How ‘DeathSantis’ could become ‘Governor Green’

November 19, 2020 7:00 am

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in Southwest Florida. Credit: Florida State Parks, FL Department of Environmental Protection.

Dear Gov. DeSantis,

First, let me offer my condolences on your loss. I’m sure it hurts. You hitch your wagon to the TV star in the White House, he helps you become governor, and you’re looking forward to four more years of easy politicking with his help — and then BOOM, the star collapses.

Millions of voters showed up at the polls to reject him and his lack of leadership on the coronavirus pandemic. More people voted for Joe Biden than for any presidential candidate in history. Who could have foreseen such a disaster for you?

Sure, you delivered Florida’s 29 electoral college votes for your mentor — by a whole 3 percent margin! That now seems like a wasted effort. His defeat, both at the polls and in the courts, means you can’t depend on him to help you win a second term in 2022, much less boost your run for higher office in 2024.

I’m assuming your debilitating grief is the reason you didn’t go on TV last week to brief the state on Tropical Storm Eta, something Rick Scott would not have skipped even if he were deathly ill. (I swear, that man and his Navy ballcap have as good a record for showing up for a Florida disaster as Jim Cantore.)

Nor did you have anything to say to reporters at this week’s legislative organization session, the one where legislative leaders said they had zero responsibility for dealing with COVID-19 — in effect, tossing you under the bus.

Your own poll numbers have plummeted this year because you kept following the White House playbook on the pandemic instead of listening to qualified scientists and public health experts, leading some people to dub you “DeathSantis.” And a lot of people blame you for the defective unemployment compensation system that Scott set up.

You need something to help you haul those poll numbers out of the basement, right? I have a suggestion: Embrace the environment.

For years, your party has ceded this issue to the Democrats, but that’s not how it used to be. Republicans once led on environmental issues:

Teddy Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States. Credit: Wikipedia.

Teddy Roosevelt started the national park system and created the first national wildlife refuge on Florida’s own Pelican Island. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. George H.W. Bush banned offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Republican Gov. Claude Kirk stopped the construction of a massive jetport in what became the Big Cypress National Preserve. Florida’s own wetlands protection law is named for a Republican, the late state Sen. Warren Henderson of Venice.

Every time the environment shows up on the ballot in Florida, the voters go for it in a big way.

Six years ago, the environmental land-buying Amendment 1 passed by a 75 percent margin statewide. This month, Orange County voters so loved a charter amendment that said humans have a right to clean water that they passed it with 89 percent of the vote.

People understand now that if you mess up Florida’s environment, you’re going to mess up its economy.

How to be Governor Green

Here are three issues you can use to build yourself up as Governor Green and win back some of the voters you and your mentor chased away:

Put the brakes on the three expensive toll roads: Last year, when then-Senate President Bill Galvano paid back his campaign contributors at the Florida Transportation Builders Association by pushing the toll roads bill through the Legislature, your stated reason for signing it was, “I think we need new roads in Florida to get around.”

Florida panther. Credit: State Archives of Florida.

But now the three advisory groups set up by the legislation have completed their numerous meetings on these highways, during which they repeatedly said they could not find any need for these particular roads. At least two counties have formally voted to reject any attempt to run one of the northbound roads through their region. A federal biologist has said the southernmost road will wipe out the remaining habitat for our state animal, the endangered panther.

And a Florida TaxWatch report says just one of the three will cost between $4 billion and $10.5 billion, which is money Florida really can’t spare right now, thanks to the pandemic’s economic impact.

You should call a press conference in front of the panther habitat at ZooTampa. Thank the advisory committee members for their hard work, then announce that you’re directing the DOT to shelve the whole thing. You can explain that this project is too destructive to the environment, too unfocused without a lot more study, and too expensive to undertake when the state is strapped for cash.

You won’t suffer any political blowback because Galvano is gone and his replacement, Wilton Simpson, has already talked about the high cost of these roads. Saving money and saving the environment — that’s a good outcome all the way around.

Pull the plug on the state takeover of federal wetlands permitting: Florida developers do not like getting wetlands permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers only because the Corps takes so long to do its work. They want the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to take over the federal permitting because they will get to “yes” much, much faster.

But speeding the destruction of Florida’s wetlands — which filter pollution, soak up floodwater, and recharge our aquifer — is hardly a laudable goal. Call a press conference at, say, the boardwalk in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. With a backdrop of thick mangroves, announce that you’re cancelling the transfer. You’ve concluded that, with the state’s finances in as big a mess as they are right now, the DEP cannot take on any new permitting duties.

Then announce that you’re going to work with our state’s congressional delegation to help the Corps do a better job of protecting our precious wetlands. If you want another reason to cancel the DEP takeover, consider this: The proposed transfer of permitting was launched by Scott while he was governor. Everyone knows how much you dislike your predecessor. Everyone also knows he’s planning a run for president in 2024 just like you, so cancelling this transfer would be a way to knock his record and make yourself look good by comparison. It’s a win-win!

The forecast cone for Hurricane Eta, as reported by the National Hurricane Center.

Get serious about climate change: Have you noticed all the headlines this year about people in Florida being surprised by the flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms? They were caught off-guard because climate change has made the sea level higher and the rainfall heavier. Climate change is not some far-off problem — it’s here and it’s messing up Florida right now.

When you got elected in 2018, you promised to appoint a “chief resilience officer” to help the state most vulnerable to climate change be ready to fight for its future. Your pick, Julia Nesheiwat, traveled all over the state meeting with local officials, visiting ports and military bases, looking for ideas about creating a comprehensive approach to the problem.

Instead, she quit the job after less than six months, leaving behind a report highlighting how disjointed and unprepared Florida is for dealing with climate change. “Florida needs a statewide strategy,” Nesheiwat wrote. “Communities are overwhelmed and need one place to turn for guidance.”

You’ve never appointed a replacement for her and you’ve done nothing to follow up on her recommendations.

Here’s what you need to do. Call a press conference at Stillwright Point, the Key Largo subdivision where the streets were under water for 90 days straight last year. Announce that you’re appointing a new chief resilience officer, someone with a background in emergency preparedness, because climate change is an emergency. Say that you want that person to develop a statewide strategy, with sources of funding identified, as well as creating a central coordination resource for local governments.

You also want an annual report from the state climatologist on what areas are being hit the hardest and what the risks might be for the next year. And, while you’re at it, announce a boost in resilience-related funding for the state’s regional planning councils, which were starved nearly to death by Gov. Scott. (Once again, scoring points against a potential rival you don’t like.)

Get in the habit

George Kirkpatrick Dam at Rodman Reservoir. Credit: Sandra Friend, USDA Forest Service.

There are plenty of other environmental issues that you could jump on — tearing down the Rodman Reservoir dam, really fixing our ailing springs, ending Big Sugar’s practice of burning its leftover cane in the fields, to name but a few. But, with these three, you alert the public that when it comes to the environment, you mean business.

Will you face opposition to this? Of course. Some people may accuse you of pandering to the environmentalists, but you can say, “I’m trying to do what’s right for Florida’s future.” Others may complain that you’re “virtue signaling,” which is a weak attempt at an insult that really means “you’re trying to show that you’re a good person — how dare you!”

But the end result is that you’ll boost your popularity and confuse your enemies. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get into the habit of listening to scientists and doing what’s best for everyone, not just for your party and its donors. I hear that approach works well for dealing with other big issues — health issues, for instance, hint hint.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.