The politics of Surfside: Disaster exposes Gov. DeSantis to risk, but also to opportunity

By: - July 16, 2021 7:00 am

Gov. Ron DeSantis views the scene of a condo tower collapse in Surfside on June 24, joined by Lt. Gov. Janet Nuñez and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis has won bipartisan praise for his response to the Surfside condominium disaster (for the most part). He is credited for spending time on the scene comforting family members of the dead and missing and coordinating the state’s response.

But with multiple investigations into the collapse of the Champlain Towers South structure, including by a grand jury, questions surely will emerge: Did state policy contribute in any way? Should he have seen the disaster coming?

And, in remarks to the press following the disaster, when asked about the safety and financial implications for Florida’s thousands of condo and apartment buildings, was DeSantis wrong to suggest the problem could be isolated?

“I think this building had problems from the start, let’s just put it that way,” he said at the time.

The ruins of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside. Credit: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department

Asked whether any blame might attach to the governor, spokeswoman Christina Pushaw emphasized that the multiple investigations are far from over and that local governments enforce building standards in Florida.

“If an investigation determines that the collapse was caused — in part or in whole — by factors that could be mitigated via state-level policy change, Gov. DeSantis would certainly give due consideration to any proposed reforms that could prevent such a tragedy from happening again,” Pushaw said in a written statement.

“It would be reckless to speculate what legislative and regulatory changes need to be made at this point, without the facts that we will only be able to obtain from the investigations,” she said.

The statement noted that other public officials — including Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Town of Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — have said much the same thing.

Ed Benton, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, suggested the episode may wind up redounding to DeSantis’ benefit.

“Leaders are made during crises,” Benton said in a telephone interview. “The opportunities arise, and DeSantis is crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. I do not question his sincerity, but the opportunity exists and he’s jumped on it,” Benton said.

However, Mac Stipanovich — the former GOP operative turned Never-Trumper — argued in a telephone interview that DeSantis’ rightist inclinations might yet bring him down.

He pointed to the governor’s decision not to rush straight to Sunrise the morning of the collapse during the early morning of June 24, but instead head to Pensacola for a press conference marking deployment of 50 state police officers to patrol the Texas-Mexico border, highlighting alleged failure by President Joe Biden to protect the country.

“This will become a data point in a litany of criticisms of Gov. DeSantis that will lengthen over the next 18 months. There’s a long way to go here, and he’ll do something more provocative and dumber before long,” Stipanovich said.

The Phoenix reached out to Helen Aguirre Ferré and state Sen. Joe Gruters, who serve, respectively, as executive director and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, but they have not yet replied.

The Democrats competing to take on DeSantis in next year’s governor’s race have criticized him for prioritizing immigration policy immediately following a mass casualty event that, at last count, had killed nearly 100 people.

To Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor turned Democratic member of Congress, and Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services and the only member of her party holding statewide office, the Pensacola trip was about burnishing DeSantis’ culture-war credentials for a presidential run in 2024.

Nikki Fried, official campaign photo.

“Instead of keeping the focus on the crisis in Surfside, Gov. DeSantis is playing partisan games to boost his personal political ambitions. It makes our state less safe, and it’s shameful,” Crist said on his Twitter feed.

Fried also commented on Twitter, writing, “I just can’t. There is a real emergency in Florida but Ron is so thirsty for @FoxNews air time that this is what he’s doing today.”

Neither Democrat is ready to make political hay of the Surfside collapse itself and the negligence, if any, that caused it, however — at least, not yet.

“The Surfside tragedy is a grave and serious situation, and one that Commissioner Fried believes requires thoughtful consideration, input from experts on the cause, and critical analysis on actions that can be taken to prevent similar disasters from happening in the future. With recovery efforts still ongoing, she will be addressing the issue in the near future,” Fried’s campaign said in a written statement.

Crist, for his part, called for tighter inspections of older buildings but did not call out the governor.

“The fact that the need for significant repairs at Champlain Towers was known since 2018 shows that the current system doesn’t work. I am calling on the Legislature and Gov. DeSantis to take swift action to require high rise condos to undergo regular, thorough inspections, to mandate financial reserves, and create low cost loan options to pay for major structural repairs. While we don’t know all the causes of this tragedy, these steps are the least we can do to ensure the safety of Floridians,” Crist said in a written statement.

Charlie Crist

Pushaw has pointed the finger at Crist, himself, for signing a bill into law in 2010 that repealed a condo provision requiring inspections at least every five years for buildings higher than three stories. However, condo owners could waive that requirement by a majority vote, according to the legislation.

The repeal bill, which revamped additional provisions of condo law, had passed the Senate unanimously and drew three “nay” votes in the House.

Crist hasn’t responded yet to the Phoenix on the substance of his thinking back then.

Scale of the problem

Florida ranks No. 2 in the nation for its number of condo associations, with 48,500, according to a report issued last year by the Foundation for Community Association Research. That doesn’t count apartment buildings and other structures that might fall vulnerable to the same factors that brought down the Champlain Towers South, including delayed maintenance.

Miami-Dade Mayor Cava has promised to convene a panel of experts in a wide range of specializations to revisit the county’s building codes from top to bottom. Moreover, Miami-Dade and its cities have launched audits of the condo inspections mandated for buildings 40 years old.

But potentially catastrophic deterioration doesn’t need 40 years to manifest; The Wall Street Journal has reported, citing engineering experts, that repairs may be necessary in as few as 30 years. Furthermore, two in three condo buildings in the Miami region are at least 30 years old; in seven other Florida cities, three-quarters of buildings are that old.

The heightened scrutiny in South Florida has revealed serious problems: Officials have already evacuated one aging condo building in North Miami Beach plus a Miami Beach apartment building.

Thursday, authorities evacuated a three-story apartment building in northwest Miami Dade after its roof partially collapsed, according to a report by the Miami Herald. No injuries were immediately reported.

The trouble extends beyond South Florida — in Kissimmee, for example, local officials ordered residents to vacate 72 units in a condominium structure because of unsafe conditions, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Even public buildings could be at risk from deferred maintenance — officials flagged the 28-story Miami Dade County Courthouse for repairs after inspectors found structural deficiencies, as the Miami Herald has reported.

The Surfside collapse prompted State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to ask the Miami-Dade County grand to investigate the collapse, and it has agreed.

The panel conceivably could return criminal indictments, although Rundle suggested in a written statement that she was more interested “how we can prevent such a disaster from occurring again, not just in Surfside, and not just in condominiums, but in all buildings and structures in the coastal, intercoastal, and surrounding areas of our county, state, and nation.”

Finally, researchers for the National Institute for Science and Technology — comparable to the National Transportation Safety Administration for the building trades — has been on the Surfside site collecting evidence.

The governor has acknowledged that he didn’t at first grasp the scale of the disaster.

“When I first got the report early morning of a partial collapse, I was thinking like maybe some balcony or some part of a building. But, then, when you look at it — I mean, it was a massive collapse of a structure, which just doesn’t happen in this country,” he said following the collapse.

DeSantis over recent weeks had been working on raising his national profile, attending fund-raising events out of state and giving time to broadcasters that appeal to the Trump crowd, including One America News and Fox News (plus the ostensibly neutral NewsNation Now). He even signed culture-war bills into law live on Fox.

The governor hasn’t entirely ignored conventional media, however. And, since Surfside, he has granted interviews to CBS and NBC affiliates and Telemundo, as well as Fox. Last week, his TV hits were mostly limited to Tropical Storm Elsa updates for The Weather Channel.

On the scene

Politically, for now, the governor enjoys a significant campaign cash advantage — his political committee is sitting on more than $44 million in cash on hand. Fried raised $812,544 during June, the first month of her candidacy, and Crist’s committee was approaching $1.4 million.

And DeSantis’ response to Surfside demonstrates that he’s “not got himself painted into the narrow conservative corner,” Benton, the USF professor, argues.

“He’s pushing all the right buttons that anybody should be pushing and doing for the right reasons. And I’m not saying that his political ambitions are driving that. But his political ambitions are certainly not being hurt. These things make him a good-guy politician,” he said.

For weeks, DeSantis spent at least part of every working days in Surfside, flying down to meet with state, federal, and local officials including President Joe Biden and participating in news conferences and interviews to brief the public. (He even made nice with Biden, a frequent target of the governor’s rhetoric.)

The governor’s daily visits to South Florida ended only last week, when Tropical Storm Elsa’s approach saw DeSantis returning to the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

A governor has met with dozens of family members who’ve learned that loved ones had died. DeSantis was asked about his personal response to the disaster during a recent news conference.

“I talked to folks that literally, if their unit was 10 yards more in one direction, they would have been in the rubble,” he said.

“I don’t think the state’s every going to quite be the same, you know, but I’ll tell ya, you never want to go through the tragedies, but those folks there, they are leaving a very impressive legacy. And, for those who are missing, for those who have been identified as being deceased, the impact that they’ve had, not just on Florida but through folks all across the country and the world, has really been profound.”

Aides highlighted those comments on DeSantis’ social media outlets.

Rep. Evan Jenne. Credit: Florida House

Even Democrats praise the governor’s response. Evan Jenne, from neighboring Broward County, who has served in his caucus’ leadership, says that DeSantis’ response is playing well politically.

“The response from people down here, if I’m being honest, is positive. Most of that stems from his meeting with President Biden. But I also think that, just because the bar is so low with politics right now, a Republican governor not yelling in the face of a Democratic president or vice versa is seen as statesmanship,” Jenne said in a telephone interview.

“I think the governor’s handled it perfectly fine,” Randy Fine, a Republican House member from Brevard County who has worked with DeSantis on legislation including the Seminole Tribe gambling compact.

Carping about the Pensacola trip is a distraction, said Fine, who spoke to the Phoenix by phone.

“The fact of the matter is, he’s not a search-and-rescue expert. Unless he could dig through the rubble, he still has a state to run and I think he’s shown great empathy to the victims,” Fine said, referring to the criticism from Crist and Fried.

“It’s not like the governor is going to be removing concrete slabs or putting IVs in the arms of the injured,” Mac Stipanovich said.

“But it’s a question of leadership. It’s a question of empathy, of showing concern, of being on the ground, of being The Man. When you weigh all of that in the balance, he found that playing to the MAGA base — not only just in Florida but nationally it plays well with the MAGA base — to be as important,” he said.

Stipanovich dismisses the Pensacola trip as “pure theater” — “performative right-wing politics at its very worst.” But he doesn’t discount the governor’s political skills.

“He learns, and he has obviously learned from watching Trump perform, and he has gotten better,” he said.

“He knows where he wants to be in 2024,” USF’s Benton said of the governor, “and he’s been walking in that direction.”

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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.