DeSantis faces pushback in Florida as voters tire of war on woke

The bill banning rainbow flags from public buildings in Florida sounded like a sure bet.

State Rep. David Borrero (R), the legislation’s sponsor, argued that it was needed to prevent schoolchildren from being “subliminally indoctrinated.” That rationale echoed other measures championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as part of his “war on woke.”

But instead of sailing through the Republican-dominated legislature, the DeSantis-backed bill died a quick legislative death, making it only as far as one subcommittee.

It wasn’t the only culture war proposal from conservative lawmakers to end up in the bill graveyard during the session that ended Friday. One rejected bill would have banned the removal of Confederate monuments. Another would have required transgender people to use their sex assigned at birth on driver’s licenses — something the state Department of Motor Vehicles is already mandating. A third proposed forbidding local and state government officials from using transgender people’s pronouns.

Some of those ideas have come up in the past and may surface again next year. But the fact that the bills failed, even with public support from DeSantis, marks a change from the days when the GOP supermajority in Tallahassee passed nearly everything the governor asked for.

Florida has firmly cemented itself in recent years as ground zero for the nation’s culture wars. The Sunshine State is the birthplace of conservative parental rights group Moms for Liberty, the original law restricting LGBTQ+ discussion in classrooms, one of the strictest abortion laws in the country and legislation that has led to the banning of more books than in any other state in America.

But the pushback is growing.

Parents and others have organized and protested schoolbook bans. Abortion rights advocates gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in Florida in November. A bill that would have established “fetal personhood” stalled before it could reach a full vote.

Judges are also canceling some of DeSantis’s marquee laws, including the “Stop Woke Act.” A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled Monday that the law “exceeds the bounds” of the Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression.

Even the governor recently admitted the state might have gone too far in trying to remove certain books from school shelves, suggesting laws on book challenges should be “tweaked” to prevent “bad actors” from having too much influence.

Democrats and other DeSantis critics say the laws that the governor has pushed will continue to shape public life in Florida for years to come, and they don’t expect the Republican supermajority in the state House to suddenly abandon conservative causes. But they do sense a shift.

“When his presidential race ended, I think that a lot of his influence and power died at the same time,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a South Florida Democrat. “And I think that people in Florida and across the country, including Republicans, are starting to see that the culture wars are getting us nowhere.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has often said “Florida is where woke goes to die.” Experts track the evolution of that word and how it’s used by the GOP today. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

In the past year, the Florida GOP has been rocked by a sex scandal involving the party chairman and infighting between DeSantis and Trump supporters.

GOP voter registration numbers continued to surpass Democrats, but the party lost two local races they were expected to win: the mayor’s office in Jacksonville, and a closely contested special election to replace a Republican state representative near Orlando.

The legislative seat flipped blue in January when Democrat Tom Keen defeated his Republican rival, a conservative school board member who raised more than twice as much money and promised to fight “the woke agenda.” Keen campaigned on lowering property insurance rates and protecting access to abortion.

DeSantis, who was largely absent from the state while he campaigned for the GOP presidential nomination, has urged lawmakers to “stay the course.” But his doomed presidential bid changed political calculations in and out of the state.

Many lawmakers credit Republican Senate President Kathleen Passidomo for some of the shift. Passidomo stopped several culture war bills from progressing in the Senate, including one that would have punished local officials who oversaw the removal of Confederate monuments.

DeSantis strongly supported the bill, arguing that it is problematic to apply a “hyper-woke 21st-century test” to historical figures.

“It’s totally appropriate for the legislature to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to stop this madness,’” DeSantis said at a news conference in Jacksonville in February, two months after the city pulled down a controversial Jim Crow-era monument called “Women of the Southland.”

Among the public speakers who supported the monuments bill at a Senate hearing was a man who said he wanted to protect Confederate statues to “push White culture, white supremacy.”

Democrats walked out of the hearing, while Republicans on the committee — some of whom visibly recoiled at the white-supremacy remarks — approved the bill. But Passidomo refused to bring it to the full Senate.

“I’m not going to bring a bill to the floor that is so abhorrent to everybody,” she said.

The Senate president also rejected most of the 10 bill priorities the state Republican Party outlined in a legislative wish list, saying the party didn’t dictate what lawmakers should do.

DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment but said Friday at an end-of-session news conference that he was satisfied with what was passed by the legislature this year. Sponsors of the bills protecting monuments and outlawing rainbow flags also did not respond to requests for comment.

DeSantis did see some of his priorities pass. The legislature approved a law that the governor pushed prohibiting sleeping in public. And a ban on “woke meat” — food products cultivated in a lab from animal cells — easily got the green light from Republican lawmakers.

“You need meat, okay? Like, we’re going to have fake meat? That doesn’t work,” he said at a news conference in February, rejecting arguments that banning it could stifle innovation.

Even DeSantis’s budget requests faced pushback this year. The governor wanted an additional $5 million for his controversial migrant relocation program, but lawmakers only agreed to current spending levels. He also tried to add $57 million toward the recently reestablished Florida State Guard. Legislators signed off on a lower amount — $18.5 million, and added a requirement for detailed spending reports from the agency.

“What we saw this session was that bills that were either DeSantis ideas or retreads from last year really didn’t get anywhere,” said the state House’s minority leader, Fentrice Driskell. “I think in large part it’s because DeSantis has lost steam. He lost on the national stage, and that emboldened the Republicans in the legislature to feel like they don’t have to go along to get along with this guy anymore.”

Parents in Miami-Dade County founded Moms for Libros last year as an antidote to Moms for Liberty, the Florida-based group promoted by DeSantis.

The founders of Moms for Libros — Moms for Books — say they got together to battle what they see as censorship in schools. Their ranks have grown in the past year, and they say their messages — promoted in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole — are resonating even with parents who initially supported DeSantis’s education bills.

“A lot of the conservative Cuban American parents I talk to say they thought it was just about keeping sex out of schools,” said Vanessa Brito, co-founder of Moms For Libros. “But when they learn what was really happening, like when they heard that a book about Celia Cruz was taken off the shelves, they are very concerned. Having the government come in and tell you that your kids can’t have a book about Celia Cruz, that caused an uproar.”

The book, “Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa,” was temporarily removed from Duval County schools last year.

Brito said she talks to parents who are starting to object to the state’s growing list of rules and laws pertaining to education. In one incident that made international headlines, a Miami-area school required students to get parental permission to attend an “extracurricular activity” that included a talk by Florida historian Marvin Dunn, a Black scholar who has chronicled racist incidents in state history.

“Republican, Democrat, independent, people just don’t want books banned in our country. So it was just a collection of bad ideas that imploded on DeSantis,” Dunn said. “And now he’s actively trying to back off of these policies that have caused so much confusion in the state and in the education system at all levels.”

School officials said they were only following the new laws; DeSantis said they were being “absurd” and told them to “knock it off.”

“The vagueness of the laws have led to full-blown censorship, and people now see that happening in real time,” said Brito, who voted for DeSantis the first time he ran for governor in 2018. “And from what I’ve seen, they’re getting tired of ‘woke this, woke that.’”

The governor has also seen his “anti-woke” agenda challenged in court. In addition to the recent ruling on the “Stop Woke Act,” federal judges have halted enforcement of a law DeSantis signed last year that targeted drag shows. A different court declared that a rule from the state health agency that would ban Medicaid payments for gender-affirming care is unconstitutional.

DeSantis did nonetheless score a legal victory when a U.S. District Court judge in Florida sided with him over the Walt Disney Co. in January in regards to the state takeover of the entertainment giant’s special taxing district. But even with that win, the consequences of the feud have been far reaching, with the company canceling plans to build a $1 billion employee campus in Florida.

Since his return from the campaign trail, DeSantis has been flying around the state holding news conferences several times a week. He’s talked about congressional term limits, making retail theft a felony and cracking down on rowdy spring breakers. He’s also sent more state law enforcement officers to the southern border in Texas and ordered the release of grand jury records from the Jeffrey Epstein case.

Political analyst Susan MacManus said voters in Florida are paying more attention to pocketbook issues than culture war laws, and state lawmakers — most of whom are up for reelection this year — need to pay attention. Republicans who may have been following DeSantis’s lead on laws that target the LGBTQ+ community and Black history are hearing different concerns when they return to their districts.

“There’s a concern I’m hearing more and more from people, and in the media, that Florida is becoming too expensive,” said MacManus, professor emeritus at the University of South Florida. “We’re seeing stories on the nightly news about people moving out of the state because the cost of living is too high here.”

With homeowners and auto insurance costs that are more than triple that of other states, MacManus said Republican and Democratic voters have more pressing concerns than culture wars.

“These legislators are coming back, and their families and friends are saying they should be doing something that is going help us,” MacManus said. “The woke things may be interesting to some Republicans, but there are bigger issues.”

Mike Fasano, a lifelong Republican who served in the House and Senate for 18 years and is now the Pasco County tax collector, said most culture war issues are not on the minds of families struggling to pay rising property and auto insurance costs.

“I don’t think families, whether they’re Republican or Democratic or independent, are sitting at the breakfast table talking about which books should be banned,” Fasano said. “They’re talking about how they’re going to pay their rent or mortgage and the electric bill and the premium on their homeowners insurance.”


A previous version of this story stated a federal appeals panel ruled in favor of DeSantis in a lawsuit over the state’s takeover of Disney’s special taxing district. It was a U.S. District Court in Florida that sided with DeSantis. The story has been corrected.

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