From Disney to Andrew Warren, DeSantis shows taste for power — and a fight

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TAMPA — Gov. Ron DeSantis railed against what he described as rogue prosecutors — while Andrew Warren sat stone-faced.

At the time of the February speech, delivered to a luncheon crowd at the Florida State Fair in Tampa, the governor’s remarks were simply recycled talking points directed at officials in other states. DeSantis drew a contrast to how he said the “Free State of Florida” had greater respect for law and order. Warren, Hillsborough’s state attorney, along with other Tampa Bay officials, sat at banquet tables on either side of DeSantis’ lectern.

But DeSantis’ speech contained a warning.

“My view is very simple: prosecutors have to follow the law. They can’t just say they’re not going to prosecute cases because the law conflicts with their political ideology,” he said with Warren feet away on the stage. “We will not tolerate that type of behavior in the state of Florida.”

Four months later, DeSantis ousted Warren, accusing him of being the very same type of prosecutor he’s been warning voters about in blue states — in large part because Warren had signed letters stating he would not prosecute crimes related to limits on abortion or gender-affirming care for transgender kids. But Warren’s removal represented more than the fulfillment of a promise. It was also an escalation of DeSantis’ use of executive power.

The governor, who often emphasizes his philosophy of a strong executive, has continually expanded his reach in the state of Florida. He’s taken unprecedented steps toward that goal, such as going around GOP legislative leadership by drawing Florida’s new congressional maps and influencing Republican primaries.

“There’s little doubt that he’s attempted to, and pretty much accomplished, his goal of expanding executive power,” said former University of South Florida political science professor Darryl Paulson.

DeSantis’ tactics have also included publicly penalizing those whom he believes have run afoul of what’s acceptable — whether it’s Disney, a drag bar in Miami or, as of last week, Warren.

Florida governors have suspended local elected officials before through power granted to them in the state Constitution. However, such a conclusive move had previously been mostly reserved for officials charged with crimes — making Warren’s removal a major step beyond that norm.

“This is clearly pushing the boundaries here,” Paulson said. “It’s not to say DeSantis doesn’t have a legitimate point.”

Warren can contest his suspension in court or through the increasingly conservative Florida Senate. The legislative body has ultimate say on whether the state attorney’s removal will stick, but is unlikely to veer from DeSantis.

In response, his critics have only turned up the volume on their complaints that DeSantis is becoming a strong-armed authoritarian.

Pat Kemp, a Democratic Hillsborough County Commissioner, called Warren’s removal Hillsborough’s own “Jan 6th moment” in a tweet.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, who generally strikes a more temperate tone when wading into hot-button political topics, tweeted a sharp condemnation, saying DeSantis’ action “changes the outcome of elections, disregards due process, and violates our sacred trust in democracy.”

A heavier approach

When it comes to the suspensions of local elected officials, DeSantis has intentionally been more aggressive than his predecessors, including former Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who’s now in the U.S. Senate.

While Scott resisted pressure from other Republicans, including then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, to suspend Broward Sheriff Scott Israel after the Parkland mass shooting, DeSantis made Israel’s removal a campaign promise — and followed through days after he was inaugurated.

While governor, Scott clashed with a state attorney, Aramis Ayala, after she said she wouldn’t seek the death penalty. Rather than remove her from office, Scott chose to reassign many of her cases. Ayala is now running for Florida attorney general.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, said Warren’s removal raises a legal question: Under what circumstances can DeSantis preemptively remove someone from office?

While Warren had signed letters stating his intent not to pursue certain cases, there has not been evidence that he rejected specific cases related to abortion or trans medical care, the latter of which is not prohibited by any current state law.

Brandes noted that Democratic candidates often sign onto the party’s platform, which is against limits on abortion.

“Can he remove every Democratic state attorney in the state? Can he remove a Democratic judge?” Brandes said. “Where does the length of that power go?”

Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, said DeSantis was well within his rights — in fact, it would have been irresponsible to have left Warren in place. Beltran has alleged that Warren declined to pursue important cases of public safety in addition to signing the more hypothetical pledges.

In an ideal world, “the governor should appoint prosecutors because it shouldn’t be political,” Beltran added. “I think the executive should go and pick whoever is the most competent to meet those roles.”

Dave Aronberg, the Palm Beach County State Attorney and a Democrat, said while he personally disagreed with the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, he is careful not to sign pledges about the types of cases he will and won’t pursue.

“We all take an oath to uphold the Constitution and the law which means we are required to review each matter on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Aronberg joked that when DeSantis’ office announced an event in West Palm Beach on Friday, people started calling him to see if he was next.

“I survived another day,” he said, chuckling.

“What can I do ... without anybody checking me?”

DeSantis has been expanding the powers of his office in ways big and small.

In another February speech, DeSantis told the crowd that as soon as he took office, he wanted to know his powers.

“The first thing I said to the general counsel was: ‘I want you to give me a binder of all the authorities of the governor. What can I do as a matter of constitutional right without anybody checking me?’” DeSantis said at the Naples event hosted by Hillsdale College, a private conservative Christian school.

“We have a strategic kind of component to everything we do,” he said. “Anything I say, I expect to get done.”

Early in his term, DeSantis fired the longtime chief judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings, an obscure but powerful group of judges who weigh in on state agency rules and bidding disputes, making them critical to the businesses that fund political campaigns and make money off of government.

He’s pushed the Legislature to give him more power over agency appointments, to allocate $1 billion to a governor’s emergency fund and to create a first-of-its-kind elections security force, staffed with state police officers chosen by the governor.

He clashed with Disney over its statements in opposition to the officially titled “Parental Rights in Education” bill that critics dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill. Legal experts raised questions about whether DeSantis violated the corporate giant’s right to political speech. After a state agency filed a complaint against a Miami bar saying it was exposing minors to “sexually explicit drag shows,” some other businesses and performers in Miami’s drag industry worried they might be next.

But as with his fight with Disney, political observers often say DeSantis embraces — and sometimes, seeks out — big political fights because he can.

Warren’s suspension quickly became national news. Right after his Thursday news conference, DeSantis spoke with Fox News digital, then joined Tucker Carlson later that evening.

“Because he has built this track record of doing the right thing and building popularity (among Republican voters) ... I think he’s got that platform and the ability to go places other politicians haven’t and couldn’t and wouldn’t,” said Stephen Lawson, a Republican political strategist in Georgia who worked on DeSantis’ 2018 campaign.

“He’s willing to do that and step out and I think that’s why he continues to be rewarded for it.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.