DeSantis Is ‘blurring The Lines’ Using State Plane For Campaign-Style Events, Watchdog Says – Orlando Sentinel

Orlando Sentinel |

Dec 30, 2021 at 8:09 AM

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Gov. Ron DeSantis flies to events all over Florida in the state plane, which cost more than $15 million to buy and $3 million-plus a year to operate. But some of the official appearances his office promotes as news conferences have resembled campaign rallies, filled with Palm Beach International Airport supporters and political chants.

And many of those have been paired with DeSantis campaign emails, including some selling merchandise emblazoned with a slogan such as “Don’t Tread on Florida” that appeared prominently at an event that same day.

A Florida watchdog criticized the practice as increasingly flouting the spirit of the law that separates official duties from campaigning.

“There doesn’t appear to be a border in this case,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Integrity Florida. “He’s really blurring the lines between what is considered campaign activity and his public duties of the office. I think it’s highly questionable, but I’m not sure what the remedy is.”

DeSantis is seeking re-election next fall and is widely considered a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2024.

DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said none of the events has had any connection to the campaign.

“There’s no coordination between the state office and the campaign,” Pushaw wrote in an email. “That would be unlawful, and we have not violated the law.

“The state plane is used only for the governor’s travel to and from official events, in accordance with the law,” Pushaw said. “As you know, these events are frequent (multiple times per week) and we try to hold events all over the state, especially when it comes to statewide initiatives — like the vaccine rollout earlier this year and the launch of more than two dozen state-supported monoclonal antibody therapy sites in August and September.”

The need for a state plane to ferry the governor around the state didn’t exist under DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, who owned a private jet.

Coming off one of their worst election cycles in 2020, many prominent Florida Democrats said things needed to change. Within the party, they did, with Manny Diaz taking over as chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. But their prospects for victory in 2022 have only worsened.

Upon taking office in 2019, DeSantis flew in a state-owned aircraft purchased from the federal government for $10,000 in 2016, according to the News Service of Florida.

At a GOP conference in Orlando shortly after his inauguration, DeSantis said the plane had started to shake on the way to an event in Broward County a few days earlier.

DeSantis said he and his wife, Casey, used oxygen masks until the plane made an emergency landing in St. Petersburg.

That incident played a role in the decision to replace the aircraft.

The new plane, a nine-passenger Cessna Citation Latitude jet from Textron Aviation Inc., was purchased in mid-2019 by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is responsible for the governor’s security. The FDLE listed the cost at $15.5 million.

The Legislature included a $1.29 million recurring appropriation in the state budget to make payments toward its purchase.

Florida races for governor and Congress will be huge in 2022.

In the 2021-22 fiscal year budget, which began July 1, $3.4 million was allocated toward a line item entitled “Executive Direction and Support (Program), Aviation Services.”

A public records request made by the Orlando Sentinel to the FLDE on Dec. 13 for the average cost per hour to fly the state plane, broken down by staffing and salary costs, maintenance, and fuel, was not yet available, according to the agency.

Many events are clearly held within the governor’s official duties, but others turn into campaign-style rallies.

Two held at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport in West Palm Beach in 2021 were particularly notable.

On Feb. 19, at which DeSantis announced his proposal for the controversial changes to the state’s elections laws, drew a loud, largely maskless crowd, raising concerns that it violated Palm Beach County’s then-current indoor mask requirement.

DeSantis and state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia drew cheers by alluding to former President Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, with Ingoglia attacking local elections officials as “rogue” and claimed they were “hiding in the backroom, duplicating ballots, matching signatures.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis supporter Kerry Kensington of North Palm Beach, Fla., looks on at an event in West Palm Beach, Fla., where DeSantis announced proposed election reform laws, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Joe Cavaretta/AP)

The same airport Hilton was the site of a Nov. 3 event, in which DeSantis called for even more elections law changes, that featured a similarly raucous audience chanting, “Let’s Go, Brandon.”

The chant, a derogatory code for “[Expletive] Joe Biden” that gained its greatest notoriety when an Oregon father said it to Biden on a Christmas Eve phone call with his family, broke out when DeSantis called Biden “Brandon” during the event. It was the first time he had referenced the phrase.

DeSantis smiled as the crowd chanted, and then went into a detailed explanation.

“Did you know how that started?” DeSantis said. “And you have the media, they’re hand-wringing over this. But you know, there was a NASCAR race, and they’re doing an interview with a driver, I guess his name was Brandon. And the crowd starts chanting very colorful language about Joe Biden. And it was obvious that they were doing and, you know, it is what it is.”

The event came a day after DeSantis’s affiliated political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, hinted that DeSantis would reference the chant in a campaign email titled, “LGB!”

The email called the chant “America’s latest cheer-craze,” said it “needled” Biden, and referred to the president as Brandon for the rest of the email.

An email from Friends of Ron DeSantis assailing President Biden as “Brandon,” sent on Nov. 2, one day before Gov. DeSantis garnered cheers at an official staet event in West Palm Beach by alluding to the “Let’s Go Brandon: chant.

Friends of DeSantis, an independent political committee that has been advocating for DeSantis prior to the governor officially filing for reelection on Nov. 5, had more than $58 million in cash on hand as of November. Committee treasurer Nancy Watkins, now also listed as the DeSantis campaign treasurer, did not return a request for comment.

On Nov. 18, the reference to the Biden chant became even more overt when DeSantis held an official bill signing at an automobile dealership in Brandon, an unincorporated community near Tampa.

DeSantis was signing a law that put new restrictions on vaccine mandates by employers, which had been passed during a special session the week before.

Both DeSantis and state Attorney General Ashley Moody mentioned “Brandon” multiple times, drawing huge cheers from those in attendance. The sign on the lectern also included the name of the town, a rarity for such events.

Asked if the chant was the reason for his appearance in Brandon, DeSantis smiled and said, “I think that Brandon, Florida, is a great American city.”

That evening, the DeSantis campaign sent out a fundraising email entitled, “Fighting Brandon’s Mandates … from Brandon, FL.”

As supporter holds up a Brandon, Florida sign as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks to members of the media before a bill signing Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brandon, Fla. (Chris O’Meara/AP)

DeSantis first announced his call for a special session to oppose vaccine requirements at an event on Oct. 21 in Clearwater.

The governor, joined by state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, condemned vaccine requirements in front of a crowd of supporters holding signs that said, “Don’t Tread on Florida” beneath an image of an alligator.

Later that night, “brand new” merchandise featuring that same “Don’t Tread on Florida” slogan was offered for sale in a campaign email from Friends of Ron DeSantis.

“We aren’t backing down and we aren’t giving away our freedom in Florida!” the email stated. “Show your support and secure your very own ‘Don’t Tread On Florida’ merchandise today!”

New Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, in charge of the state’s COVID-19 response, openly questioned whether COVID vaccines work at a Thursday event and said more should be done to highlight “adverse reactions” to vaccines.

On Dec. 15, DeSantis announced his proposal to ban critical race theory in classrooms, seminars, and training sessions, including allowing parents to sue schools if they believe it was being taught.

The event was not held at a school but at an events center in The Villages, the sprawling 55+ senior community considered a key GOP stronghold.

DeSantis called the theory, which proposes that America’s history of slavery and racism have effects on current-day laws and practices, “state-sponsored or corporate-sanctioned racism,” a phrase he alluded to again later that day in a campaign fundraising email.

“School and corporate-sponsored racism has no place in Florida,” the email said. “… I refuse to allow Democrats to poison our society into hating one another based on race using their radical woke teachings. But the fight is just getting started – and we need your help to win.”

Pushaw said there was nothing wrong with what DeSantis and his campaign were doing.

“Our office, like any other governor’s office, holds public events throughout the state to highlight the governor’s public policy priorities and achievements,” Pushaw said. “The campaign may independently write and send out emails about these events afterwards, just as the campaigns of Gov. DeSantis’s opponents often send fundraising emails critiquing the governor’s announcements several hours after the fact.”

State Sen. Joe Gruters. R-Sarasota, chair of the Republican Party of Florida, also defended DeSantis and his campaign.

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“The governor and his commitment to Florida have overwhelmingly proven to be positive,” Gruters said. “… And yes, people are starting to show up to places that the governor speaks at, because of his success and the fact that he’s been the champion of so many different causes.”

But Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner and a Democratic candidate seeking to unseat DeSantis in the 2022 election, criticized the practice in a statement.

“The radical partisanship of the governor’s office under Ron DeSantis is unprecedented — extending not just to campaign-style events to get him on Fox News, but to canceling Florida Cabinet and Clemency meetings to avoid me,” Fried said. “It’s unethical and transparently part of his campaign for president, one that’s shoving Floridians behind to impress Iowa Republicans.”

Wilcox was pessimistic that anything could be done about the situation.

“I guess I just better get used to it here in Florida because I don’t know what the solution is other than the Legislature trying to rein it in, which I don’t see happening,” Wilcox said. The Republican Party holds large majorities in both chambers.

“It’s just a wholesale blending of campaigning with his public service, and you’re supposed to keep the two things separate,” Wilcox said. “I’m sure it’s happened in the past with other governors. But this governor seems to really embrace the use of public dollars to aid his campaigning.”