Governor’s travels: Ron DeSantis on the move

By: - July 30, 2019 7:00 am

Gov. Ron DeSantis and AG Ashley Moody planted a tree in the John F. Kennedy Peace Forest in the Jerusalem hills on May 29, 2019. Source: Governor’s office.

Maybe the Florida Department of Law Enforcement should hurry and buy that executive jet for Gov. Ron DeSantis. He’s been flogging the heck out of the old twin turboprop model he inherited from the FDLE since he took office Jan. 9.

A Florida Phoenix review of state records shows that DeSantis left the state capital 75 days during his first six months in office, visiting cities – and media markets – in virtually every region of Florida to pitch his policies. He traveled out of state, too, to Washington, New York, and Jerusalem.

That represents nearly 44 percent of the time between the day the conservative Republican took the oath of office and the last day in June.

“Being able to go out and actually talking to people who are not just a part of the political process is very, very important, “ DeSantis said last week. “And that’s what we’re able to do when we go out – we’re able to address issues locally.”

DeSantis went where the viewers are, conducting 33 appearances in the what the television viewership marketing firm Nielsen calls a “designated marketing area” for Miami-Fort Lauderdale, with its 1.6 million homes with TVs; 21 appearances in Tampa-St. Petersburg with 1.8 million viewers; and 18 visits in the Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne area, which has a market reach of 1.5 million. The Tallahassee-Thomasville, Ga., area boasts 273,120 homes with TVs – plus broadcast journalists who beam DeSantis events there to viewers across Florida.

Comparing DeSantis’ travel frequency with previous governors is tricky. U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, DeSantis’ immediate predecessor, sold off the aircraft available for executive travel in favor of his privately owned jet. That meant he didn’t have to  disclose his travel itinerary. Charlie Crist, Scott’s predecessor now serving in Congress as a Democrat, declined to comment for this story.

The Legislature during its spring session authorized $3.8 million for the lease-purchase of a new aircraft for DeSantis’ use. At last word, the FDLE had recommended acquiring a Citation Latitude built by Textron Aviation Inc., the company behind Beechcraft, Cessna, and Hawker. Meanwhile, the governor has been using a 16-year-old King Air B300 that in January suffered a mechanical failure that forced an emergency landing.

DeSantis began his official trips two days into his term, on Jan. 9, flying to Miami’s Freedom Tower to announce his appointment of Barbara Lagoa to the Florida Supreme Court. Later that day, he was in Mexico Beach surveying Hurricane Michael damage.

The governor hardly slighted Tallahassee, and his travel days often began or ended with public events in the capital city. On Jan. 11, for example, DeSantis presided over a news conference, a Cabinet meeting, and Clemency Board hearings in the Capitol before flying to Fort Lauderdale to announce his suspension of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who won dispensation from the Legislature to maintain an office in Miami, accompanied the governor to 31 out-of-Tallahassee events. For example, she attended a Jan. 10 swing through Bonita Springs, Sarasota, and Stuart to discuss water policy, plus the Scott Israel news conference the next day. She was there on Feb. 7 for the opening of the State Fair and a news conference about teacher pay bonuses, both in the Tampa area.

Perhaps the highlight of DeSantis schedule came in late May, when he and the Florida Cabinet spent five days on a trade mission to Israel. The trip included a ceremonial meeting of the governor and Cabinet; a series of agreements between Israeli and Floridian businesses, universities, and agencies; a visit to the Wailing Wall and Holocaust memorial; and a meeting between the governor and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

These numbers (see chart, below) are based on a review by the Florida Phoenix of the governor’s daily schedule as posted on the Executive Office of the Governor’s website. Aides post these schedules most days – if sometimes after the events described have already transpired. On 35 days for the governor and 47 for the lieutenant governor, they noted only “no scheduled events.” Other daily schedules laid out meetings with aides or agency leaders.

“It does sound like a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily sound like too much,” said Mac Stipanovich, chairman of the Florida government relations practice at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and an observer of the Tallahassee scene since he advised former Gov. Bob Martinez during the 1980s and later Jeb Bush.

“Every governor’s different. Some are more peripatetic and want to get out and move around more than others,” Stipanovich said.

DeSantis Communications Director Helen Aguirre Ferré said via email that the phrase on the governor’s schedule  – “no scheduled events” – means exactly what it says. Asked whether the governor takes time off, she added: “He is a hard worker and enjoys it. That means he works on weekends, but he also makes sure to get some family time in there, as well.”

DeSantis’ travels didn’t stop during the legislative session, between March 5 and May 4. He delivered his State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate on opening day, lingering for a reception at the Governor’s Mansion that night. The next day, he was off to Naples for a Foundation for Government Accountability luncheon, but was back in Tallahassee for a legislative briefing at 3:30 p.m. In all, he attended 33 out-of-town events on 19 days during session.

Events sometimes drive the itinerary. DeSantis cites his July 20 visit with First Lady Casey DeSantis to Merritt Island to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Vice President Mike Pence also was on hand. “Obviously, that’s a very important anniversary for our country,” the governor said, and one in which Florida was pivotal.

“Sometimes, I’m asked to do certain things. I think we’re going to be speaking at the sheriffs’ conference coming up. That’s just kind of the way it works. It’s not always easy to get around this state, I’ll tell you that.”

DeSantis visited every corner of the state, but especially populous South Florida. His lead destination was Miami-Dade County, with 19 appearances there, followed by Broward and Palm Beach counties with 13 each and Hillsborough with 10. He participated in seven events in Bay County, plus others in Calhoun, Gulf, and Jackson counties – generally, involving the Panhandle’s recovery from Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10.

“There’s a lot of votes down there, certainly, and not a lot of people voted for him in those areas. Maybe he’s trying to make up some margins,” Kevin Cate, a political communications consultant who worked for Democrat Andrew Gillum during last year’s gubernatorial election, said of South Florida.

“Getting around the state is always helpful politically,” Cate said. “Tallahassee, actually, is a pretty isolated media market. Most voters are outside of the capital and paying attention to local issues. I think it’s smart.”

To Cate, this is not a matter of communicating through reporters less sophisticated about policy than the Capital Press Corps. “You’ve got great reporters all over the state,” he said.

Republican consultant Stipanovich doesn’t particularly support DeSantis – he’s not a fan of Donald Trump, and DeSantis is a Trump loyalist who owes his election to the president. Stipanovich believes these travels reflect the nature of political leadership these days. There are lots of votes in South Florida, but that’s because so many Floridians live there. And it’s not a desk job – governors’ can fulfill their duties from anywhere.

“A governor has a lot of jobs, and one of them is communicating with the people of Florida – making his programs known to them; letting the government have a face. Moving around a lot may be an indication of energy as opposed to not being at work,” Stipanovich said.

At 40, DeSantis is the youngest Florida governor in more than a century.

“If his calendar was filled for 180 days with golfing at some resort he owned, then I might have more questions than I do about Gov. DeSantis’ schedule,” Stipanovich said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.