DeSantis Finds His Dictatorial Footing in Hurricane Idalia

Image of hurricane from space.

Image by NASA.

As Florida sorts through the devastating impacts of another global-warmed hurricane, Governor Ron DeSantis—-despite the media hype—-has moved significantly closer to the presidency.

It’s a reality that should terrify all those familiar with the depth of his relentless attacks on elected state officials, its electoral democracy, its school system, its LGBTQ community and its essential freedoms.

The punditocracy still mocks DeSantis for his awkward public appearances and dysfunctional campaign structure in this year’s Republican primaries.  We hear repeatedly that his poll numbers have shrunk drastically before the apparent inevitability of the multi-indicted Donald Trump.

But they miss the point.  We’ve just seen DeSantis handle exactly the kind of challenge for which he’s best suited—-the catastrophic Hurricane Idalia.  As an unabashed autocrat, DeSantis is perfectly suited to handle such a disaster, even to the point of dissing a visiting President Biden, for whom he famously could not find time to meet.

More than year from the 2024 election, DeSantis has turned Florida into petty dictatorship, with the voice of the public electorate decimated at every turn.

It starts with his unabashed penchant for removing duly elected officials he doesn’t like.

Last year he arbitrarily fired Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren.  This past month he purged popular 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney, Monique Worrell. DeSantis charged Worrell with“neglect of duty” and “incompetence.”  But the process was essentially a dictatorial decree.  For the half-hearted shreds of legal justification he conjured cases where sentencing was solely at the judge’s discretion, not the prosecutor.

Worrell serves Orange and Osceola Counties as Florida’s only female African American state attorney, winning her seat in a near 67% victory. With the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders, she ran on a progressive platform of criminal justice reform, encouraging rehabilitation and diversion over incarceration. Also standing for police accountability when “bad actors” infiltrate law enforcement as she claims is a serious problem that, “systemically, they have covered it up.”

Attacks from the Governor, and Order of Police, began a year ago around the time her office prosecuted a number of dirty cops including Officer Jonathan Mills.

Mills was known as a predator and “serial terrorist on the Paramore Community.” He was charged with battery after a complaint that he conducted a gratuitous cavity search during a traffic stop.

Mills took a plea deal and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 11 months probation, plus community service. Another indictment was recently made against Deputy Bruce Stolk for aggravated assault with a firearm after shooting an 18-year old in the leg when he fled his bike during a traffic stop in 2020.

For sixteen years prior to her election, Monique Worrell was Director of the Criminal Justice Center at the University of Florida. Her progressive ideas on intervention over incarceration obviously rankled the authoritarian governor.

“There was a lot of research that goes into the fact that diverting nonviolent people out of the criminal legal system builds stronger, safer communities,” she told MSNBC’s Charles Coleman.  “What we did with my first two and half years in office, we could make it easier for people who just need a little redirection to be able to get that without having their entire lives ruined by a criminal legal system that is unfair.”

According to the Prison Policy Iniative’s Florida Profile, the state incarcerates 795 out of every 100,000 persons, more than anywhere else in the nation…and thus “it locks up a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on Earth.”

Yet the Inside Prison site shows that for the past two years, overall crime has significantly decreased in Worrell’s 9th District.

So DeSantis has replaced Worrell with Andrew Bain, a member of the ultra-conservative Federalist Society.  In his first week Bain canceled Worrell’s diversity program and the successful diversion programs that have been so vital towards the rehabilitation of nonviolent criminals. There is as yet no word on what will happen to those participating now impacted by these changes.

Bain also fired Worrell’s Chief of Staff, Keisha Mulford, who was on federally protected maternity leave. Mulford learned of her dismissal on August 10th when armed deputies and investigators arrived at her home demanding social media passwords she had already provided.

This attack came at the direction of the new Chief Assistant Ryan Williams, who lost to Worrell in 2020. Mulford’s attorney attempted to contact him repeatedly before the visit. She was nursing her baby when police appeared at her door unannounced, insisting she come outside so they could retrieve information from her phone. They left behind a letter informing her she was relieved of duty effective the day prior on August 9th.

Mulford and Worrell, who both have children, lost their pay and insurance coverage. Mulfort tells WKMG News 6, “I have a newborn daughter and you snatch away my health insurance. . . You’re pro-life until they’re here, and then what?”

DeSantis has also suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney, Andrew Warren, who made public his unwillingness to prioritize abortion prosecutions.  And he’s canned four elected Broward County school board members and its superintendent.

The Governor’s attacks on higher education feature the gutting of Sarasota’s well-respected liberal New College.  DeSantis arbitrarily fired its president. Despite massive protests, he purged its board members for hard core right-wingers, turning the school into a bastion of autocracy.

At Tampa’s University of South Florida, five students now face up to 11 years in prison for participating in a peaceful public demonstration.  “The chief of police grabbed me from behind, picked me up off the ground, and threw me face down on the ground,” Gia Davila, 22, told Teen Vogue, “He then proceeded to grope me while another cop bent my arms behind me.’” As the “Tampa Five’s” attorney told Axios, “It’s all extremely concerning because you have a narrative written by numerous officers, regurgitating identical language…and you can review videos and see that it’s completely inaccurate.”

In his comprehensive attack against the LGBTQ community, DeSantis has moved to ban public drag shows.  His HB 1521, restricts access to public restrooms in schools, parks, and various government facilities, including college dorms.

A former Navy Seal, he’s been accused of laughing at the torture of at least one helpless prisoner held at Guantanamo.  His eagerness to remove elected officials with no due process, undermine the entire democratic process, destroy liberal education, loudly attack the LGBTQ community and prosecute peaceful protesters all portend a dictatorial regime for the rest of his term in Florida, no matter how many hurricanes it may endure.

DeSantis’s across-the-board dictatorial attacks on democracy, education, LGBTQ rights and more make him the most terrifying presidential candidate in recent memory.

Unless the Republicans conjure another alternative to Donald Trump, do not even begin to write off this dictatorial autocrat…or the absolute obliteration he promises to impose on what’s left of American democracy.

Wendi Lederman is a democracy activist based in south Florida. Harvey Wasserman, a frequent contributor to TruthOut, wrote THE PEOPLE’S SPIRAL OF US HISTORY.