Two months after narrowly winning a contentious election in which he nailed his colors firmly to the mast of Trumpism, Ron DeSantis will be sworn in as Florida’s 46th governor on Tuesday with voters in the nation’s third most populous state still unsure exactly what they will be getting.
Many of the Republican’s picks for his new administration during the seven weeks’ transition since his progressive Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum conceded have, predictably, followed his predecessor Rick Scott’s brand of hardline conservatism. For example, Mary Mayhew, his choice to lead Florida’s healthcare agency, served the White House in blocking expansion of the Medicaid program that provides health insurance for the poor. And DeSantis’s key advisor and former state House speaker, Richard Corcoran, is a right-wing ideologue who will become the next commissioner of education.
But other considerably more moderate appointments have left DeSantis supporters scratching their heads. Two prominent Democrats, Jared Moskowitz and Jim Zingale, have been nominated to lead, respectively, Florida’s departments of emergency management and revenue. And in a clear break from the industry-friendly policies of an outgoing governor who was infamously branded Red Tide Rick, DeSantis has pledged to raise the environment and clean water as priority issues in arguably the nation’s most ecologically fragile state.
It is, in DeSantis’s own words, the fulfilling of a campaign pledge to embrace bipartisanship and unite a divided electorate, who handed him a recount victory by fewer than 33,000 votes, from more than 8.2m cast.
“We were elected to serve all Floridians and that is a charge we will keep,” DeSantis said in a written address to the state published at the weekend (he did not respond to requests from the Guardian and other media outlets for a pre-inauguration interview).
“I know there are political divides in our state, but the election is over and it is time for our state to come together. That means prioritising environmental issues … we will put Everglades restoration into high gear and make it the reality that Floridians have been promised for three decades.”
To some analysts, however, the self-styled “pitbull Trump defender” whose most infamous campaign ad featured him reading the Trump book The Art of the Deal as a bedside story to his infant son has been forced to follow a more moderate path. One that increasingly veers from that of the US president, who praised him as a “great Congressman [who] will be a great Governor”.
“The assumption from the beginning was that it would be all Trump all the time, but it’s not turning out that way,” said Susan MacManus, emeritus professor of political science at the University of South Florida and a long-time expert on Florida politics.
“The narrowness of his victory and the changing demographics of the state made it very clear among savvy Republicans that they have to broaden their base. He’s already demonstrated he’s doing some of that by his two Democratic appointments, and even a discussion of willingness not to clamp down so much on medicinal marijuana.”
Whether DeSantis will prove to be a champion of Florida’s environment, which is under severe threat from climate change and water pollution, could even influence Trump’s chances of re-election in 2020, MacManus believes.
“He’s going to have to be,” she said. “These younger generations are the environmental generations. A lot of small businesses in south-west Florida have been hurt by the red tide and are Republican leaning and they’re not going to take some kind of ‘well, we’ll get to that later’ approach any more.
“These people are really upset about pollution of the rivers and the Everglades. [DeSantis] cannot afford to lose those people and I’m sure he’s made it very clear to Trump that he’s not going to carry Florida if he doesn’t have those Republicans on board.”
One of the first issues DeSantis, 40, a five-year US congressman and former lieutenant commander in the US Navy, must tackle is appointing three new members to the Florida Supreme Court, decisions that will shape the political direction of the state’s ultimate judicial body for a generation. Whomever he picks, the panel will automatically become less diverse with the retirement of Peggy Quince, an African-American who has served since 1982. Only two women, and no African Americans, are among the group of 11 Scott-favoured nominees from which DeSantis must choose.
But is it the Florida voters’ passage of Amendment 4, a voter-approved measure that restores voting rights to up to 1.5 million mostly black felons, other than murderers and sexual offenders, who have served their sentences, that is already proving a racial hot potato to the incoming governor.
In December, DeSantis said it would be months before Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature would approve “implementing language” to allow the measure to be passed into law, a claim that earned an immediate scorching rebuke from Melba Pearson, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
“DeSantis wants to stand in the way of Amendment 4 by asking the legislature to pass an implementing bill, where in fact Amendment 4 is self-executing,” she said.
“The only responsibility DeSantis has right now is to direct state agencies without delay to register voters consistent with state law.”