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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Do you think you can draw better political maps than the state legislators in Tallahassee?
Now you can get your chance.
A new website, Florida Redistricting, launched Monday, Sept. 20, gives anyone who cares to use it the opportunity to recommend re-jiggering the state’s political boundaries based on 2020 Census data.
It’s a remarkable experiment in citizen participation and a striking change from past redistricting done in dark, smoke-filled rooms out of public sight.
Of course, while citizens can make plenty of suggestions it will be the legislature that finally decides how the maps will be drawn.
Still, for a state that has increasingly pulled the curtain on its vaunted principles of sunshine in government, it is an exceptional departure from the past. It brings a bit of light to a process that is unglamorous but essential—and determines the partisan balance of power for the decade to come.
Redistricting actually consists of two processes: redistricting (redrawing district lines) and reapportionment (redistributing congressional seats among the states).
Next year Florida gets one new seat in Congress based on its increase in population since 2010. That new district is expected to be in the high-growth area of Orlando or somewhere along the I-4 corridor.
Traditionally, redistricting is colloquially known as the process whereby politicians choose their voters, so voters will likely choose them at election time. It has been manipulated since the beginning of the American republic—and even before, in colonial times. In 1812 it gave rise to the term “gerrymander” after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry so manipulated the state’s district maps to his political advantage that what emerged was a salamander-like creature immortalized in a newspaper cartoon.
Republicans have been past masters of drawing lines to favor their party. This was highlighted in January 2020, after the death of Republican redistricting consultant Thomas Hofeller. His daughter Stephanie made public the contents of four external hard drives and 18 thumb drives from her father’s office, revealing his detailed gerrymandering work. While he was based in North Carolina, he had clients all over the country and participated in Florida’s redistricting.
In 2010 two constitutional amendments, 5 and 6, were on the ballot in Florida. Amendment 5 covered legislative districts, amendment 6 covered congressional districts and both were known as the Fair Districts Amendments.
Both amendments required that: “districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.”
In the 2010 election both amendments passed with 63 percent of the vote, despite vehement opposition from the state’s Republican lawmakers. (Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) joined a lawsuit to block their implementation, which failed.)
Despite the amendments, Florida’s 2010 maps were drawn by consultants and political operatives who maneuvered behind the scenes to push Republican dominance. The lines were so elaborately gerrymandered when the maps were revealed that fair districts supporters sued to overturn them.
A “group of Republican political consultants did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” ruled Judge Terry Lewis of the 2nd Judicial Circuit in 2014. “They made a mockery of the Legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting” and “went to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan,” and “managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent.”
It took five years of litigation to finally end the disputes, during which two elections took place.
This year state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Estero), who heads the state Senate’s reapportionment committee, is promising that the process will be open, fair and transparent and meet both the spirit and letter of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendments.
“We are taking steps to safeguard against the kind of shadow process that occurred in the last cycle,” Rodrigues said during the first meeting of his committee on Monday, Sept. 20. “We will protect our process against the ‘astroturfing’ that occurred in the past, where partisan political operatives from both parties wrote scripts and recruited speakers to advocate for certain plans or district configurations to create a false impression of a widespread grassroots movement.”
He added: “Fortunately, we now have the insight into both the judiciary’s expanded scope of review, and how courts have interpreted and applied the constitutional standards related to redistricting. I intend for this committee to conduct the process in a manner that is consistent with case law that developed during the last decade that is beyond reproach and free from any hint of unconstitutional intent.”
How they break down
According to the 2020 Census, Florida gained 2,736,877 people over the last ten years and now has a population of 21,538,187.
In Southwest Florida, Lee County gained 142,068 residents, reaching a population of 760,822. Collier County gained 54,232 people to reach a total population of 375,752. Charlotte County gained 26,869 people to reach a total of 186,847.
The redistricting effort will try to bring the new districts into line with ideal population levels while meeting Fair Districting criteria. Since all of Southwest Florida gained population above the ideal, most—but not all—its districts are considered “overpopulated.”
Ideally, each Florida congressional district should have 769,221 people in it, a gain of 72,876 from last time.
According to the data from FloridaRedistricting.gov, in Southwest Florida the current congressional districts break down as follows:
District 17: With a total population of 779,955 people, it has 10,734 or .014 percent people more than the ideal number.
District 19: With a total population of 835,012 people, it has 65,791 or .086 percent more people than the ideal number.
District 25: With a total population of 771,434 people, it has 2,213 or .003 percent more people than the ideal number.
Once in, users can fiddle with the maps to their heart’s content and send recommendations to the legislature.
It’s a remarkable innovation in participatory democracy. Time, however, is of the essence. The legislative redistricting session convenes on Jan. 11 of next year and it must complete its work by the time it adjourns on March 11. Without a doubt, it will be a contentious session.
After that, there will presumably be newly-drawn districts. By June 11, candidates will qualify to run for office. Then the party primaries will take place on Aug. 23 and the general election on Nov. 8.
Can this experiment in popular participation actually result in fairly drawn, politically neutral boundaries?
Obviously, it remains to be seen. In 2010 the Fair Districting Amendments passed overwhelmingly but the maps that came out were gerrymandered anyway. Florida always seems to have a way of ignoring or circumventing its most popular constitutional amendments.
Coming out of the gate, though, Rodrigues’ intentions seem good if his words are taken at face value.
If this experiment works Florida could become a national model of fair districting. This time, if citizens are alert, engaged and determined, maybe—just maybe—Florida for once might abide by its own constitution and put to rest the gerrymander, or, in this case, the Republigator.
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).
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 Postcharacterized 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.
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.
For most Americans, Saturday, Sept. 18 is just another date on the calendar, one more day in one more weekend.
In Washington, DC, however, authorities are bracing for a demonstration that could be a replay of the Jan. 6 rally and riot that nearly overturned the government of the United States. In Southwest Florida that protest will have an echo on a smaller scale but one that bears watching.
The “Justice for J6 Rally” is intended to call for an end to prosecutions and the release of those who have been prosecuted and jailed as a result of the January 6 insurrection.
It was first announced by a group called Look Ahead America on July 30th. The group states on its website that its mission is to speak for disenfranchised Americans and “register, educate, and enfranchise these disaffected citizens.”
The group’s executive director is Matt Braynard, who previously served as the Donald Trump campaign’s director of data and strategy.
In a Jan. 29, 2021 letter to the US Justice Department in the immediate wake of the Capitol insurrection, Braynard argued that “Many of the protesters who entered the Capitol reasonably believed they had permission” and “we should not further compound the tragedy through vindictive and selective political prosecutions.”
Braynard is trying to overcome the images and opprobrium of the insurrection. He wants the Sept. 18 rally to be “laser-focused” on the issue of Capitol prosecutions and avoid the symbolism and disorder of the riot.
“Be respectful and kind to all law enforcement officers” Braynard urged would-be demonstrators in a 4-minute, 46-second video on the group’s website. “If they ask you to do something, please, do so.” He also urged rally-goers to stay in groups, notify the organization volunteers if there’s any trouble and not wear attire other than that related to the specific goals of the rally.
Nonetheless, extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are planning to attend the Washington rally, according to media reports. Capitol Police and security officials are already on alert and have been weighing whether to reconstruct the fence that surrounded Capitol Hill after the insurrection.
Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger told the Associated Press on Sept. 1 that his department was “closely monitoring September 18 and we are planning accordingly.”
According to Manger: “After January 6, we made Department-wide changes to the way we gather and share intelligence, internally and externally. I am confident the work we are doing now will make sure our officers have what they need to keep everyone safe.”
Despite Braynard’s efforts at non-violence and lawfulness, security experts are wary. Andrew McCabe, former Federal Bureau of Investigation acting director, warned in a CNN interview on Sept. 7 that the rally should be treated as a potentially violent threat.
“I think they should take it very seriously,” McCabe, a CNN contributor, told interviewer Poppy Harlow. “In fact, they should take it more seriously than they took the same sort of intelligence that they likely saw on January 5.”
But for law enforcement officers there are “a few factors leaning in their favor” this time, said McCabe. “You don’t have a sitting president actively fanning the flames and trying to get people to attend the rally. And on the other hand, it looks like, from all indications, our law enforcement partners are well prepared for this one. They seem to be taking the intelligence very seriously, which raises a question as to whether or not they did on January 6, but that’s another issue.”
Southwest Florida will be marking Sept. 18 with its own “Patriot Fest” at the rural North Naples farm of Francis Alfred Oakes III, known to the world as “Alfie,” owner and operator of Oakes Farms and Seed to Table market.
Oakes’ Patriot Fest is scheduled to feature a number of speakers including Rogan O’Handley, a conservative commentator who goes by the stage name “DC Draino;” Jack Prosobiec, a One America NewsNetwork commentator; and Anna Paulina Luna, a Republican congressional candidate in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, where she lost in 2020 to Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.).
According to its announcement, Patriot Fest will feature food trucks and entertainment by politically conservative musician Jason Beale. It costs $20 to attend and $200 for deluxe tickets—although Eventbrite, which initially took reservations, decided to drop the event, refused to handle arrangements and refunded all the tickets it had taken.
As a committeeman in the Collier County Republican Party and a prominent conservative activist, not to mention a farmer and grocer promoting his businesses, Oakes is very much a local public figure. However, Oakes, who has become famous—or infamous, depending on one’s perspective—for his far right, Trumpist politics, fierce opposition to anti-COVID masking and vaccinations and pronouncements on social media, has gone to a level that merits special attention.
Starting in early August, Oakes openly called for rebellion against the US government and did not mince words: “I think the time has come for us to revolt against our tyrannical government,” he stated on Aug. 6 on Facebook.
Then, on Aug. 8 he posted a photo of himself firing an automatic weapon, writing: “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” [sic, no punctuation at the end of that sentence].
On Aug. 14 the thread continued: “Ivermectin beats Covid hands down! Anyone with the slightest bit of Critical thinking knows the government is screwing over the people! And nearly every crooked politician in DC is guilty of letting this happen! Time for the Revolution !!!”
Then, on Aug. 16, the threat became direct, aimed at civilian teachers: “These corrupt teachers unions are the enemy of our country and our citizens! We need to take them down by force!! ALL enemies foreign and domestic !!! Time for a revolution!”
As extreme as these expressions are, they can arguably count as free speech under the First Amendment. They can also be regarded as inflated by passion and hyperbole—except that on Aug. 20 Oakes dialed the volume up to 11.
On Aug. 20 and 21, like-minded conservatives gathered, unmasked and undistanced, at the Naples Hilton to hold the “We the People Fight Back” event, an activist workshop and conference.
In a rambling address that veered from COVID to the nation’s founders, Oakes told his audience: “I’m telling you that my threshold of where this goes to, like, the next level is getting close for me.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be ‘before’ but if they try to steal the next election, the ’22 elections, I’m all in. We don’t want to talk about what that is but we have to be all in,” he said to cheers from the audience.
But it was his next sentence that merits particular attention: “I have enough guns to put in every single employee’s hands.”
If his statements are taken at face value that would mean that Oakes is saying he owns the weaponry to arm 3,200 people. That’s the equivalent of three US Army battalions and two companies, a formidable force that could give any local—or even state—law enforcement agency a serious challenge. If true, it is by any measure a massive arsenal to be held in private, civilian hands.
When combined with his previous statements calling for revolution and the use of force against teachers, he is now talking about an unregulated militia that could threaten the security of the state.
Of course, that’s only if Oakes’ words are taken on their face as true.
In the past, numbers and accuracy have not been Oakes’ strong suit. For example, in a Jan. 10 Facebook posting, he put the size of the crowd at the Jan. 6 insurrection at “well over one million people” and then “1 1/2 million” and the number of leading rioters as “six or eight paid actors.”
Presumably he would be more accurate when it comes to accounting related to his business.
It sounds like he can command an imposing force. But even if, as he states, that he can put guns in the hands of all 3,200 employees it cannot be presumed that all employees, already facing the daily risk of working in an unmasked, anti-protective, COVID-denying workplace, would want to take on the additional danger of using lethal force against the United States in a rebellion led by Alfie Oakes.
Also, his comments don’t make clear whether he could mount a sustained operation. Nor does it make clear the quality or caliber of his weapons. Nor is it clear that he has the command, control, communications, logistics or support to make such a force effective in achieving its mission—whatever that mission might be.
Still, in an era when a single active shooter with a single magazine can tie down a town, a shopping mall or a public intersection, any armed rebellion can prove, to put it mildly, extremely problematic, as witness the siege of Waco, Texas in 1993.
At the very least, the situation bears monitoring.
A case of the maybes
At this point, nothing is foreordained for Sept. 18.
In Washington, DC, Braynard is calling for an orderly, disciplined and focused demonstration. In Naples, Oakes is throwing a party at his house.
So maybe all the fears are just alarmist. Maybe on Sept. 18, protesters in the nation’s capital will peaceably assemble to petition government for a redress of grievances. Maybe there will be no violence or insurrection.
And in Naples, maybe Patriot Fest will consist of good times, good food and speechifying. Maybe there will be no calls for armed revolt or acts of insurrection.
Maybe Sept. 18 will be just another Saturday in September.
Last week Southwest Florida’s congressmen were very vocal in condemning President Joe Biden and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. But they fell strangely silent on the issue of women’s choice when the Supreme Court let stand a Texas law effectively outlawing abortion.
Of the area’s three members of Congress, only Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), whose district covers Punta Gorda north to Venice, commented on the issue and did so indirectly.
When the chief executive officer of Whole Women’s Health, which bills itself as “a privately-owned, feminist healthcare management company” based in Austin, Texas, tweeted on Aug. 31 that the clinic would continue providing abortions right up until the moment the law went into effect, Steube responded on Twitter with a Biblical quotation from the prophet Jeremiah (1:5): “What about the child, who is living in the womb that is about to be murdered, is that not a loved one?”
(Editor’s note: Steube’s citation is not at all what the Old Testament passage states. In it the prophet Jeremiah says that God chose him to be a prophet before his birth. As stated in the King James version: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.”)
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who represents the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island, has always advertised himself as “A Trump supporting, liberty loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man,” so his position on choice is known. There were no key votes on choice-related bills since he took office on Jan. 3 of this year, so he remains unrated by Planned Parenthood Action Fund. As of this writing he had not commented on the Texas law on any platform.
“Many of us are still reeling from the attacks on one of our most basic civil rights—the right to decide if we are going to be a parent,” she stated. “For decades, Republicans and their far-right extremist allies have attacked women and tried everything they can to keep us from being able to control what happens to our lives and bodies.”
She continued: “My America does not impose forced birth on women and then attack them when they struggle to provide for their families. This isn’t about doing anything other than imposing the choice of fundamentalists on women, fundamentalists who don’t care about the consequences to the mother or the child. We are better than this, and now we must rise to the moment.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), whose district goes from eastern Collier County to Hialeah in the east, has been in the House of Representatives since 2003. He has a 3 percent rating from Planned Parenthood Action Fund based on 31 votes. He too had not commented on the Texas law as of this writing.
His challenger, Democrat Adam Gentle, however, had a strong reaction.
“I am sick and tired of women’s health being a political, judicial football,” he told The Paradise Progressive. “Healthcare isn’t a sport. We must codify a woman’s right to choose into our federal law. We can and we must.”
So far there have been no publicly-available polls of attitudes toward abortion in Southwest Florida. But according to reporting on the website FiveThirtyEight, the US public largely opposes overturning the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, ensuring a woman’s right to choose.
In the article “Why Texas’s Abortion Law May Go Too Far For Most Americans,” senior writer Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux writes that “For decades, Americans have broadly opposed overturning Roe v. Wade — despite escalating attempts by anti-abortion advocates to turn public opinion against legal abortion.”
“The heartbeat bill was the thing that made them jump” into the Democratic Party column, according to Georgian resident Jen Jordan. (The law was ruled unconstitutional in 2020 and never took effect.)
The same could occur in Florida and nationally as the assault on women’s choice proceeds. “For better or worse, Americans’ views on when abortion should be legal will probably get a lot clearer,” writes Thomson-DeVeaux.
It will also be harder and harder for Southwest Florida representatives to maintain their silence.
New democracy index
FiveThirtyEight has also produced a new metric measuring the degree to which representatives and senators support democracy based on their congressional votes. Users can look up the actions of any member of Congress.
The article by Laura Bronner looks at two 2021 measures of commitment to democracy: a “bare bones” metric based on six votes “limited to basic requirements like free and, in theory, fair elections and other measures that help safeguard democracy.” A more expansive metric is based on 18 votes and “everything in the first category, but also includes bills that expand civil liberties and who has political power.” This is not based on party affiliation or support for Biden but on those specific votes.
Readers can look up their representatives and senators and see where they fall on the democratic spectrum.
It may not be a surprise, but all three of Southwest Florida’s representatives clock in at 0 percent for bare-bones support for democracy.
The more expansive definition yields different results, however. Diaz-Balart has a 31.6 percent rating while Donalds and Steube both voted for democratic measures only 5.3 percent of the time.
Not mentioned in the FiveThirtyEight article is that Donalds has been prominent and vocal in supporting Florida’s legislative efforts to restrict voting access and praised Georgia’s passage of its voter suppression law.
Florida’s two Republican senators yield very different results. Sen. Marco Rubio voted 50 percent of the time in favor of the six key bare-bones democratic measures and 42.9 percent in favor of the 18 more expansive measures. Sen. Rick Scott voted for 25 percent of the bare-bones measures and 28.6 percent in favor of the more expansive proposals.
Hurricane Ida shrieked onto the Louisiana coast on Sunday, Aug. 29, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made a similar landfall in 2005.
Many observers have made comparisons between the two hurricanes. Both were monster storms that wreaked terrible destruction and damage. Both resulted in extensive human suffering. Both afflicted multiple states.
However, to date there’s been little comparison of the responses to the two hurricanes by the sitting presidents and their administrations.
Hurricane Katrina struck during the presidency of George W. Bush. Hurricane Ida arrived during the presidency of Joe Biden.
As similar as the storms may be, the responses could not be more different.
“Katrina conjures impressions of disorder, incompetence, and the sense that government let down its citizens,” Bush himself wrote in his 2010 memoir, Decision Points.
In contrast, to date Biden has shown himself engaged, focused and effective. His administration was on alert and moved into action immediately.
Southwest Floridians in particular should take note of all this. The region has been lucky so far this year in avoiding hurricanes and damaging storms but the season is by no means over. Some Floridians, their elected officials and their governor instinctively disparage the federal government and attack this president. But if a storm comes that flattens the Paradise Coast the way Hurricane Ida flattened the homes of Louisiana, they will be able to look to a federal government and a president that is ready, willing and able to help them—so unlike the situation in 2005.
It’s worth comparing key aspects of the two events to see how far we have come.
Run-up to the storm
In 2005 the Bush administration was certainly aware of the oncoming storm. However, Bush was on a month-long vacation at his ranch at Crawford, Texas. On the day Katrina made landfall he traveled to Arizona for a brief, airport tarmac greeting with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a town hall meeting at a resort and country club in El Mirage. He was promoting legislative changes to the Medicare program. He then went to California where he spoke before a crowd of military personnel at the Coronado naval base. Then he returned to Air Force One and flew back to his ranch.
In looking back in his 2008 memoir What Happened, Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary, was critical of the administration’s distant, almost lackadaisical approach: “The problem lay in our mind-set,” he recalled.
“Our White House team had already weathered many disasters, from the hurricanes of the previous year all the way back to the unprecedented calamity of 9/11. As a result, we were probably a little numb (‘What, another tragedy?’) and perhaps a little complacent (‘We’ve been through this before.’). We assumed that local and federal officials would do their usual yeoman’s work at minimizing the devastation, much as the more seasoned Florida officials had done the year before, and we recalled how President Bush had excelled at reassuring and comforting the nation in the wake of past calamities. Instead of planning and acting for the potential worst-case scenario, we took a chance that Katrina would not be as unmanageable, overwhelming, or catastrophic as it turned out. So we allowed our institutional response to go on autopilot.”
Sixteen years later, on Aug. 28, the administration was alert and mobilized for the storm. At the White House, Biden—who was at work—was briefed by Kenneth Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center on the storm itself. Along with Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he spoke with the governors of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi to discuss their needs. He signed an emergency declaration for Louisiana in advance of the storm’s landfall.
Addressing the people of the area, he warned: “Pay attention and be prepared. Have supplies for your household on hand. Follow the guidance from local authorities. And if you have to move to shelter, make sure you wear a mask and try to keep some distance because we’re still facing the highly contagious Delta variant as well.”
Unengagement versus engagement
In 2005 Bush seemed detached and unengaged from Katrina and its impact. His decisionmaking appeared sluggish and reactive, always several steps behind events—as he himself admitted.
“The response was not only flawed but, as I said at the time, unacceptable,” Bush wrote in Decision Points. “As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”
In 2021 the administration—and indeed, the whole federal government—mobilized to help the affected area with an impressive effort.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm FEMA delivered 4.5 million meals, 3.6 million liters of water, 250 generators and rushed additional ambulances into affected areas, according to official figures.
FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA) immediately began helping disaster survivors, including providing grants to help pay for housing, home repairs, property losses, medical expenses and even funeral expenses.
A program called Critical Needs Assistance was activated by FEMA to give people left completely destitute $500. It reached 31,000 Louisiana households in the very first days after the storm passed.
Currently, the SBA is issuing low-interest loans to businesses, non-profit organizations, homeowners and renters affected by the storm. Federal officials in mobile units are helping victims apply for the assistance.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is helping families, aiding with mortgage payments and insurance as well as direct housing.
The US Army Corps of Engineers immediately began working to get houses into habitable shape and distribute tarps for damaged roofs. Some 134,000 tarps were provided by Sept. 2. The Corps also rushed in teams to aid with debris removal and temporary housing.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set up a 250-bed medical station in New Orleans, established a medical evacuation site at the airport and sent a team to a hospital in Thibodaux, La., the only fully-working hospital in its region.
Other federal agencies pitching in included the US Coast Guard, the Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau, which contributed personnel, vehicles, aircraft and watercraft.
Biden was also involved in coordinating electrical power restoration with energy company executives, authorizing military reconnaissance flights and the use of satellite surveillance to pinpoint problems.
In addition to these measures, federal workers immediately began clearing roads and restoring transportation and communications. Red tape is being cut and regulations streamlined.
All this effort is light years away from the response of 2005. It demonstrates what an activated federal government, with involved leadership, can accomplish in the face of a disaster.
Unseasoned versus seasoned
In 2005 FEMA was headed by Michael Brown, a lawyer, former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, a failed Republican congressional candidate and a Bush campaign operative.
While Brown’s qualifications were criticized after Katrina, in fact he had handled some major disasters while at FEMA, notably the Sept. 11, 2001 aftermath and the four-hurricane season of 2004. He began his federal service as general counsel for FEMA and rose from there, rising to undersecretary, where he oversaw a number of internal FEMA offices like the National Incident Management System Integration Center, the National Disaster Medical System and the Nuclear Incident Response Team.
So Brown was hardly a complete novice when it came to disasters and emergency management.
But Brown was in way over his head during Katrina. Although Bush praised him for “doing a heckuva job,” FEMA’s inability to anticipate, react and organize the response resulted in a spectacle of chaos, deprivation and incompetence. Brown repeatedly gave television interviews in which he expressed ignorance of the most basic facts on the ground and the suffering of New Orleanians.
He was ultimately fired in the midst of the response and replaced with retired Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.
Today the administrator of FEMA is Deanne Criswell, a 21-year veteran firefighter. A member of the Colorado Air National Guard, she served in Iraq and Afghanistan. During a previous stint at FEMA she was leader of an Incident Management Assistance Team. She has tackled everything from wildfires, to severe droughts, catastrophic floods and even helped re-unite evacuated families 16 years ago after Hurricane Katrina.
Immediately before being appointed FEMA administrator by Biden, Criswell was New York City Commissioner for Emergency Management. There, she coordinated the city’s response to emergencies like blackouts, fires and power outages all while handling the COVID pandemic and working to prevent collapse of the healthcare system.
So when Hurricane Ida arrived, FEMA and the country had a seasoned, experienced and truly expert first responder at the helm, appointed by Biden. It is making a world of difference.
Flyover versus ground truth
An iconic image of Bush and Hurricane Katrina was Bush staring out the window of Air Force One, rigid and frozen as he gazes down at the destruction of New Orleans. He chose to fly over the destruction on his return from his vacation in Crawford to Washington, DC.
It was his first look at what the storm had done but the message it sent the nation was one of aloofness and detachment that seemed to sum up the entire federal response.
Bush later tried to make up for that impression. He visited New Orleans 13 times in the years that followed. He gave a speech from the city’s Jackson Square where he pledged $10.5 billion federal dollars for the city’s rebuilding.
But he never fully overcame that initial image of uninvolvement from the flyover.
“Bush needed to show that he was in control. But he also needed to show that he cared—that he understood the situation and shared Americans’ sense of horror and anger, that he was determined to do whatever it took to make the bureaucracy respond,” McClellan wrote. “The flyover images showed none of this. And while privately Bush was quickly becoming more engaged, it was too little, too late.”
Bush reflected in his memoir: “I should have urged Governor [Kathleen] Blanco and Mayor [Ray] Nagin to evacuate New Orleans sooner. I should have come straight back to Washington from California on Day Two or stopped in Baton Rouge on Day Three. I should have done more to signal my determination to help, the way I did in the days after 9/11.”
Biden, by contrast, made a point of visiting FEMA headquarters in Washington during the storm to talk to Criswell directly and thank the responders at FEMA and around the country managing Ida. As of this writing he is scheduled to visit New Orleans today, Sept. 3, to see the damage and hear from the officials and people on the ground about their needs and requirements.
Visiting the scene of a disaster is always a dicey decision for politicians. They don’t want to seem to be exploiting the tragedy or hindering the urgent response. At the same time they want to see the situation for themselves and show their concern—and also get credit for their leadership.
Many times their solution is to fly over a site as Bush did. It gives them an overview of the entire disaster and it can be useful. However, unless it’s combined with executive action and a genuine sense of caring for the afflicted, it can backfire, as it did in Bush’s case. It takes a skilled hand and good judgment to make a disaster visit work constructively, lifting the spirits of victims, while advancing the response.
But most of all, it takes a human being who actually empathizes with other human beings and wants to alleviate their suffering that makes leadership in a disaster effective.
Then, now—and tomorrow
More than just 16 years separate the responses to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ida. They are light years apart in presidential attentiveness, competence, care and reaction.
In his engagement and decisiveness and willingness to support the professionals and experts, Biden is demonstrating the presidential abilities that got him to the Oval Office. To some extent it is making up for the chaotic spectacle of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
More importantly and immediately, though, Biden’s involvement will have profound effects on the afflicted areas, which now stretch from the bayous of Louisiana to the subways of New York City. This was a monster storm and an epic disaster and it will take years to restore the damage it did. But by being engaged and mobilizing the entire federal government and its expertise, a start has been made just as the winds and rain are dying down.
Southwest Floridians should take note and appreciate this. They may need that help next.
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.
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.
The US House of Representatives is back in session and on Tuesday, Aug. 24, it passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (House Resolution (HR) 4) by a vote of 219 to 212.
All of Southwest Florida’s representatives—Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.)—voted against it.
According to the congressional summary: “This bill establishes new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain preclearance before changes to voting practices may take effect. Preclearance is the process of receiving preapproval from the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the US District Court for the District of Columbia before making legal changes that would affect voting rights.”
In her weekly press conference, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) said the bill, named for the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights activist and icon, was necessary in light of widespread voter suppression efforts, especially those directed against minority voters.
“There are probably 20 laws – bills that had become law, that had been enacted, hundreds that had been introduced to suppress the vote,” she said. “Why? And then you just have to wonder: Why would they not want to make it easier for people to vote? Just because they want to suppress the vote among people of color, they are also suppressing the vote for everyone else by their, again, suppression of number of polling places, hours that are there, the list goes on and on.”
Donalds argued that HR 4 was a retread of the For the People Act of 2021 (HR 1), which passed the House in March. That bill, which he opposed, sought to ensure voting rights by expanding voter registration, guaranteeing voter access and limiting removing voters from rolls, all in response to state laws doing the opposite. It currently sits in the Senate awaiting action, which is unlikely.
“HR. 4 is HR. 1 (2.0), don’t be fooled,” Donalds tweeted on Tuesday. He argued that it would cancel “common-sense” voter identification requirements, updating of voter rolls, allow electioneering, would federalize election laws and would give the Department of Justice the power to veto state election laws.
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.
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.
Well, let’s examine the context, the politics and the record first.
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.
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.
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?
Delta, Delta, Delta—it’s the one dominant story. But then, it’s literally a matter of life and death.
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
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.
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.