Nicknames can tell you so much about politicians.
“Walkin’ Lawton” Chiles earned his for hiking the whole state while campaigning for the U.S. Senate. Bob Graham was dubbed “Governor Jell-O” for his wishy-washy ways when he first took office, but he sh-sh-shimmied out of that one. An angry mob dubbed then-Gov. Rick Scott. “Red Tide Rick” because they blamed him for allowing the water pollution that fueled a lengthy toxic algae bloom.
In his four years in office, our current Governor, Ron DeSantis, has been saddled with quite a few nicknames, none of which refer to his sparkling personality. You never hear “Delightful-Santis” or “Delovely-Santis.”
Instead, the top choice is “DeathSantis” because of his opposition to medically recommended measures to combat COVID-19. “De Satan” has been a hot one, even popping up on T-shirts, because of his attacks on Black people’s voting rights and the LGBTQ community.
And there’s “DuhSantis,” because our distinguished chief executive has done and said some pretty dopey things. Just recently, for instance, the man who’s made a big deal about supporting “parental rights” was talking about how the state might take rights away from some parents for the “crime” of taking their kids to a G-rated drag show.
Will he dispatch the Department of Children and Families to yank Mom and Pop out of the latest ”Madea” film?
Heavens to RuPaul! Will he dispatch the Department of Children and Families to yank Mom and Pop out of the latest ”Madea” film? (I hope some Florida drag queen is already planning a performance as “Rhonda Santis.”)
Anyway, I’ve got a new nickname for him. I think it’s the most accurate one yet: “Developer-Santis.”
This one popped into my head last week when news broke that he’d signed into law a ridiculous bill, SB 1078. The signing threw lots of elections into an uproar and tossed some local officials out of office with their terms only half over.
Part of the problem was timing. He waited until late Wednesday, June 15, to sign the bill, which requires all the seats on the state’s 56 soil and water conservation district boards to be up for election this fall. The week for qualifying to run was set to end Friday at noon — less than 48 hours away.
“A lot of [elections supervisors] were very confused,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, president of Florida Supervisors of Elections organization, told me. “Everyone was scrambling.”
And DeSantis did this just to please a bunch of developers with a grudge. (I’ll explain in a minute.)
This wasn’t the first time Developer-Santis has favored the sprawl creators over the rest of us, either.
In his speeches and TV appearances, the governor tries to project the image of the bare-knuckle brawler, ready to take on all comers.
“In times like these, there is no substitute for courage,” he told a conservative gathering in February, according to a recent New Yorker profile.
But in nearly four years in office, he has repeatedly bowed to the bidding of builders. Where they’re concerned, he’s got all the courage of the Cowardly Lion.
“A chaotic scramble”
The soil and water conservation districts, first set up during the Depression and found in every state, are as weird as the egg-laying, milk-sweating duckbill platypus.
They’re supposed to provide guidance to farmers, landowners, and anyone else who asks for advice on how to implement good land and water resource protections. They don’t tax or regulate anything. The board members are unpaid volunteers, yet they must be elected to their four-year terms by the voters.
Because of the districts’ high-minded mission and lack of pay, the seats in Florida have been filled by scientists, teachers, engineers, landscape architects, accountants, and other professionals. Seldom did anyone spend more than $100 or so on a campaign — until 2020.
That’s when, the Tallahassee Democrat reported, “several major northeast Florida developers — including one owned by the family of Palm Coast state Sen. Travis Hutson — invested tens of thousands of dollars to re-elect farmer John ‘Bucky’ Sykes to the St. Johns County Soil and Water Conservation District.” Sykes’ $43,000 war chest “was an unprecedented and extraordinary amount of money.”
The developers invested in Sykes because they wanted to beat an environmental activist named Nicole Crosby. She had recently led a successful drive to defeat a developer’s plan to build 66 homes on 100 acres in in Ponte Vedra Beach that had been designated for conservation.
In a campaign statement published in the St. Augustine Record, she wrote that she wanted “to expand the role of the soil and water conservation district to include … motivating residents to become involved in hearings on development proposals.”
That’s apparently what got these developers riled up and ready to throw a lot of cashola at a fairly obscure election. Despite all the money they spent boosting her opponent, Crosby won.
In December 2021, though, Hutson, R-Gotcha, filed a bill to eliminate all the soil and water districts. That’s as clear a revenge move as Uma Thurman drawing up her “Death List Five” in “Kill Bill 1.”
But in 80 years, no other state has abolished its conservation districts. Under fire, Hutson was forced to change his bill.
In his new version, the only people allowed to run for seats on Florida’s soil and water conservation district boards would be farmers, farm workers, retired farmers, or anyone who’s been involved in “animal husbandry.” (Contrary to what it sounds like, someone in that field does not exchange rings with a rooster.)
There’s no similar limitation on who can run for county commissioner, city council, or the Legislature — although, based on the Legislature’s approval of Hutson’s bill this past spring, I suspect there’s a “no-IQ-above-room-temperature” requirement for that one.
For an unpaid post, we’re kicking out scientists and engineers in favor of farmers with little time to sit in lengthy meetings. They’re too busy plowing, planting, and making a living.
That’s the bill DeSantis quietly signed into law on June 15. The bill took effect immediately, causing what one board member from Volusia County called “a chaotic scramble for 36 hours.”
I asked the governor’s spokes-folks to explain why he would do that. They didn’t respond at all. Perhaps they were too busy belatedly registering as foreign agents.
As a result, Crosby, elected to a four-year term, is out after just two years because she no longer qualifies. Crosby told me she wasn’t surprised the governor went along with the developers’ desires — again.
“The only surprise was that he waited long enough to deprive us of three days of our filing period,” she told me. “We will now have five men on our board — no women. This is what we warned them would happen.”
One of those five men, by the way, is Sykes, the candidate the voters rejected but the developers wanted. Good job, Developer-Santis!
Just like Lola
This has been the pattern ever since DeSantis was first elected.
He’s made a lot of noise about taking on big opponents — Disney, Twitter, even the Special Olympics. But he has repeatedly done everything in his power to accommodate developers, usually to the detriment of our environment.
Like Lola in “Damn Yankees,” whatever the developers want from him, they get.
When they wanted the state to take over issuing federal wetlands permits, Developer-Santis signed the official request to the feds. The Trump-era Environmental Protection Agency handed over the authority, and it’s turned into a colossal disaster for our wetlands.
When they wanted a trio of expensive new toll roads to open land for building new subdivisions, Developer-Santis signed that one into law. He was fine with stirring up opposition from every rural place that would’ve been obliterated, just to please a few wealthy builders.
Last fall, the Legislature dumped two of those toll roads but kept the controversial Northern Turnpike Extension going — again, largely for the benefit of developers and not the rural areas already standing against it. Developer-Santis signed off on that too. (That’s why I call it “Ronnie’s Road” and I encourage you to do the same.)
I’m not saying he acted alone. I’m saying that every time the Legislature did the developers’ bidding — say, to bigfoot local government restrictions on them running wild — Developer-Santis signed on the line which is dotted.
And when legislators restricted local governments’ ability to impose impact fees on developers to cover the cost of new growth, instead forcing the taxpayers to shoulder the burden, Developer-Santis said “okey-dokey artichokey” to that one too.
You might be thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of kowtowing to developers in four years.”
And, just like a late-night infomercial, I’d add: “But wait — there’s MORE!”
Tax dollars for development
Because I don’t entirely trust my memory, I consulted with one of the best accountability reporters in the state: Jason Garcia, formerly of the Orlando Sentinel and now producing his own “Seeking Rents” newsletter.
He reminded me of the bills limiting impact fees and blocking the rights of nature. Then he came up with several other examples.
Developer-Santis signed a bill — drafted by a lobbyist for two major development companies, Barron Collier Cos. and Collier Enterprises Management — beefing up the power of landowners to challenge local government decisions that they think will “burden” their ability to develop their property, he said. It expands the already awful Bert Harris Act.
Garcia reminded me that Developer-Santis also approved a Senate budget item calling for spending $106 million of the taxpayers’ moolah to build roads and other infrastructure to smooth the way for a huge Pasco County development called Angeline that will put 10,000 homes on 600 acres of ranchland. The developers, Lennar Homes and Metro Development, have been big-time donors to the guv, he noted.
And Developer-Santis was completely copacetic with spending $30 million in taxpayer funds to widen a road and replace a bridge for the benefit of Kitson & Partners, the developer behind the ginormous Babcock Ranch, he noted.
Sometimes Developer-Santis seeks the developers’ counsel. One developer, Morteza “Mori” Hosseini of ICI Homes, is frequently listed as one of his closest advisers — and in exchange is getting a $75 million I-95 interchange benefiting his development plans.
He’s even sought developers’ advice about the pandemic.
Last year, during the initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the state was deploying pop-up clinics to administer the shots. The governor could have been guided entirely by health officials about where to put those to help the most vulnerable seniors.
Instead he “reached out to … developer Pat Neal to host the clinic at a 55+ community called Kings Gate in Port Charlotte where Neal’s business Neal Communities is currently building homes,” WGCU reported at the time.
The station reported that he contacted “another area developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch CEO Rex Jensen, to help with another pop-up vaccine clinic in a Manatee County community called Lakewood Ranch that Jensen’s company built.”
Needless to say, the seniors who live in those upscale developments are not exactly the poorest, most vulnerable seniors in the state.
When reporters asked about his decision to consult with developers who’d contributed to his campaign about where to hand out shots, Developer-Santis reacted as if someone had questioned his manhood. He even threatened to pull the clinics. But he didn’t.
The guy who made it happen
Homebuilders looooooove Developer-Santis the way a quail-hunter loves his best pointer. They shower him with praise and goodies as he wags his tail.
“Over the past year, DeSantis and his aligned political committee have raised more than $7 million from real estate developers, investors, and realtors, making that industry one of the Republican governor’s biggest donor groups,” POLITICO reported in April.
Politico noted that developers all backed DeSantis’ decision to reopen Florida at the height of the pandemic, “a move that helped industry executives boost their bottom lines.”
One developer, Carlos Beruff, told POLITICO that the Governor’s risky decision reopening Florida was a turning point for him and his counterparts.
“Everyone in the industry just has more walking around money,” he said, adding that “people want to support the guy who made that happen.”
Does that mean Developer-Santis took a medically questionable step just to please his money-minded masters? Hard to say. After all, that move has proven politically advantageous to him, turning him into a hero to many anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-lockdown conservatives. Still, it does fit the pattern.
Personally, I think that because Developer-Santis and the state’s builders have such a strong bromance on, it’s time to take their relationship to the next level.
Not in the “husbandry” sense. I mean the governor ought to end his re-election campaign, resign as governor and get a job with one of his many developer friends. That way he could serve them 24/7 instead of being distracted by silliness such as Disney and drag shows.
Of course, once he’s no longer in a position to do them any favors, he might find out they didn’t love him for his sparkling personality. Then we’d have to start calling him “Dupe-Santis.”
Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: [email protected] Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.
Last updated on June 23, 2022