Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 8.13.23

Will Floridians be voting to protect abortion in 2024? Plus, Trump is being booked a 4th time as his legal troubles keep stacking up.

Will he or won’t he?

In a Friday statement, Francis Suarez said he had met the polling criteria to make this week’s GOP Primary debate, hosted by Fox News. Suarez met the donation threshold earlier this month.

But later that day, the Republican National Committee (RNC) shot down Suarez’s claim, arguing he had not yet reached 1% in enough qualifying polls to attend. Suarez confirmed that the RNC had not approved him as a debate participant, but expressed confidence he would qualify.

As of this writing, it remains unclear how this episode will shake out. If Suarez doesn’t make the debate stage, that calls into question his credibility, and he has previously said candidates who don’t qualify for the first debate should drop out.

But should he qualify, that would put three Florida men among the nine people to qualify for the debate. Suarez would join Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump in exceeding the polling and donation requirements. Trump, however, has not signed the RNC’s loyalty pledge to promise to support the eventual nominee, and is planning a counterprogramming event instead of attending Wednesday’s debate.

Suarez started his bid as a long shot. And, well, he’s still a long shot even if he makes it onto the stage. But anything can happen without Trump attending. It’s likely the debate could lead to two or three standouts, and Suarez surely would like to land on that list.

Suarez has some strengths as a candidate. He’s the only Hispanic candidate running for the GOP nod. And he is on the younger side at just 45 years old. His time leading a city gives him experience other candidates may not have, and his position as a non-Washington politician could have appeal during an era where insiders are typically not trusted by GOP voters.

So far, he hasn’t gathered much steam. But if he’s in the spotlight Wednesday, he’ll have a chance to change that.

Now, it’s on to our weekly game of winners and losers.


Honorable mention: Cardinals and Marlins. Palm Beach County is moving forward with a $108 million renovation plan for Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, where the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals play their home games during spring training each year.

Changes include upgrades to seating (though the total number of seats will decline slightly), renovating team clubhouses and batting tunnels, and expanding the team store.

The stadium opened in 1998. This will be the park’s first set of major renovations.

The project is aimed to be completed by 2025. And there is a push by nearby business owners to make sure the construction stays on track. Spring training can help boost businesses in the area. But coming out of COVID-19 and a recent MLB lockout, business has been slow the past few years.

The upgrades are meant to keep the teams playing in Jupiter through 2049. The teams are paying 38% of the upgrade costs, with Palm Beach County footing 34% of the bill and the state covering the remaining 28%.

The Marlins are mounting a surprise playoff run as they compete for a Wild Card spot. The Cardinals are having a disappointing season after winning the division last year. But the future of both teams is improving with this project.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Disney. The entertainment giant got two wins against Gov. DeSantis this week, one practical and another rhetorical.

After reporting from the Florida Bulldog raised conflict of interest questions regarding Glen Gilzean’s position as Administrator of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, the General Counsel to the Commission on Ethics released an opinion confirming such a conflict.

And this wasn’t an academic matter for the Commission on Ethics. Gilzean serves as Chair of that body. But the finding of the General Counsel says Gilzean has to choose between his Commission on Ethics Chair position and his job overseeing Disney’s oversight board.

We’ll have more on that later, but the finding puts Gilzean and DeSantis in a bind, as it’s unclear how the situation will be resolved. And that news came on top of a public declaration from the Governor that he had “basically moved on” from battling with The Walt Disney Co.

“Look, my wife and I, we got married at Walt Disney World. And so it’s not like we’re opposed. I mean, we’ve appreciated working with them over the years, but I would just say, go back to what you did,” DeSantis said.

“But where we are today, you know, we basically moved on.”

The Governor is still urging Disney to drop its lawsuit against the state, which accuses the DeSantis administration of weaponizing government authority against the company after leaders spoke out against Florida’s parental rights law. Disney seems unwilling to acquiesce.

So it’s unlikely the feud is entirely dead. But DeSantis’ public proclamation is at least a tacit acknowledgment that this is no longer a winning issue for the Governor.

The legal battle will eventually be resolved, whether through an outside agreement or through the court proceedings carrying through to the end. What DeSantis seems to be saying, for now, is that outside that fight, he may be backing down from any further antagonism.

How that will play with his base — which likes to frame the Governor as a tough guy and a fighter — remains unclear. But it’s the right decision for the state, which relies on Disney as an economic driver. The Governor taking an “L” here might be a win for him in the long run, but it’s definitely a win for Disney should he stick to those comments.

The biggest winner: Abortion rights advocates. A push to put a question on the 2024 ballot about enshrining abortion rights in Florida’s Constitution is off to a strong start, as organizers for the ballot initiative say they’ve collected more than 600,000 signatures already.

The amendment would add a clause to the Florida Constitution stating that “no law shall prohibit, penalize, delay, or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s health care provider.”

Floridians Protecting Freedom needs 891,523 verified signatures, but the group has until Feb. 1, 2024 to hit that mark. Should all of the signatures they’ve already collected get verified, that puts them more than two-thirds of the way there with more than five months remaining.

So far, however, a little under 150,000 of those 600,000 have been verified. That puts them a bit further out, officially, than the numbers the group released suggest. But unless they’re disorganized in collecting signatures or running a brazen fraud scam, it seems as though the bulk of those 600,000 will eventually get OK’d.

And it appears the effort from Floridians Protecting Freedom is well-organized. The last fundraising report from the state shows the group raising $4.7 million, and spending almost all of it. Floridians Protecting Freedom says they’ve added another $1.75 million since that report, and strong momentum could make it easier to attract the cash to hit that signature mark.

There are other hurdles the group has to hit, such as the state Supreme Court signing off on the initiative’s language. And, of course, 60% of voters will have to approve the change.

But abortion has been a clear driver in recent election contests across the country, even in more conservative areas. Even if Republicans are poised to do well in Florida next cycle, this ballot proposal will be a wild card worth watching should it make it onto the ballot. And right now, organizers have reason to be optimistic they’ll hit the signature count to get there.


Dishonorable mention: Gilzean. After an opinion from Commission on Ethics General Counsel Steven Zuilkowski, Gilzean faces a choice of whether to resign his position on the Commission on Ethics or step away from his gig as Administrator of the Disney’s oversight board.

That latter position is cushy, paying Gilzean $400,000 per year. The Governor apparently pushed through Gilzean to the Disney post — with the Senate’s approval — despite Commission of Ethics rules barring members from holding “any public employment.”

That triggered the adverse finding from Commission on Ethics General Counsel Zuilkowski.

“It appears that your position as District Administrator for the District is public employment,” Zuilkowski wrote in a memo to Gilzean. “Maintaining the public employment is inconsistent with the requirements.”

One would think a member of the Commission on Ethics would go out of their way not to just comply with ethics rules, but to go above and beyond to avoid even the hint of an ethical conflict.

That’s apparently not so with Gilzean, at least not yet. In a response to Zuilkowski’s legal opinion, Gilzean vaguely promised to “take action” before the next Commission on Ethics meeting on Sept. 8.

“Thank you for your legal opinion,” Gilzean wrote. “As you know I am not a lawyer and believed my status at CFTOD was of no concern. At the very least, I did not appreciate the nuanced factors that distinguish an employee and an independent contractor. Regardless, now that this has come to my attention, please rest assured that I am weighing my options and will take action before the Commission’s next meeting.”

But Gilzean also questioned whether Zuilkowski’s findings had been “weaponized” against him, signaling he may fight to keep both jobs.

This conflict either should have been known before Gilzean accepted the Disney oversight board gig, or it was known and simply ignored. Either way, that’s unacceptable from a man chairing the state’s ethical oversight body.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Axiom Strategies. The firm associated with DeSantis’ 2024 super PAC got dunked on this week after posting a purported strategy memo for the Governor ahead of Wednesday’s GOP Primary debate.

The memo had four main points, two of which were seemingly boilerplate goals for a Republican candidate along with random benchmarks: attacking “Joe Biden and the media” three to five times, and boosting his own positive vision two to three times.

The other two items gave revealing insight into what DeSantis’ strategy might be at the debate. The memo urged DeSantis to go after Vivek Ramaswamy, who has overtaken DeSantis as No. 2 in several national GOP Primary polls. The document also pushed DeSantis to defend Trump should fellow GOP contender Chris Christie go after the former President.

Yes, you read that right. Jeff Roe’s firm is telling DeSantis — who has seen that gap between him and Trump widen since DeSantis entered the race as Trump has repeatedly and viciously attacked the Governor — to defend his chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination.

That’s a bit like asking the University of Tennessee-Martin to really make sure the Georgia football team’s equipment is prepared and their locker air conditioning is working ahead of their upcoming matchup. It’s not the responsibility of David to make sure Goliath is protected and comfortable.

But here we are, with Team DeSantis again thinking they can appeal to die-hard Trump voters while Trump himself is still in the race. Guys, it’s not going to happen unless and until someone can make a compelling case that Trump’s legal troubles and general behavior while in office disqualify him for a second term. Perhaps DeSantis himself should be the one delivering that message?

If not, he’s likely to continue seeing the same polling slide of the past three months.

The biggest loser: Trump. Hey, speaking of legal troubles! Trump is being indicted again.

His boosters are really certain all 91 criminal counts filed against the former President are all just made up by the Deep State to force their God Emperor out of the race. In the real world, however, this newest indictment is yet even more evidence that Trump’s behavior during his presidency and afterward was reprehensible.

Of course, to be fair to Trump, these are charges and not convictions. It’s doubtful he’ll be found guilty of all of them, and he’s not going to come close to the maximum 717.5 years in prison these charges could result in. There are also legitimate questions about whether a former President should be threatened with prison time, especially in cases where novel charges are being filed (as opposed, to say, a clear-cut murder case).

Those are legitimate points. But we mention the sheer scope of those charges to say: Do Trump supporters really think we live in a world where prosecutors from multiple different jurisdictions got in a room somewhere and concocted 91 charges out of thin air? Or is it possible that maybe, just maybe, the guy you like did some bad things?

The unfortunate answer to that question is that people increasingly believe fantastical conspiracy theories to confirm their own beliefs. So there are plenty of people who side with the former explanation, and that this is all a conspiracy to bring their guy down.

We’ve all been hoodwinked at some point though by someone we trusted. Heck, many Trump supporters now feel that way about DeSantis, a Governor some of them loved but are now skeptical of because the guy they love more (Trump) is telling them bad things about DeSantis.

It is possible to believe in someone and have them betray that trust. Take Trump out of the equation and it’s something everyone has experienced and can agree on. Perhaps once more evidence comes out, some Trump supporters will eventually admit that can be true of their guy as well.

Not all Trump backers are zealots, however. Many are supporting him simply because he’s the top dog in polls right now, and people do like a winner. If Trump’s armor gets dented and someone has positioned themselves as a clear alternative, those Republicans may be willing to jump ship.

One of those dents came this week with a poll showing that a majority of Americans (53%) “definitely” would not support Trump for President. Another 11% said they probably won’t support him. Trump’s strength right now is among the GOP Primary electorate. The General Election is something altogether different.

Yes, other polling has been more favorable for the former President. Yes, Joe Biden is an unpopular President who has shown numerous signs of frailty during his first term. Trump could win in November.

But just as Trump’s legal troubles seem to harden his support among the GOP faithful, evidence presented in those criminal cases is also likely to harden opposition against him in the rest of the electorate. If that happens in a significant way, it might be too late to course correct if Trump is already the nominee, no matter how many times people complain about “fake charges” and “fake news.”

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704