Politics in paradise: Southwest Florida’s Top 10 political stories of 2021
Ron DeSantis forbids school mask mandates at an event in Cape Coral. Image via Jacob Ogles

Mask mandates sparked controversy as water stack breaches filled Tampa Bay with wastewater.

Environmental disasters. Fights over political lines. So much anger over masks. Southwest Florida saw its share of controversies and moments in the headlines. It saw a cast of colorful political figures grow in number and of powerful players elevated in prestige, potentially laying the groundwork for more news-making opportunities in the midterm cycle. But for now, a look back proves breathtaking enough.

Here are some of the most important moments in 2021 in Southwest Florida politics.

  1. Piney Point nearly collapses

A breach in a decades-old reservoir filled with industrial wastewater forced the April 3 evacuation of hundreds of Manatee County homes and eventually the pumping of 215 million gallons of untreated discharge directly into Tampa Bay. The environmental calamity prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency and rush to the site, where three wastewater gypsum stacks languished long after all phosphate mining operations had been abandoned.

For a short period, the crack in a stack posed the risk of flash floods in the region, which prompted the Department of Environmental Protection to pump water into Port Manatee until pressure was relieved and leaks could be repaired to avert a full collapse. If there was any silver lining to the calamity, the greatest threats came halfway through the Legislative Session, prompting Senate President Wilton Simpson to push for $100 million to be budgeted for site cleanup.

The ecological hazard has long been a priority for local lawmakers but was never treated as a pressing threat until homes and pristine waterways faced imminent threat in the midst of budget season. “In light of the breach and that nothing of consequence had been done in the past to address the problem, the time was now to deal with this issue once and for all,” said Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican who sought state funding for years in the House and Senate. “I commend President Simpson for committing the $100 million and the Governor and Legislature for joining in this endeavor. Piney Point will no longer be a threat to our area and will be restored to useful land.”

Still, DEP Secretary Shawn Hamilton warns it will take years to completely close Piney Point. And there’s disagreement as to a path forward; Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried and local environmental groups voiced strong objections to a plan to inject wastewater into an underground injection well. But alternatives like cleaning the water before removing it from water stacks could take much longer, absent advances in technology that also could take years to develop. Controversy continues, even as pressure in the ponds slowly goes down.

  1. Lakewood Ranch vaccine rollout

The first few months of vaccine distribution earned DeSantis accolades. His “Seniors First” policy of targeting older Floridians immediately after health care workers was mimicked around the country. And the opening of pop-up sites to urge populations obtaining shots at lower rates to get the jab seemed to generate positive local media hits on a daily basis. Then came Lakewood Ranch.

DeSantis on Feb. 17 announced 3,000 additional doses of Moderna would be made available at a Lakewood Ranch location, but news leaked that Manatee County officials had invited only residents in two wealthy ZIP codes to partake. Instead of normally glowing coverage, DeSantis faced press questions about favoritism and inequity and responded defensively. “If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, we are totally fine doing this in counties that want it,” he said.

The story grew worse on the revelation Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh had requested a VIP list allowing some Manatee residents to cut in line, including herself. The Florida Ethics Commission since found probable cause to believe Baugh abused her public office for personal gain.

Meanwhile, the Lakewood Ranch clinic spelled the end of glowing reviews on clinics as national and local media started to review the site selection for pop-up clinics dating back to the first shots released to the public. The Daily Show mocked the Governor with a “Club Vax” segment parodying the seeming exclusiveness to get into clinics. By year’s end, the Governor was appearing more frequently with speakers who refused to get vaccines and saying he won’t receive a booster shot himself.

  1. Vern Buchanan positioned for Ways & Means

Could the retirement of a California Congressman create the greatest political consequence for Florida’s congressional delegation?

News broke that U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican, will forgo another term in Congress so he can run a social media startup being launched by former President Donald Trump. Without Nunes, that leaves U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Longboat Key Republican and co-chair of Florida’s delegation, as the senior-most Republican on the House Ways & Means Committee in the next Congress. Buchanan earlier this year already made clear he would campaign against Nunes to become chair of the most powerful committee in the House if Republicans win a majority of seats in the chamber. Since the Nunes news, he has stepped up those efforts considerably.

“As I indicated earlier this year, I will be running for the Ways and Means chairmanship, but my first priority is to help Republicans win back the U.S. House majority in 2022,” he told Florida Politics. Shortly after, he reportedly started ordering crab legs for the Republican Steering Committee as he openly lobbied for the gig.

A number of events still need to happen before Buchanan can seize the gavel. The GOP must win net enough seats in the midterms to retake the House. Buchanan himself must win an eighth term. But truthfully, all these conditions seem more likely to be met by the day. Should these figurative planets stay aligned, Buchanan should be set as the first Florida Congressman elected Ways & Means Chair for a full Congress.

  1. Far Right moves into Sarasota

While Sarasota has been a Republican County since Dwight Eisenhower’s election as President, it long had a reputation as a moderate community by Southwest Florida standards. As recently as the early 2000s, the County Commission provided funding annually for Planned Parenthood, a Democratic state lawmaker representing an all-Sarasota County district as recently as 2020 and the city of Sarasota itself continues to have a majority Democratic Commission.

Yet 2021 brought with it attention to the area as a haven of extremism, with Vice News dubbing the community the “Conspiracy Capital of the United States.” The development of such a reputation seemed to coincide with the arrival of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The former Donald Trump administration official, who just sued the Jan. 6 Commission to fight a subpoena for communications before the Capital riot early this year, has made plenty of news nationally for his interactions with extremist groups. Locally, he has been a central figure at The Hollow, a Venice area locale that has become a frequent gathering spot for right-wing events.

The Venice area also saw an event earlier this year where thousands of parents lined up to get doctors’ notes exempting their children from mask mandates in public schools. But there have also been “Trick-or-Treat with Gen. Michael Flynn” events promoted, also marketed as a “Let’s Go Brandon” Halloween rally.

Beyond that, Trump attorney Sidney Powell, a proponent of conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, has swung through to discuss “election integrity” with Republican Party of Florida Chair Joe Gruters. And while the internet security company Cyber Ninjas has been headquartered in Sarasota for years, the local firm earned national notice when it was selected to run the Arizona election audit despite having no experience in the field.

  1. Moms For Liberty erupts

The fight against critical race theory in schools has shaped Florida state law and impacted election outcomes in Virginia, one of the most prominent voices in the effort emerged from Sarasota. School Board Member Bridget Ziegler appeared regularly in Fox News segments to speak on the issue. She also founded the Moms For Liberty with former Brevard County School Board member Tina Descovich and former Indian River School Board Member Tiffany Justice.

Since then, members of the Moms For Liberty have sometimes controversially shared the stage with DeSantis as he announced expansions of his education agenda battling liberalism in public schools. Ziegler said she has been fighting the inclusion of social justice warrior messages in local curricula for years. But she said the arrival of remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic awakened many parents to what was appearing in even elementary-level textbooks. It drove her work with the Florida Coalition of School Board Members before Moms For Liberty formed. “It’s always been at the core of my mission in general,” she said.

But the eruption of parent voices has not been without controversy. As School Board meetings in Sarasota and throughout the state became sounding boards for angry parents to challenge everything from mask mandates to concerns about ideology being advanced in history lessons, angry protests at School Board members’ homes and even the potential of FBI investigations brought with it intense scrutiny and criticism.

Meanwhile, Ziegler has emerged as the face of the movement for those who admire the group’s work, like DeSantis, and those who revile it. “Moms for Liberty presents itself as a grassroots effort led by parents, but in reality, the organization is well-connected with a variety of Republican politicians and entities,” wrote Media Matters senior researcher Oliva Little, who goes on to criticize Ziegler as presenting herself as just a concerned mom and not a highly-connected political leader.

  1. County redistricting

While state lawmakers won’t finalize congressional and legislative political boundaries until the 2022 Legislative Session, county commissions across Florida tackled any adjustments to the lines before the close of the calendar year. And in Southwest Florida, the process brought with it plenty of controversy.

Most notably, Sarasota County adopted a new map just two years after an unusual late-in-decade redistricting done in response to voters approving single-member districts. Turns out those new maps needed to be adjusted again after the Census results came in. But commissioners did approve new maps that left Republican Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler, the most vocal critic against early redistricting, in a Democratic district. He’s not concerned, he said.

“County Redistricting won’t have much of an impact on the 2022 results. It’s a Republican year and the overwhelming majority of Independents/NPAs will break for Gov. DeSantis and Republican candidates because they clearly see the Democrats cannot govern,” said Ziegler, also Republican Party of Florida vice-chair. “Additionally, Democrats will not win over many undecided or swing voters this cycle because their party platform consists of defunding the police, enacting socialism, infusing Critical Race Theory into our schools and fundamentally transforming America into something we are not. Voters will reject all of that in 2022.”

Sarasota County wasn’t the only jurisdiction in the region to redraw its lines. In Manatee County, a new map was drawn that significantly reduced the minority make-up of County Commission District 2, which for most of the last three decades provided Black representation on the Commission.

In Lee County, NAACP leaders bemoaned a missed opportunity for representation. While County Commissioner Bran Hammon proposed a map that would have had a Dunbar-centric district and paved the way for a Black voice on that commission, the majority went another way. Notably, Dunbar leaders also say the city of Fort Myers is cracking minority communities in its own municipal districts.

  1. Mask mandate battles with the state

It’s fairly common for Democrat-dominated areas to find themselves locked in conflict with DeSantis’ administration and directives. But it shocked many when the Lee County School Board adopted a mandatory mask policy for schools, weeks after the Governor chose the county as a venue to announce an executive order forbidding such requirements. Yet, as a spike in delta variant infections of the coronavirus causing COVID-19 spread at the start of the school year, leaders in the district did just that.

Superintendent Ken Savage, in a decision backed up by School Board Chair Debbie Jordan, issued a directive to schools the same day a judge ruled DeSantis reached beyond his authority in banning mask mandates. That sparked contentious, hours-long meetings with some parents making outlandish claims of School Board members’ ill motives.

On a more serious note, Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican who has frequently criticized School Board policies, sent a letter stating Savage needed to back off the mandate or resign. And while the Lee district backed off its policies once appellate courts sided with DeSantis, other districts like Sarasota County, another Republican County, fought DeSantis even as the Board of Education threatened district funding.

  1. Siesta Key seeks cityhood

Florida’s next city may just be located on Siesta Key. Frustration over local zoning decisions to allow more hotels on and near the island prompted the Save Siesta Key citizen group to reignite efforts to incorporate the community as a municipality. The push has moved at a rapid clip since then, with the organization in September presenting a feasibility study to the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation. Lawmakers since then held a separate town hall in the community to hear feedback from a broader array of citizens.

Some conservative members of the delegation, including Reps. Will Robinson and Tommy Gregory, have expressed hesitancy at creating a new layer of municipal government. But Sen. Joe Gruters and Rep. Fiona McFarland, both Sarasota Republicans, are ready to support legislation in the upcoming Session.

Community leaders remain confident they can rally support for their “government-lite” proposal for a city still outsourcing most services with Sarasota County. “The delegation will eventually come to accept our arguments and support us,” said Harry Anand, a Save Siesta Key leader who previously served as Mayor of Laurel Hollow, New York.

  1. Complaints discharged on LOSOM map

The Army Corps of Engineers moved ahead this year with a plan to change discharge schedules for blue-green algae-infected water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. But the first plan that appeared to emerge from Washington drew sharp and immediate criticism from political leaders in Southwest Florida. The first drafts of Plan CC may have pleased East Coast lawmakers, but it seemed to eschew any discharges into the St. Lucie to direct all excess flow toward the Gulf of Mexico.

That prompted lawmakers through the region to sign a letter demanding an amendment to the plan. “We are dismayed that the Corps is considering a plan that instead increases harmful discharges to our community,” it read. Importantly, the list of co-signatories included some of the most important lawmakers in Tallahassee, including incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, who complained Florida legislators’ input had been completely ignored.

“The plan was detrimental when it first came out — to the Caloosahatchee River, to Southwest Florida — to favor the east coast,” the Naples Republican said. “That’s not what we do in this state.”

The swift reaction appeared to prompt immediate changes and a promise from the Army Corps to amend its plan to be “more balanced” Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual.

  1. Manatee County changes administrators

The 2020 elections brought a new and unapologetically conservative majority into power on the Manatee County Commission. But the impact of voters’ selection didn’t truly manifest until 2021, most clearly when the new majority pushed County Administrator Cheri Coryea to part with the county. That left room for the new board to hire Scott Hopes, previously a Manatee School Board chair first appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott.

The commission since also adopted a lower millage rate equating to an $8.3 million tax cut. More recently, the board approved a controversial redistricting plan that has the potential to reduce minority representation on the board. Along the way, the majority fought efforts to remove Baugh from the chairmanship, and in December just picked County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge to hold the gavel in the 2022 calendar year.

Some efforts at promoting a socially conservative fell flat. Attorney General Ashley Moody just rejected an effort led by County Commissioner James Satcher to enforce a local ban on abortion clinics; notably, none now operate in the county. And some like Baugh openly campaigned against the renewal of a school tax, though voters renewed that this fall.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


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