Ms. DeSantis’ cancer diagnosis: Few are willing to discuss the political implications

Beside being a wife and mother, first lady is governor’s most trusted aide

By: - October 6, 2021 7:00 am

The DeSantis family. Credit: Governor’s Office file photo

How uncomfortable is it to openly wonder what First Lady Casey DeSantis’ breast cancer diagnosis portends for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ political future?

Enough that aides to each of the three Democrats actively or considering campaigning against the governor’s reelection replied with a firm “no comment” when the Phoenix asked about it on Tuesday.

“Politics has no place in Mrs. Casey DeSantis’ personal health battle. I join all Floridians in rooting for First Lady DeSantis to beat cancer and for a speedy recovery. Our prayers are with the governor and the entire First Family,” state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a possible candidate in the Democratic primary, said in a written statement.

Randy Fine, a Republican House member from Brevard County who is close to DeSantis, also considers the question inappropriate as the DeSantis family adjusts to the diagnosis.

“The last thing anybody should be worrying about is Casey DeSantis’ health conditions affecting politics. We should be focused on her getting better,” Fine said in a telephone interview.

That said, the governor’s team and those of his opponents can’t afford to ignore the implications. Even if, as Democratic strategist Steve Vancore said in a telephone interview, that’s “uncomfortable.”

“You take a breath and you go, ‘Ok, Ron DeSantis, I think you’re wrong on these issues but you are a man, you are a human, you are a husband, you are a dad and my heart goes out to you, brother,” Vancore said.

Still, Casey DeSantis is the governor’s most important political adviser as he runs for reelection in 2022 and potentially runs for president.

“She’s really a fantastic life partner for Ron DeSantis. She’s a very smart, hard-working, engaged life partner and a very, very good first lady,” Vancore said.

“She’s still going to be there to give counsel, but she won’t be able to jump on a flight and go talk to the Sarasota women’s club; she won’t be on a flight to meet with a bunch of hospital executives on a program she’s trying to implement,” he said.

The governor announced the diagnosis on Monday through a written statement but aides initially released no details about her condition.

A Republican Party insider, speaking on background, offered additional information on Tuesday: Doctors believe they caught the cancer early. Furthermore, the governor plans both to perform his  official duties and campaign as vigorously as possible, with the first lady’s full support.

“Everything stays the same. He’s going to continue to govern and to be the great husband, great dad, and Florida’s leader,” the source said.

Upon the announcement, political leaders of every leaning issued statements expressing sympathy.

“Our hearts are with Florida’s First Lady Casey DeSantis and her family. We are all praying for you!,” Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried tweeted.

“Praying for the First Lady and her family. Here’s to a successful treatment and a speedy recovery. Almost every family has been touched in some way by cancer, and our hearts are with you in this fight. God bless,” Congressman Charlie Crist added.

By Tuesday, Fried was criticizing Gov. DeSantis for his administration’s failure to apply for $2.3 billion in federal COVID relief for public schools.

The Phoenix has written extensively over the months about the $2.3-billion and other unused federal dollars for public schools.

She also posted a video decrying Florida’s “rigged, corrupt system;” and defending U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland for investigating threats against school boards by COVID skeptics.

“Florida will continue to be embarrassed by Gov. DeSantis and his contempt for the law and the safety of our children,” Fried tweeted.

Crist issued a similar complaint about that school money. Taddeo has held off on criticizing the governor for now.

DeSantis himself took to Twitter Tuesday to attack Garland.

“Attorney General Garland is weaponizing the DOJ by using the FBI to pursue concerned parents and silence them through intimidation. Florida will defend the free speech rights of its citizens and will not allow federal agents to squelch dissent,” DeSantis wrote.

Vancore knows how difficult a cancer diagnosis can be; his life partner, Broward County House member Kristen Jacobs, died of the disease in April 2020. Monday’s news brought the loss to the surface again, he said.

“First and foremost, genuine, heartfelt hugs to the first family,” he said.

Vancore worked with Ms. DeSantis in deploying 63 telehealth kiosks providing mental health care in schools within the Hurricane Michael disaster zone. Mental health and substance abuse have been priorities for the first lady.

“She was absolutely the force behind that; she was brains behind that; she was the inspiration behind that. And her leadership made a difference for these children,” he said.

“Pardon the expression, but she is to Ron DeSantis what Hillary was to Bill Clinton. She’s a policy person; she’s a smart person; she understands people. She’s A-plus as a first lady. I don’t think even the most partisan person would disagree with that,” Vancore said.

“Having an A-plus partner at least temporarily sidelined is not helpful.”

On the other hand, Democrats’ sympathy for the first family could lead them to soften their political blows.

“The only way you’re going to defeat Ron DeSantis is to punch him in the nose, right, figuratively speaking. And it’s a little harder to do when somebody’s more of a sympathetic figure,” he 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. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.

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