Pent up frustration on both sides of the aisle boiled over on the House floor Wednesday, erupting into a war of words that saw a member question whether President Joe Biden is the President of the United States.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Howey-in-the-Hill Republican and a congressional candidate who has rubbed both Republicans and Democrats the wrong way with his history of outspoken remarks, fought for time to debate a bill (HB 1B) banning COVID-19 mandates.
Sabatini told members he would be blunt and quick. He was correct on both counts, immediately saying the bill didn’t go far enough. He then made a call to wrest state powers back from the federal government.
“We are living in tyrannical times. Biden is a tyrant. The federal government is out of control,” Sabatini said.
Those remarks initiated shouting from Democrats in the back rows. Democratic Whip Ramon Alexander called out to Speaker Pro Tempore Bryan Avila, who was on the rostrum, calling Sabatini out of order for calling Biden a tyrant. Avila, a Miami Springs Republican, told Sabatini to keep his remarks on the bill.
“We don’t know if he’s really the President, if that were your question,” Sabatini replied, an allusion to the conspiracy theory, proven false repeatedly, that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.
That line from Sabatini drew a cacophony of boos and wows in the chamber. Alexander reupped his point of order and called Sabatini a disgrace to the Republican Party.
Avila then told members to temper their remarks about Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was the subject of critiques from Democrats during floor discussion this week.
However, tensions were building Wednesday even before Sabatini was allowed to speak in debate.
Despite being one of the first to demand a Special Session addressing COVID-19 policies, Sabatini was not initially slated to speak on the bill, a pattern developing for the firebrand.
One lawmaker told Florida Politics Sabatini “threw a big fit” after he was told he couldn’t speak.
Sabatini asked for time from Majority Leader Mike Grant, who refused. He then approached the rostrum and asked Avila for an opportunity but was told no. He then tried to find House Speaker Chris Sprowls to ask for time.
In texts to Florida Politics, Sabatini denied asking Avila or looking for Sprowls.
Another member said Sabatini told Lithia Republican Rep. Mike Beltran it was “bullsh*t” that he couldn’t speak.
Ultimately, Grant pulled Sabatini and Brevard County Rep. Randy Fine aside, offering them each two minutes to debate during the time allotted for those in favor of the bill. Fine turned down the opportunity.
“I have no idea why Mike Grant thought it was appropriate to pull me aside with Sabatini,” Fine said.
Regarding the COVID-19 mandate bill, Sabatini has taken a position similar to DeSantis, who, when he announced the Special Session on COVID-19 mandates, initially called for stronger protections for workers. One concern Sabatini raised Wednesday was that the bill doesn’t provide a remedy for people who have already been fired for not being vaccinated.
“It’s a good step forward, but it needs to be drastically amended,” Sabatini said.
Sabatini, a two-term Representative, has been at odds with House leadership for months. Sabatini has repeatedly called Sprowls a “RINO,” or a Republican in name only.”
In one speech during a virtual event in September, Sabatini called Sprowls, ”a complete and total liberal,” called longtime lawmaker Thad Altman a “cuck” and a “senile fool,” and even suggested DeSantis initially acted “cowardly” about pandemic lockdowns and mask mandates.
Soon after, Sabatini was relegated to a Capitol basement office.
House Democratic Co-Leader Evan Jenne has defended Sprowls against Sabatini’s remarks, calling Sabatini a “toddler in a crappy diaper” this month. Alexander on Wednesday similarly told Florida Politics that Sabatini doesn’t have the respect to conduct himself in an “adult-like manner.”
“It is very clear that Anthony Sabatini is beneath the role and responsibility of being a sitting member of the Florida Legislature,” he added.
Rep. Allison Tant, a Tallahassee Democrat, told Florida Politics that Sabatini’s remarks were explosive, crazy, and inappropriate.
“He’s been really difficult with his own leadership team, including the Speaker, and I guess he decided to lash out when he finally did get recognized to speak,” she said.
Orlando Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith was the first Democrat to speak after Sabatini’s debate segment. Central to Democrats’ opposition to the COVID-19 mandate bill and the Special Session is whether this week has been a political stunt.
“I don’t know whether the question was just answered or whether it was just so nakedly exposed,” Smith told members. “All I know is that I’m exhausted and Floridians are exhausted.”
But it’s not just Democrats who are willing to openly criticize Sabatini.
“I personally don’t really care what Anthony Sabatini has to say about this bill, let alone anything,” Fine said.