Year that began with partisan violence spawned culture wars and litigation in FL

Health outlook brightened with advance of COVID vaccines, treatments

December 31, 2021 7:04 am

A mob bashes its way into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to disrupt the transfer of power to incoming President Joe Biden. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The hostile tone that branded 2021 set in early, when a mob in support of former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to disrupt Congress’ transfer of power to incoming President Joe Biden.

It cost Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, rioter Ashli Babbitt, and three other people their lives. Nearly 140 police officers were injured, dozens were disabled for months, and four later died by suicide, according to Capitol police reports.

More than 60 people in Florida have been arrested in connection with the attack, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Ramifications of the partisan warfare that manifested on that infamous day reverberated in Florida throughout the year.

Like millions around the world, Floridians witnessed the riot as it happened, many stunned to realize that dissent could erupt into something so fundamentally un-American. The insurrection failed, members of Congress resumed deliberations after spending hours in hiding, and Biden was certified as president.

But 147 Republican members of Congress refused to certify the election results, including most of Florida’s representatives in the U.S. Capitol. It was a declaration of Trump-centered partisan warfare that persisted over the year and infiltrated state politics.

Proud Boys, white nationalists, arrive at the Florida Capitol Building for a rally protesting the arrests of Jan. 6 insurrection suspects. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

White nationalist groups prominent at the Jan. 6 riot such as Proud Boys and Oath Keepers proliferated in Florida, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and they sent representatives to a rally at Florida’s Capitol on July 10 to protest the jailing of people they called “patriots” who have been arrested in connection with the insurrection.

The partisan strife throughout 2021 — over the pandemic, racism, election integrity, academic freedom, gun violence, climate change, and much more — was not violent as the attack on the U.S. Capitol, but it was corrosive and relentless.

Partisanship and public health

Alongside COVID-19, which has killed more than 800,000 people in the United States, partisan hostility was a hallmark of 2021. Disputes over vaccines, face masks, lockdowns, “freedom” from public-health regulations, and the science behind the public-health response tracked the battle over the outcome of the 2020 presidential election that courts across the country said Biden clearly won and Trump clearly lost — although Trump supporters both refuse to acknowledge it and fail to prove otherwise.

A Florida doctor was among the first to receive a dose of Moderna COVID vaccine in late December 2020. Screenshot/The Florida Channel

The best news of 2021 was the deployment of vaccines and treatments to tamp down COVID, which sickened and killed fewer people than in 2020 but continued to mutate into new variants. The rate of hospitalizations and deaths in Florida and elsewhere plummeted, thanks largely to the medical advancements, despite periodic surges in cases due to emergence of variants and resumption of public interactions.

Florida has suffered more than 4 million COVID cases and 62,000 deaths since the pandemic hit here in March 2020, many thousands of them coming after multiple vaccines became widely available for adults, according to state and federal health authorities. Later in 2021, COVID vaccines won approval for most segments of the population, including children. Widely available monoclonal antibodies therapy eased symptoms and speeded recovery for many COVID patients.

But even the deployment of medicines to fight COVID was not immune from partisan warfare.

Framing their stance as freedom from federal government overreach, Florida’s Republican-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis blocked essentially all public-health protocols recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Legislature held a special session in November to adopt laws blocking mandates for vaccines and face masks in public schools, work sites, and other public places and further shielding businesses from liability for COVID infections among their customers, employees, and patients.

The governor’s political action committee sold campaign merchandise with the slogan, “Don’t Fauci My Florida,” mocking COVID protocols recommended by infectious-disease expert and presidential adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci. In response to the governor’s ban against local policies to limit COVID infections, bumper stickers began to appear, saying, “Don’t DeSantis My Democracy.”

A mask-mandate foe shouts at Sarasota County School Board chair and former state Rep. Shirley Brown (standing), who called several recesses to clear the room of unruly hecklers. Screenshot: Sarasota County School Education Channel

Florida discord over the wearing of face masks made national news when local school boards, starting with Broward and Alachua counties, voted in emergency sessions to defy the governor’s order against requiring masks to be worn at school as the fall term began.

DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran — insisting that mask-wearing is a parental decision, not a public-health matter — punished the defiant districts financially, but the Biden Administration came to their aid.

Mask opponents attended the emergency school-board meetings in droves, often disrupting them. Anti-mask organizations such as Moms For Liberty were founded and mobilized by Republican operatives.

Florida for Trump

Florida voters favored Trump over Biden in the 2020 elections, though Biden won nationally. Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation continued to support Trump in 2021, voting against impeaching him a second time for his role in fomenting the insurrection and for failing to quell it while members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence were in harm’s way.

Many also continue to voice opposition to formal congressional investigation of what happened on Jan. 6, why, and who is responsible.

Three days after Trump lost the presidential race, DeSantis appeared on a national network to endorse the idea of Republican legislators refusing to certify Biden victories in their states and instead casting their electoral ballots for Trump. Florida’s only statewide-elected Democrat, Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried, called DeSantis’ remarks “irresponsible, destructive” and inflammatory to “a fragile nation.”

GOP hive in Mar-a-Lago

Famously, the ex-president retired to his resort in south Florida and continues to play a national role in Republican politics, possibly to include another run for the presidency. His ally DeSantis is considered a possible running mate for Trump in 2024 and even a presidential candidate himself if Trump does not run again.

A year out of office, Trump and the Trump Organization face a series of investigations related to the Jan. 6 riot, alleged attempts to interfere with the outcome of the 2020 election, potential business fraud, and sexual assault allegations, as reported in CNN and JustSecurity, a litigation tracker hosted by Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.

Bannon and two Florida men

Federal agents allege this boat, “Warfighter,” was purchased with money donated to build Trump’s border wall. Source: Instagram via Twitter

The congressional special committee investigating the insurrection, often cited as the Jan. 6 committee, has requested or ordered testimony and documents from high-profile Trump supporters such as campaign strategist Steve Bannon, who in August 2020 was arrested along with two Florida men and a third man and charged with defrauding Republican donors in an alleged $25 million southern border-wall scam.

Nikki Fried’s office had investigated the purported charity at issue in 2019 and provided findings to federal investigators.

Trump pardoned Bannon at the end of his term. Brian Kolfage of Walton County, Andrew Badolato of Sarasota County, and a co-defendant from Colorado were not and faced prosecution.

Bannon defied the Jan. 6 committee’s subpoena and was charged with contempt of Congress.

Matt Gaetz sex scandal

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (left) poses at a Florida event with Roger Stone (in white), FL Rep. Anthony Sabatini and Francheska Sabatini. Credit: Francheska Sabatini Facebook

In Congress, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida stood up for Bannon in regard to the contempt charge, after making national headlines himself along with former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg.

Gaetz has been under federal investigation in connection with an alleged sex-trafficking ring involving Greenberg and underage teen-age girls. Greenberg negotiated a plea deal and is reported to be cooperating with Justice Department investigators, who gained reinforcement with two experts in public corruption in October, as The New York Times reported. Gaetz has denied wrongdoing.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Lucy Morgan bared some of the tangled backstory in the Phoenix.

Cyber Ninjas of Sarasota in Arizona

In another Florida connection, Sarasota-based Cyber Ninjas, led by Trump supporters, was engaged for months by the GOP-led Arizona state Senate to “audit” presidential election results there that delivered fewer votes to Trump than to Biden.

Florida-based Cyber Ninjas uncovered no voting fraud in Maricopa County, to the surprise of the GOP-led Arizona Senate that hired them with public funds. Credit: David Wallace, Arizona Republic, pool photo

The first-time election auditors who famously anticipated finding China-related bamboo fibers on ballots in Arizona uncovered no voting fraud. But the escapade cost Trump-friendly donors nearly $6 million and Arizona taxpayers $425,000, according to investigative reporting by Phoenix sister outlet the Arizona Mirror.

In October, Cyber Ninjas CEO and Sarasotan Doug Logan — revealed by the Mirror to be a “Stop The Steal” advocate — refused to testify before a U.S. House committee looking into the purported audit and its larger role in undermining voter confidence in American elections.

Baseless claims of voter fraud

Throughout 2021, Florida Republicans continued to imply that voting by mail, done widely in 2020, facilitates voting fraud, and conspiracy theorists continued to rally around the discredited claim that re-election was “stolen” from Trump by election officials.

Florida Democrats and nonpartisan election supervisors disputed claims that Florida’s 2020 elections were in any way seriously flawed.

Republican-sponsored election reforms framed as “guardrails” and adopted by the Legislature in Senate Bill 90 mirror measures in other red states that restrict access to voting, especially by mail, despite Florida being widely touted for running efficient, trouble-free elections in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic.

SB 90, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley and Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a recent former chairman of the state Republican Party, is being challenged in federal court by the League of Women Voters of Florida and other voting rights groups. The critics call the reforms unconstitutional and designed to suppress minority voters, who in some parts of the state tend to vote Democratic.

Culture wars: race, Big Tech, academia, immigration

Florida tracked other conservative states in fomenting culture wars that further polarized Floridians. Gov. DeSantis convened a special session of the Florida Legislature in November to pass his so-called freedom agenda, including banning local governing boards from mandating COVID protocols. One new law allows a study into the feasibility of divorcing Florida from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which labor unions looked to for help in making workplaces more COVID-safe.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

“During the special session, we will do everything within our power as a state to protect Floridians from the unconstitutional, un-American, and morally reprehensible overreaches on the part of the federal government,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson said in a joint statement of support.

Democrats such as Sen. Bobby Powell, who leads the Florida Legislative Black caucus, decried GOP attacks on so-called “woke” culture that seeks to reduce police violence against Black people, curb gun violence, address institutional racism, and expand voting rights, not restrict them.

Sen. Bobby Powell, chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, and other caucus members gathered to discuss their reform agenda. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

“For Floridians who look like me, or shades thereof, [the governor’s] agenda is decidedly unwelcome and anything but peaceful. It’s about locking us up and locking us out, all while selectively plucking the words of Martin Luther King to somehow make this racist targeting okay,” Powell said in written statement just before Christmas.

“It’s not okay to push what he calls ‘anti-woke legislation’ that’s a smoke screen for sanitizing history and erasing the lessons of the past,” Powell continued. “It’s not okay to threaten teachers with litigation for simply teaching. It’s not okay to muzzle those whose heritage was defined by Jim Crow or unleash those who have never moved beyond its hateful intent.”

Over the objections of Democrats, the Legislature also passed an “anti-riot” law, House Bill 1, following Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, but civil-rights organizations are fighting it in federal court; a law purporting to crack down on “Big Tech” social media platforms that censored Trump for promoting the untrue conspiracy theory that he was cheated out of re-election; and a law to measure “intellectual freedom” at Florida universities that critics say is designed to stifle free speech and dissent.

Black Lives Matter: Tampa hosted protest marches in 2020 and 2021. Credit: BLM Tampa Facebook

Further, the DeSantis administration launched a fight with the federal government to block immigration policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants to be free on their own recognizance or under electronic monitoring while awaiting their day in the nation’s backlogged immigration court system. Arguing that some wind up in Florida, DeSantis wants the Legislature to give him $8 million to ship asylum seekers out of the state.

Those and other laws passed in 2021 face court challenges, making litigation against DeSantis and his allies another hallmark of the year. The League of Women Voters of Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and other civil rights groups have led the legal battle against such measures.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.