'Deeply frustrated': Florida legislators worn out by DeSantis

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ iron-clad grip on the Republican-controlled Legislature may be slipping amid growing frustration among GOP legislators.

Republican lawmakers are stalling a handful of his key remaining legislative priorities with just weeks left in the annual session. And what started out as whispers in private about unhappiness over the governor are starting to become louder even though Republican lawmakers remain unwilling to speak out publicly against DeSantis because of his power and clout. One House Republican recently told a former legislator he was ready to resign out of frustration over how the session was going.

Part of the angst has been sparked by a grinding session where legislators have pushed through bill after bill — and chewed up hours of contentious debate — that’s considered integral to DeSantis’ expected presidential campaign. DeSantis’ announcement this week that he wanted legislators to take aim again at Disney has irritated conservative Republicans loath to target private businesses.

One GOP legislator privately said: “We’re not the party of cancel culture. We can’t keep doing this tit for tat.” The lawmaker was granted anonymity to speak freely about the GOP governor.

“People are deeply frustrated," said former state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has been talking to his former GOP colleagues frequently this session. "They are not spending any time on the right problems ... Most legislators believe that the balance of power has shifted too far and the Legislature needs to re-establish itself as a coequal branch of government."

The vexation in Tallahassee comes as DeSantis has struggled to gain traction nationally after weathering weeks of criticism from former President Donald Trump and other Republicans ahead of his likely 2024 announcement. DeSantis’ momentum after winning reelection in November by historic margins is beginning to evaporate. Even Florida’s GOP Legislative leaders, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner, on Wednesday declined to endorse DeSantis. While both praised the governor, they said they would wait until after the legislative session before saying who they would back for the 2024 election.

DeSantis administration officials declined to comment for this story.

DeSantis had already positioned himself as one of the most powerful governors in state history during his first term, strong-arming the Legislature to approve his congressional redistricting maps and reshaping GOP power in the state through boosting Republican voter registration numbers and endorsing school board candidates. Ahead of the session, the governor rolled out a lengthy agenda designed to give him a long line of legislative victories that he could tout if he runs for president as expected.

But after seven weeks, the toll is wearing people down. POLITICO interviewed more nearly 20 people involved in the legislative process, including Republican and Democratic legislators as well as lobbyists and legislative staffers.

Many Republicans said they support many of DeSantis’ priorities but have seen their own priority bills get waylaid or slowed down to help him. They have chafed at orders coming from legislative leaders who are working in concert with the governor’s office. Some have suggested that the GOP supermajority has made it easier for legislative leaders to ignore complaints from rank-and-file members.

“I think our Republican colleagues are done,” said state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a South Florida Democrat. “I think they are fed up. There’s obviously still some true believers and there’s some very loyal and allegiant individuals and groups … They would like him to hurry up and announce and start focusing exclusively on other stuff other than here.”

By all accounts though, DeSantis has racked up some big wins this session. Lawmakers have already passed multiple bills that the governor backed, including a ban on abortions after six weeks, a measure letting people carry concealed weapons without a permit and legislation that will no longer require a unanimous jury recommendation in death penalty cases.

On Wednesday, the Legislature sent to the governor’s desk a bill that would bar the use of certain types of investment strategies that DeSantis and other Republicans have called “woke.” Lawmakers also agreed to put on the 2024 ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would make school board elections partisan. And a bill that would block children from attending adult-themed drag shows is also heading to the governor.

Yet some of DeSantis’ top priorities remain up in the air with less than three weeks to go, including tough new anti-immigration measures that DeSantis called for ahead of the session. One part of that package — eliminating in-state tuition rates for undocumented college students who went to a Florida high school — has yet to be introduced.

Another bill that lawmakers appear unlikely to approve would alter defamation laws and was designed to potentially set up a challenge to New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling that limits public officials’ ability to sue publishers. The House and Senate versions of the bill, which drew criticism from both traditional media outlets and conservative media, have languished for weeks in committee stops and legislators have not advanced them.

Renner insisted, though, that legislators this session were living up to what they told voters last fall.

“We’re doing the very things we campaigned on, we’re governing as we campaigned,” Renner said.

He acknowledged that there was a “chokepoint” earlier in the session because the House was spending most of its time on legislation being pushed by the governor and legislative leaders.

“If people are frustrated it’s probably because we had a ton of bills that the governor’s put forward that we in House and Senate leadership have put forward but,” Renner said. “There’s going to be a ton of other bills that are coming forward.”