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‘His Book is Still to Be Written’

Most governors don’t have name recognition beyond their state. Sure, some of the more outspoken ones might grab national headlines for a news cycle or two, but those names rarely have staying power, especially when there’s plenty going on closer to home.

But everyone seems to know who Florida’s current governor is and whether Gov. Ron DeSantis evokes cheers or jeers depends largely upon the lens through which one views him.

“With Gov. DeSantis, it really does come down to where you lie politically,” says Republican political analyst Frank Torres. “It couldn’t be more red-versus-blue at this moment.”

“For most Republicans in the state, they think that Gov. DeSantis has been a terrific governor … and for most Democrats, for most of his term, they’re the 180-degree opposite,” agrees University of Central Florida political science professor Dr. Aubrey Jewett.

The aggregate of those vastly differing, almost predetermined perspectives is the governor’s approval rating, which currently hovers around 53% according to a recent Mason-Dixon poll. As Jewett points out, DeSantis did win some Democratic and third-party support in the early days of his term, which “was somewhat surprising to a lot of political analysts when you look at the fact that he was elected in a very close race—it went to a recount, it was that close.”

Jewett continues: “Within his first six months, his approval rating was a top 10 in the nation. He was one of the most popular governors in the country, his approval ratings were up around 60%—in a divided state like Florida, that’s darn good! … After his first legislative session, he surprised a lot of people in the state. He struck a somewhat bipartisan tone, he appointed a couple Democrats to some high-profile positions … he emphasized the environment.”

More recently, it’s become impossible to mention DeSantis without talking about the impact the protracted COVID pandemic had on his leadership, decisions, public image, and both the supporters’ and naysayers’ talking points alike.

“He took a much harder line against steps to fight the pandemic,” Jewett says. And while some took issue with DeSantis’ handling of the COVID, many others were quick to praise his efforts, namely his push to keep businesses open and students in the classroom.

Joseph Bert, chairman and CEO of the personal financial planning and investment management firm Certified Financial Group in Altamonte Springs, says that the governor’s determination to keep Florida’s businesses running was crucial to sidestepping the added stress of households’ financial strain, especially considering the Central Florida’s reliance on the service industry.

“His biggest successes, I think, are certainly keeping Florida open as much as he possibly could and fighting the fight with Washington because he recognizes that the heart and soul of Florida’s economy is a small business person—and with tourism, if you shut that down, it impacts the entire economy,” he says.

It is admirable, Bert adds, that the governor also remained visible while conducting his leadership duties like so many private citizens had to, rather than retreating to the reclusive safety of his political ivory tower.

“In my mind, he’s not a politician: He walks the walk and he understands the big picture and will go against the popular grain if he has to for what he believes in,” Bert observes. “He was out and about, meeting with people and doing forums on television, giving interviews. He wasn’t hiding, he wasn’t hunkered down: He was living his life as best as he could during that time, and he should be respected for that.”

Others, however, see it as prioritizing the economy over human lives.

“From a party and an individual that scream from the highest mountains about our freedoms and our individuality, something like telling people not to wear masks shows the polar opposite by wanting to control what they do,” says Eric Rollings, an area real estate agent whose involvement in local and state politics includes being Rep. Darren Soto’s advisor on environmental policy.

But not everyone’s opinion on DeSantis is so closely aligned to their political leanings. Gene Josephs, a Northeast transplant with an information technology background, has called Longwood home for four decades and is open about financially supporting former Rep. Gwen Graham in the Democratic primary “and would have voted for her no matter who she ran against.” He and his wife spend five months a year in Western Massachusetts, allowing them to note the two states’ COVID contrast, particularly how Floridians could live their lives as normally as possible, as it is “without a doubt” imperative to consider the pandemic’s toll on mental health, too.

“During COVID—which is probably not over—the governor allowed our family and friends to live somewhat of a more normal life compared to other states and continue to have a positive attitude,” Josephs says. “Those who are not in Florida, I’ve noticed their quality of life has suffered. We do have some friends residing in Massachusetts who have severely suffered depression these past two years. I think there’s a direct, measurable impact.”

Josephs notes that one of his grandsons started attending the University of South Florida amidst the pandemic. With Florida’s schools remaining largely open, his grandson “and thousands of people like him” were able to enjoy the “positive, life-changing” milestone of moving away to college, whereas his friends going to schools up north were not.

“We could even contrast it with some of my other grandchildren: When the schools were shut, we noticed our London-based 11-year-old grandson suffered from some mild, temporary personality changes while being socially isolated,” he says.

Conversely, Josephs remarks that DeSantis’ quick action in terms of restricting visitations to long-term care facilities “did a wonderful job protecting the most vulnerable people in Florida, the over-65 population.”

With DeSantis’ staunchest supporters appreciative of his approach to advancing what he believes to be in the best interest of Floridians, the governor’s approval ratings do tend to fluctuate somewhat whenever he refocuses his perspective elsewhere on broader, more hotly controversial issues.

“When he focuses on the bread-and-butter issues most Floridians care about, that seems to help him and make him more popular, whether that’s taking some steps on the environment, or whether that’s supporting increased funding for education,” Jewett says. “But if you embrace divisive issues, then you shouldn’t be surprised if that divides the public. And he has embraced, in the last couple sessions, some pretty high-profile, divisive issues.”

“A buzzword you’re going to be hearing over the next couple weeks, especially now that the legislative sessions are mostly wrapped up, is ‘culture wars,’” Torres adds. “It’s because Ron DeSantis is really picking these battles that have to do with the identity of people.”

And while that willingness to tackle hot-button, party-line issues with gusto might alienate the third-party swing voters and staunch Democrats, it’s won DeSantis greater favor on the national stage.

“Make no mistake, all this is about 2024,” says Torres. “Right now, Gov. DeSantis is the entrenched No. 2 option. Should Donald Trump decide not to run again—he is 75 years old—[DeSantis] is doing everything he can to position himself for a run.”

Examining DeSantis’ transition from congressman to governor and now his potential next step from governor to presidential hopeful, the DeSantis of today is a vast departure from the newcomer candidate making his debut on the congressional scene a decade ago.

“Back when I was doing news every day, I followed his first campaign in 2012, so I’ve known him for 10 years—and he is really kind of unrecognizable now,” Torres observes. “He went from this Ivy League-educated war veteran … but over the last 10 years, you’ve seen his momentum kind of build and, as he continues to position himself for a presidential run if Donald Trump can’t make it, it’s a really different guy altogether.”

The will-he-or-won’t-he in terms of Trump’s bid for a second presidential term does seem to be the biggest question mark looming over DeSantis’ decision to run for commander in chief. According to Torres, a recent straw poll from the Conservative Political Action Conference indicated that, despite the former president’s advanced age and DeSantis’ comparative youth at 43, there’s still a clear preference for the 45th president to run again—to the tune of a 30-point lead.

“DeSantis was a solid second, but still second nonetheless,” he says.

That does not discount a vice presidential appointment for DeSantis, though, which Torres says would occur halfway through his second term as governor and would come with a domino effect of turnover that “a lot of people are preparing for.”

With so much on the line and up in the air, it may be too soon to tell what his legacy is. The fact that the governor has already made his mark is undeniable; however, the nature of that impact is fodder for debate all its own.

“He steered the Florida economy through a once-in-a-century pandemic and did the best he could to keep the economy rolling—we did better than a lot of states, like California and New York,” Bert says. “He’s doing the best he can with the cards he’s been dealt.”

“From a legacy standpoint, it’s his willingness to stand up and do what he thought was correct, even though it might not play well politically or in the media,” Josephs adds. “You don’t get many presidents or governors who will do what they think is right even though it may hurt them politically.”

Rollings notes that he believes the governor’s legacy will largely be tied to what he believes was poor handling of the pandemic, citing DeSantis’ often combative tone and the high number of COVID-related deaths across the state.

No matter what the governor’s next move is, all signs point to these just being the early days of DeSantis’ political career.

“If I had to bet today, I think he has a better-than-average chance of being re-elected at this moment,” Jewett says.

“I think we’re only maybe a third through his book right now,” adds Torres. “He can be anything from a two-term governor who had a conservative effect on Florida, or it could end with him in the White House for one or two terms. His book is still to be written.”

Intro photograph courtesy of Hunter Crenian/