indicators, the number of hard-core anti-vaxxers in Southwest Florida may range from the mid-hundreds to perhaps the low thousands.

We’ll all know soon enough as the ICUs fill up.

The history of anti-vaxxing

An English cartoon from 1802 lampoons fears of the smallpox vaccine.

In their rejection of scientific evidence, today’s anti-vaxxers join a long line of past opponents.

Opposition to vaccinations predates the practice of vaccination itself. Before there were vaccines, doctors in Africa, China, India and the Ottoman Empire practiced “variolation”—inoculating an uninfected person with pus from someone with smallpox to induce immunity.

However, in the West, particularly England, it was Dr. Edward Jenner’s use of cowpox in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to create immunity to smallpox that led to what is now called vaccination—and created the first controversy over its use.

“Pro-inoculators tended to write in the cool and factual tones encouraged by the Royal Society, with frequent appeals to reason, the modern progress of science and the courtesy subsisting among gentlemen. Anti-inoculators purposely wrote like demagogues, using heated tones and lurid scare stories to promote paranoia,” according to the 2019 book Let’s Talk Vaccines, by Dr. Gretchen LaSalle.

Ever since then, opposition to vaccination has waxed and waned, usually paralleling epidemics and pandemics. England imposed mandatory smallpox vaccinations in 1853 for infants up to three months old and then extended that in 1867 to children up to 14 years. These laws imposed penalties for failures to vaccinate.

The mandates faced fierce resistance and riotous protests. While an 1896 commission studying the vaccines found that they prevented smallpox, it recommended removing the penalties and an 1898 law provided for exemptions for religious or conscientious objectors.

In the United States, despite the presence of an Anti-Vaccination League founded by a visiting Briton in 1879, there was a widespread acceptance of vaccination. This was bolstered by the 1905 Supreme Court decision Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which upheld a state’s right to mandate vaccines. Today it remains the precedent for state vaccine mandates.

Between 1920 and 1970 American scientific breakthroughs produced highly lauded vaccines against diphtheria, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella and their administration was widely accepted by the public.

Beginning in 1982, however, the public consensus began to fray, with the national airing of a television documentary, “DPT: Vaccine Roulette” that emotionally alleged ill-effects from a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine. Although the documentary detailed what were known to be side-effects from the vaccine and long-term study reported no permanent ill-effects, it began an anti-vaxx movement that gained momentum over the years as celebrities, lacking any medical education or training, joined the anti-vaxx chorus.

In 2014 anti-vaxx sentiment led to resurgence of measles, prompting the state of California to remove parents’ options to opt out of measles vaccinations. The measles problem has persisted to the present.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, though, has overshadowed all other vaccine fears. The first COVID vaccines were announced by Pfizer and BioNTech in November 2020 and have since received Food and Drug Administration approval.

As of this writing 339 million Americans have received vaccine doses and 162 million, or 49.3 percent of the country has been fully vaccinated.

Southwest Florida resistance

In Southwest Florida resistance to all vaccines was already causing concern prior to the pandemic.

In March 2019 the national measles resurgence prompted local NBC2 News to ask: “Is the anti-vax movement impacting Florida’s vaccination rates?

It found that vaccine hesitancy was prompting an increase in the number of religious exemptions being requested by parents of schoolchildren at the state level. In the 2017-2018 school year the state of Florida was aiming to have 95 percent of all kindergartners vaccinated against measles. Religious exemptions jumped to 2.4 percent, 10 percent more than 10 years previously.

In Collier County the religious exemptions went from 2.6 percent in 2015-2016 to 3 percent in 2017-2018.

So clearly there was a growing, although still small resistance to vaccinations prior to the COVID pandemic. But then, when the pandemic began hitting the United States in a big way in 2020, the political controversy over the response mounted exponentially, exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s dismissal of the COVID danger.

Trump’s denigration of all responsible media reporting as “fake news” and his attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also served to reduce acceptance of COVID information among segments of the population. This led to reliance on anti-vaxx rumor and conspiracy theories, spread in many cases on social media.

In Southwest Florida this manifested itself in resistance to mask mandates, fed in particular by individuals like Alfie Oakes and Byron Donalds, then a Republican congressional candidate, who opposed masking in person every time a mask mandate was debated. He caught COVID in October 2020 but recovered and was elected to Congress in November.

Liberty and death

While Southwest Florida is widely acknowledged as politically, socially and culturally conservative, the extreme brand of Trumpist conservatism now includes rejection of science and vaccinations. Given the properties of the COVID-19 Delta variant, a refusal to vaccinate appears to be a virtual death sentence but there are people who hold out—and will continue to do so come what may. They disbelieve all journalistic reporting on the pandemic, they reject all public health efforts and many feel that any precautions of any kind infringe on their personal freedom and liberty.

They bring to mind Virginia patriot Patrick Henry who in 1775 said: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

He was thinking of a line of patriots facing a line of redcoats. Those Americans had a better chance of surviving a musket volley than anti-vaxxers do facing the Delta variant today.

They may think anti-vaxxing brings liberty—but they’re much more likely to get death.


To read more about the history of vaccine resistance:

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The Battle of Collier County: Inside one county’s struggle to stay in the United States

Highlights and impressions of the debate over a ‘Bill of Rights sanctuary’ ordinance

A packed house at the outset of a hearing on a federal nullification ordinance in Collier County, Fla. Many opponents of the ordinance were masked while many proponents wore flag-themed attire. (Photo: Author)

July 16, 2021 by David Silverberg

On Tuesday, July 13, Collier County, Florida, chose to remain part of the United States, by a single vote.

But as significantly, the County Commission also chose to unanimously reaffirm the county’s allegiance to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by passing a positive resolution that stated: “The county commission of Collier County, Florida, reaffirms its loyalty, its patriotism and its allegiance to the United States Constitution, its Bill of Rights, its amendments and the duly constituted laws.”

All this would seem to be self-evident—but in Collier County, as in many other places around the nation, what was once self-evident is no longer.

Collier County, Florida

By a vote of 3 to 2, the Commission rejected a “Bill of Rights sanctuary” ordinance that sought to nullify federal authority in the county.

Commission chair Penny Taylor (District 4) and commissioners Andy Solis (District 2) and Burt Saunders (District 3) voted against the ordinance. Commissioners Rick LoCastro (District 1) and William McDaniel Jr. (District 5), who introduced it, voted for it.

After dispatching the ordinance, the commissioners approved the resolution reaffirming allegiance to the Constitution.

The votes came after a marathon hearing session that started about 1 pm in the afternoon and stretched until 8:45 pm. At least 122 people requested speaking slots, providing input both in person and remotely.

Both those for and against the ordinance understood and appreciated its greater significance. It would have been the first such ordinance in Florida and proponents stated overtly that if it passed they were going to take it to Florida’s 66 other counties. From there it could have spread throughout the country. Opponents knew it had to be stopped. This wasn’t just about Collier County; it was about the future of the nation.

For the first time ever, a decision made in a Collier County Commission chamber could have changed the nation’s nature—and everyone knew it.

What follows are impressions from the session and the vote.

(Full disclosure: This author was one of the speakers opposing the ordinance and the drafter of the resolution reaffirming loyalty to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.)

(The entire 4-hour and 30-minute video of the hearing portion of the Commission meeting can be viewed here.)

(To see previous coverage of the ordinance, see A license for lawlessness: Collier County, Florida’s proposed “sanctuary ordinance” and a better way forward and Sanctuary in America: Haven or insurrection by other means?)

The bombshell

Anyone who came to the meeting should have been prepared for all kinds of fireworks. As a sign of the drama to come, proponents, many wearing flag-related clothing and paraphernalia, were outside the Commission building bright and early before the session began with signs advocating a “yes” vote.

They had reason to be confident. A June 22 meeting when the Commission voted to consider the ordinance had gone their way. At that meeting the ordinance received the endorsement of the district’s congressman, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), and the county’s top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Kevin Rambosk. It was also endorsed by state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples) who sent a surrogate to express his support. At that meeting all the public speakers were in favor of the ordinance and not a single member of the public opposed it.

At the June meeting Commissioner McDaniel fulsomely introduced the ordinance and LoCastro made favorable remarks. Although Saunders said he wasn’t committed to the ordinance, he voted for its consideration and it seemed as though he could be swayed—or pressured—to vote in favor.

Other than the opponents who showed up this time, there was no reason to expect that the ordinance might not sail through on a similar 3 to 2 vote again. All the big guns lined up in their favor.

Nor did they just rely on their numbers or enthusiasm to get their way. Prior to this hearing they gathered in the hallway outside the Commission chamber to hold a prayer meeting and invoke Jesus’ assistance in swaying the commissioners.

Proponents of the nullification ordinance spend a moment in prayer in the hallway of the county Commission meeting room before the hearing begins. (Photo: author)

But if there was any single bombshell dropped during the July 13 hearing, it came when County Attorney Jeffrey Klatzkow rose to provide his analysis of the legal and fiscal impacts of the ordinance.

Scholarly, legalistic and calm, Klatzkow delivered the news that the ordinance would strip  institutional immunity from the county’s five commissioners, five constitutional officers and five school board members, as well as staff.

In other words, under the ordinance, if they carried out actions that aided the federal government in what was considered a violation of the Bill of Rights by an aggrieved party they could be personally sued. The plaintiff might not win in court but the defendants would have to pay court costs out of their own pockets.

Jeffrey Klatzkow

“The big issue here is not going to be damages,” Klatzkow said. “It’s going to be attorney’s fees. There is an incentive for attorneys to bring actions under this because every hour they put in is an hour they can bill.” 

It didn’t take much imagination to see where that could lead: commissioners and county officials could be sued into bankruptcy simply for making the county function through otherwise legal official actions.

Although Klatzkow didn’t say it, it was clear that the ordinance could bring the whole county to a halt and destroy the county government itself. In response to a question from Solis, Klatzkow mentioned that the Supervisor of Elections would be liable as a constitutional officer—and any observer could foresee lawsuits like this making elections impossible.

An observer could also see the impact of Klatzkow’s analysis sink in on the faces of the commissioners—but he wasn’t done yet.

Collier County, like virtually every jurisdiction in the country, relies on federal financial grants to pay for a wide variety of functions. But federal grants don’t come without strings; in this case with numerous rules and regulations governing oversight, receipt, performance and a wide variety of other requirements and conditions.

Klatzkow dramatically demonstrated just how many strings were attached by displaying five, single-spaced pages of rules and regulations that he projected to the chamber, one after the other.

If Collier County removed itself from federal jurisdiction it would lose all those grants, all that money, Klatzkow warned.

He didn’t say it aloud, but it was clear that passing the ordinance would beggar an otherwise affluent and prosperous county.

If Klatzkow wanted to make an impression, he certainly did.

The proponents

Klatzkow’s presentation put the ordinance’s proponents on the defensive. It was clear from the presentations of the key advocates who followed Klatzkow that they had to move the commissioners away from contemplating the potentially devastating fiscal impact of passing the ordinance.

James Rosenberger

The first public speaker to try to do this was James Rosenberger, a tall, stooped county resident who launched the petition for the ordinance and gained 5,000 signatures. His tactic was to compare the ease and safety of the current commissioners with the revolutionaries who put their lives on the line to rebel against the British in 1776. They should do the same now, he argued, and ignore the possible unintended consequences of passing the ordinance.

“You can lead, follow or get out of the way,” he said, drawing on what he said was a firefighting mantra in his experience. “If you’re incapable of leading today maybe this job isn’t for you and I suggest along with ‘we the people’ that you get out of the way, step down and make room for someone who will lead us like our forefathers did almost 250 years ago.”

Having now threatened and insulted the people he was trying to convince, Rosenberger made way for his wife, Carol DiPaolo, who traced the origins of the nullification ordinance movement to a meeting of seven concerned friends from a variety of backgrounds. They had gathered to share their “concern, anxiety, fear and anger”—over measures like mask mandates, gun restrictions, and “President Biden and his pen.”

Carol DiPaolo

In the Spring, the group collected signatures to create a 2nd Amendment sanctuary in Collier County but were rebuffed by the county Commission. However they were contacted by Keith Flaugh of the conservative Florida Citizens Alliance and people from The Alamo gun range and store in Naples, whom they hadn’t previously known. With the aid of “prominent” Collier County supporters the nullification ordinance was drawn up and presented at the June 22 meeting. DiPaolo urged the commissioners to pass it now.

From DiPaolo onward, the proponents held the floor, with one exception: Undersheriff Col. Jim Bloom of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, who was standing in for Rambosk.

Bloom testified that the ordinance was enforceable like any other law in the county but when asked by Solis what procedure the office would follow to enforce it, he said the office would contact the state’s attorney to prosecute violations.

Bloom and Rambosk may not have intended it but that procedure set up an effective Catch-22, wherein they were seeking a higher authority to enforce and prosecute an essentially unconstitutional ordinance that didn’t recognize higher authority.

What was more, Solis said he had called the state’s attorney, who said his office had not been consulted about the ordinance.

But while Bloom’s answer introduced what was essentially an insurmountable “logic loop,” that did not deter Kristina Heuser, the lawyer who drew up the ordinance. She defended its legality.

Keith Flaugh

She was followed by Flaugh, who drew a stark choice for the commissioners: “There seem to be the two factions,” he said. “Those who support the individual rights that you have sworn to protect and those who support an unfettered federal government in control of our everyday lives.”

He also gave commissioners a stark choice. “For anyone of you who decide to vote ‘no’ on this I urge you and suggest you have only one honorable course of action: to resign before you disgrace yourself any further.”

Subsequent proponents spoke on similar themes. State Rep. Rommel made an appearance to support the ordinance, saying he wanted his local sheriff in charge and alleging that the US Capitol Police were opening an office in Tampa to pursue people in Southwest Florida. He warned that the federal government was eroding God-given rights. “Anything less than unanimous agreement will be extremely disappointing,” he said to the Commission.

As the hours wore on the arguments grew louder and while not disorderly became less disciplined and more wide-ranging.

Proponent Beth Sherman used her time at the speaker’s lectern to launch a full-scale attack on vaccinations, anti-COVID measures and the local health system.

Beth Sherman

“We are living in a time of deceit and tyranny,” she said. “NCH [Naples Community Hospital] should not be allowed to provide medical data or advice to this community. They have been suppressing life-saving COVID treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.” She accused Solis of supporting mandatory vaccinations, which he vehemently denied.

“There are people in this room being called insurrectionists,” she said. “Let me tell you that there is plenty of evidence that the FBI planned that as a false flag and it will come out because the truth always comes out.”

Lastly she warned the commissioners: “If you vote ‘no’ today, we the people kindly ask that you resign so that a true leader can fill your seat.”

The opponents

Jane Schlechtweg (left) and Chris Chase (right), members of the Democratic Women’s Club of Marco Island, and opponents of the ordinance. (Photo: author)

Unlike the June 22 meeting when no opponents appeared, this time there was strong turnout by people opposed to the ordinance and opponents may have constituted a majority of the speakers.

Janet Hoffman, head of the Collier County League of Women Voters, spoke for the non-partisan organization when she announced that “We don’t support this ordinance. It suggests that Collier County officials pick and choose the laws they want to follow.”

While many residents spoke out against the ordinance, those who spoke most knowledgably were retired lawyers, some with experience in local affairs.

George Dondanville, an attorney with considerable government experience said, “I’ve never heard of anything like this ordinance. How am I going to do what I’m supposed to do under this ordinance?”

While proponents viewed objections as mere stumbling blocks to passage of the ordinance, Dondanville pointed out that “our stumbling block is our form of government. Our courts make those decisions. Your own attorney sitting over there says that this thing flies in the face of the Constitution. You can pass it if you want but you’re going to get into serious financial problems. Those aren’t scare tactics at all. Please don’t pass this.”

Retired attorney Robert Leher said: “The definition of an unlawful act in this ordinance has no ascertainable standard for what is unlawful” and he had “never seen a statute that was more poorly drafted.” He also warned that passing the ordinance would result in a drop in tourism and visitation because “people don’t want to come to a battlezone.”

“This is wrong in so many ways,” he concluded.

David Goldstein, a retired attorney who served the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Collier County, warned that “nothing empowers a county with the power to supersede federal law.”

David Millstein, a retired civil rights attorney who also taught civil rights law and served as former head of the Collier County ACLU, said he tried to put himself in the shoes of the county attorney trying to defend and implement it.

“This is an ordinance proposed by someone who doesn’t know constitutional law,” he said. “You can’t make an ordinance saying you’re not going to follow federal law. Why not make this an income tax sanctuary ordinance? It is so unconstitutional in so many ways I would say, ‘Let’s go out and have a beer and forget about this.’”

Speech before the Commission as delivered by the author:

“I am here today to urge you to reject this absurd, unconstitutional and completely unnecessary ordinance. This is frankly ridiculous on its face. There is simply no need for a separate Collier County sanctuary for the Bill of Rights because the United States of America is a sanctuary for the Bill of Rights. Our law is uniform, it is superseding and it is upheld.

This ordinance, this proposed ordinance, has so many problems between the principle and the practical that it is as full of holes as a piece of Swiss cheese. I mean, there are logic loops, you’re going to challenge federal law in what court after you’ve denied federal jurisdiction? There are so many things that simply don’t make sense.

In addition, talking very pragmatically, your lawyer has talked about the fact that this would open you all up to liability. I believe it opens up our sheriff and sheriff’s deputies also to liability. If they try to assert federal law they are liable to be sued.

There are all sorts of questions about federal investigations that might be going on in this county that might be disrupted or hindered.

There is also, you know, when have an Irma, or an Elsa or a Wilma hurricane, if we remove ourselves from federal law we’re not going to get the assistance and the support and the help that we need from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and this can run into many millions of dollars, as you all well know.

You cannot take yourself out of the jurisdiction of federal law.

Now, I like everyone else, am very concerned about the Constitution and upholding the Bill of Rights. I mean, we’ve had an insurrection.

(Laughter and catcalls from proponents, gaveled into order by Commissioner Taylor.)

There is a need to support the Constitution. This is easily done in this county.

Now, on all your desks you have a draft text of a resolution that reaffirms Collier County’s allegiance to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I urge you to pass that resolution. It is something you can do, it is something in your jurisdiction and it is something that I think every resident of Collier County can support.

This, I think, will address everybody’s problems and concerns with possible violations of the Bill of Rights. We can do that here.

The United States of America has faced rebellion, nullification, secession, sedition and insurrection and it has defeated them all.

Collier County does not need to join this sad parade of bad ideas, failed notions and absurd plots and make itself not only a laughingstock of the country but to take itself out of the rule of law, which is what this ordinance is proposing to do.

So in summation: defeat this ordinance—this should be rejected and I will hope that it will be rejected unanimously—and I urge you to pass a resolution reaffirming our allegiance to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Thank you.

In the end, the Commission voted down the ordinance.

Solis said he was concerned about the role of the state’s attorney in making constitutional decisions when enforcing the ordinance. Taylor criticized the ordinance’s penalties, its unnecessariness, and the conflict it set up between supporting the ordinance or supporting the Constitution: “It’s almost like a trap,” she said. Saunders said that the solution to the concerns expressed by proponents was at the ballot box.

Both LoCastro and McDaniels argued that principle should prevail over any possible unintended consequences.

After the ordinance was defeated Taylor introduced the resolution reaffirming the county’s allegiance to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and it passed unanimously.

To the ballot box

The hearing in progress. (Photo: author)

As Winston Churchill said after the Al Alamein victory in World War II: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

So it was with this ordinance, which was like a spasm of Trumpism in its death throes.

It was clear from the proponents’ remarks that among them there is real “concern, anxiety, fear and anger,” as DiPaolo put it. Persistent fears mentioned by proponents were the possibility of mandatory vaccinations and that the Capitol Police were coming to Florida to hunt down people who had participated in what many regarded as a non-existent insurrection.

So much of their concern, anxiety, fear and anger was generated by an exaggerated hatred and suspicion of the US federal government fed by extremist media. Instead of seeing anti-COVID measures as common-sense, science-driven anti-disease precautions taken for the community’s good, the proponents viewed them as deliberately oppressive infringements on their personal lives and liberty. They clearly feel genuinely threatened by unfamiliar restrictions. What is more, several proponents characterized even the Commission’s authority to pass legislation as “tyrannical.”

But many of the proponents displayed a tyrannical streak of their own, threatening and bullying commissioners and insisting that a failure to vote their way result in resignation or disgrace.

The ordinance was an outgrowth of these concerns, anxieties, fears and anger as well as an insistent demand for obedience to the proponents’ will, all of it rendered into legalese. It was never viable as a law and would have been defeated in court after enormous delay, disruption and expense. It had the potential to seriously damage Collier County government and the county itself. And it could have harmed all of Florida and the nation had it spread.

The proponents are no doubt licking their wounds but the passion and paranoia that drove the ordinance remain, sustained by demagoguery and disinformation. Although one hopes that feelings will die down with time and the easing of the pandemic, the core activists will no doubt seek new outlets.

If the proponents stay within the law the next battle will be at the ballot box in 2022. The votes of the commissioners will no doubt be an issue in their election campaigns. The next election will see whether thoughtful people are in the majority in evaluating their records and accomplishments.

A major disappointment in all of this was the position of Sheriff Kevin Rambosk. A highly effective law enforcement leader, a respected professional and cutting edge technologist with experience as a city manager, his endorsement of an extreme ordinance of dubious enforceability calls his judgment into question. It also calls into question the ability of his office and officers to enforce the law impartially and apolitically. It creates a sad kernel of doubt about an otherwise unblemished and polished force. Like the ordinance itself, this was entirely unnecessary.

Although the struggle over rights and allegiances is not over, one can only hope that it plays itself out within the confines of the law and the institutions established by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to constructively channel such disagreements. As the nation goes on, so will the debate.

In 1787, after the Constitutional Convention completed its work, Benjamin Franklin told Americans that they had “a republic, if you can keep it.”

On Tuesday, July 13, 2021, Collier County chose to keep it.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg