Data scientist who clashed with DeSantis returns to Florida, preparing to run against Matt Gaetz
Since this story was published, Rebekah Jones has told Yahoo News that she intends to run as a Democrat.
WASHINGTON — A little over a year after she was fired as the manager of Florida’s coronavirus dashboard, Rebekah Jones is returning to the state to run for Congress against Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of former President Donald Trump’s closest allies in Washington.
Her return could also pose a challenge to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has made his handling of the coronavirus pandemic a centerpiece of his political ascent. Jones alleges that she was fired last year for refusing to manipulate statistics to accommodate the governor’s desire to quickly reopen the state during the national lockdown. Since then, she and the DeSantis administration have waged a relentless battle over the state’s narrative about the coronavirus.
The DeSantis version of that narrative — best summed up by the slogan “Don’t Fauci My Florida,” on the merchandise the governor has been selling — has faced intense criticism in recent days. The White House says DeSantis is obstructing the appropriate public health responses to the coronavirus. As hospitals fill up across Florida, the governor has stayed the course, earning plaudits from Fox News and other conservative outlets for battling mask mandates and vaccination requirements.
On the ground, resistance to this approach is rising. Under DeSantis’s latest executive order, schools could lose funding if they impose mask mandates, but they are doing so anyway. Some local leaders, too, charge that DeSantis is exacerbating the situation in order to improve his standing with his Republican base. “The governor has made it as difficult as possible to make people safe,” the Democratic mayor of Miami Beach, Dan Gelber, recently said on CNN, comparing DeSantis to a “Pied Piper leading everybody off a cliff right now.”
Invincible for much of the spring, DeSantis suddenly seems vulnerable, not only as a presidential aspirant but as a governor who will be seeking reelection next year. A poll shows him slipping behind Rep. Charlie Crist, one of two mainstream Democrats challenging him in the gubernatorial contest. Headlines about Florida — “Hospital Hell” was recently splashed across the Drudge Report, a must-read for conservatives — do not help.
Florida’s spike bolsters the case that Jones has been making about the governor, even if it doesn’t necessarily help her case against Gaetz, whose First Congressional District includes the Florida Panhandle. The region is a Republican redoubt and last sent a Democrat to Washington in 1992; in the 2020 presidential election, Trump won the Panhandle with margins that reached nearly 50 percentage points in places.
Gaetz is the son of a prominent Florida politician; Jones grew up in Louisiana, Mississippi and Maryland, in a “working poor” family. She calls Gaetz a “wholly useless” emissary for the Florida Panhandle, describing him as a Trump loyalist with little interest in serving ordinary people. She is planning to run as an independent, which means she won’t have the help of local Democrats — although it also means she won't have the ideological baggage that comes with the party affiliation.
His camp calls her campaign a sideshow. “She isn’t a serious candidate,” says Gaetz campaign spokesman Harlan Hill, a former Trump adviser. “Rebekah would mask your children, lock down your lives and allow Black Lives Matter to burn your businesses to the ground,” he told Yahoo News.
Floridians appear likely to side with Gaetz. In 2020, he won reelection by 30 points. He is now facing allegations of sex trafficking, something that may nevertheless not prejudice his chances of winning, given the margins he has enjoyed so far. Jones and a Democratic candidate could also help him by splitting the opposition against him.
Jones’s candidacy may ultimately pose a bigger threat to DeSantis, who has argued for his freedom-over-fear approach to the pandemic, over that of his more cautious Democratic counterparts. Jones offers a vociferous refutation of DeSantis's position, and her campaign appears to be more focused on keeping the Florida governor out of the White House than on recalling Gaetz from Capitol Hill.
In the month since Jones filed her declaration to seek office, Florida has once again become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, accounting for a full fifth of all cases in the United States throughout the second half of July. Last week, Florida recorded more new cases per day (16,038 cases on Tuesday) than Germany did (10,735 on the same day), although Germany has four times as many residents.
DeSantis has said he has refused to turn Florida into what he called a “Faucian dystopia” of masked faces and social distancing rules, without seeming to realize there might be costs to taking this stance. These have become evident in recent days. On Saturday, Florida reported 21,683 new cases, the highest daily tally in the state since the pandemic began.
Deaths, which lag infections, are now also rising. On Aug. 4, Florida reported 140 deaths, more than the total of 116 for New York, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut combined.
Daniel Uhlfelder, a Santa Rosa Beach attorney who is leading an effort to defeat the governor in 2022, has used such statistics against DeSantis, arguing that the governor “does things for show,” and adding, “There’s a cruelty to him. He doesn’t care.”
The DeSantis administration has claimed it has protected seniors and other vulnerable people while letting others enjoy their freedom. Keeping the schools open, in defiance of teachers' unions, made DeSantis a hero to parents weary of months of “Zoom schools.”
DeSantis has been happy to play the hero, and “Make America Florida” has become a rallying cry of his increasingly boisterous and confident camp. The state’s economic recovery has not been as resounding as the governor would like to suggest, however. A study published in June by economists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that states that kept their restrictions in force for longer actually bounced back quicker, and that California’s economy did better than Florida’s.
DeSantis also showed little interest in launching the kind of unrelenting vaccination effort that the pandemic seemed to require, even as other governors, including more than a few Republicans, looked for incentives or stipulations that would persuade people to take their shots.
Florida’s ambitious governor took the opposite approach, in an apparent bid to court favor with the anti-vaccine crowd. He sued cruise ship operators, many of which operate out of Florida ports, in an effort to prevent them from requiring vaccinations. (A poll found that more than three-quarters of Floridians did not approve of DeSantis’s ban.)
In late June, Dr. Peter Hotez, a leading epidemiologist at Baylor University, watched as DeSantis and the Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham mocked him as a “COVID doomer” in a segment of her primetime show, which has an audience of millions. Weeks later, Hotez watched the more transmissible Delta variant pummel the state, just as he predicted would be the case unless vaccination rates drastically increased.
“We’ve seen a number of these red-state governors put ideology before public health,” Hotez told Yahoo News. On Monday, the White House pandemic response coordinator, Jeff Zients, revealed that Texas and Florida accounted for a full third of all new coronavirus cases across the United States last week.
That surge suggests that DeSantis declared victory over the coronavirus far too soon (President Biden has been accused of doing the same). The governor has tried to blame the media for “hysteria” over the state’s bleak situation, but with 11,500 people hospitalized, it is not clear how much traction that argument will have. An Orlando Sentinel editorial published Monday morning charged that DeSantis “lacks courage” to fight the disease.
The new surge has revived the bitter rivalry between the 32-year-old data scientist who wants to be a congresswoman and the 42-year-old governor who, by all accounts, wants to be president.
“DeSantis denied the reality of COVID-19 in Florida from the start,” Jones says. “The people continue to pay the price for his cruel policies.”
That could make the race in the Panhandle less a referendum on Gaetz, or even on Jones herself, than on the governor who has had an outsize role in how Floridians have experienced the pandemic. “People are going to be drawn to her or drawn away from her based on how they feel about Ron DeSantis,” Uhlfelder says. “I think that's pretty obvious.”
In the unlikely event that her congressional run gains traction, Jones will be campaigning against the Trump-DeSantis-Gaetz triumvirate at exactly the same time as DeSantis is seeking reelection and preparing for his universally expected White House run. That could perturb the prickly governor, who has won the nickname “porcupine.” He once attacked Jones by name in an appearance with former Vice President Mike Pence, and he has a lot more to lose than Jones, who is unemployed and had been living in self-imposed exile in Maryland and just moved down to the district she wants to represent.
A geologist by training, Jones was initially hired to follow hurricanes. When the pandemic arrived, she built the state’s coronavirus dashboard, winning praise for it, including from Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator at the time.
That didn’t last. In May 2020, Jones was fired from the Florida Department of Health. She promptly filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging retaliation for refusing to manipulate statistics to suit DeSantis’s attempt to push for a speedy and universal reopening of the state. A year later, in May 2021, Jones was finally granted whistleblower status: a victory, but far from a full validation of the claims in her complaint.
“There has been no judgment made on the merits of the accusations,” says Taryn Fenske, DeSantis's communications director. “Whistleblower status doesn’t substantiate any claims.”
On Dec. 7 of last year, armed Florida law enforcement agents raided Jones’s home with guns drawn. They were there to execute a warrant for her computer equipment, believing her to be responsible for improperly accessing a Department of Health emergency alert system and sending a message to employees: “Speak up before another 17,000 people are dead.”
Jones maintains that she didn’t send the message.
The raid sharpened her animosity toward DeSantis. “There would be something wrong with me as a mother if I didn’t hold Ron DeSantis personally responsible for what he’s doing to my family,” Jones says. Shortly after the raid, she left Florida for Maryland. Now, months later, she is returning to run against Gaetz.
Jones is not alone in thinking the governor has a vendetta against her. He recently hired Christina Pushaw as his press secretary. Pushaw had written an article highly critical of Jones, which she noted when applying for a job with the DeSantis administration.
Jones believes that Pushaw assisted conservative outlets in their efforts to malign her. She has also sued Pushaw for harassment. The case was ultimately dismissed.
“I bear no ill will toward Rebekah Jones,” Pushaw told Yahoo News. “I wish her the best. I have no interest in talking about her anymore. I have moved on, and I hope she has done the same. As the judge said, we are both opinionated women who will never see eye to eye, but we both have the right to free expression.”
There have been questions, too, about Jones’s personal and professional conduct. She faces cyberstalking charges related to a romantic affair and has been suspended from Twitter (“permanently,” according to a spokeswoman) for trying to highlight favorable coverage of her case in the Miami Herald in what Twitter calls “platform manipulation,” also known as spam.
Before this suspension, she occasionally launched broadsides that seemed to undermine her standing with onetime supporters like Jake Tapper, the CNN anchor, as well as with Florida-based epidemiologists who did not share her opinions.
Whether or not the recent bad publicity she’s received was orchestrated — and Jones believes it was — it has damaged her credibility. It may help her that the incumbent, Gaetz, is the subject of a sex trafficking investigation that could potentially lead to a federal indictment.
But even her own campaign manager, Carollyn Taylor, is not sure the allegations against Gaetz will be the deciding factor in the race. Taylor says the district has made peace with Gaetz. “He’s trash,” she says of the prevailing view of him. “But he’s our trash.”
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