Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 2.11.24

Kathleen Passidomo continues to stand up to the culture war-obsessed wing of the GOP, while Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart got caught playing dirty on her way out.

Sparks are flying among conservatives this week. And for a party that has made its war against mainstream media a core tenet, it’s surprising that the trigger for this conflict is legislation making it easier to sue media organizations over defamation.

Republican Rep. Alex Andrade is backing the bill, which has taken fire from First Amendment organizations concerned about its impact on the media. Andrade, for his part, has said media organizations which stick to ethical reporting wouldn’t have anything to worry about if his proposal becomes law.

The most interesting criticism of the legislation has come from conservatives, however. A House committee hearing earlier this month featured right-leaning speaking voicing concerns that the bill would promote forum shopping, increase frivolous lawsuits and open up conservatives to targeting by political opponents in court.

An op-ed published on Florida Politics by Drew Steele, a conservative radio host, made similar arguments. And Andrade was having none of it.

Andrade tussled with James Schwarzel, owner of 92.5 FOX News, where Steele works. The back-and-forth included several grade-school insults, including Andrade calling U.S. Rep. Cory Mills an “imbecile” and a “midget mind.” Mills too has opposed Andrade’s efforts to change defamation laws.

Andrade has continued going after critics on Twitter, repeatedly accusing them of not understanding the topic.

Going out of your way to personally attack and alienate otherwise ideological allies has rarely been a successful way of passing legislation. But maybe Andrade knows something we don’t. It wouldn’t be the first time he professed as much.

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


Honorable mention: Gov. Ron DeSantis’ congressional map. It’s looking more and more like DeSantis’ hand-picked congressional map will remain in place for the 2024 election.

As summarized by our own Jacob Ogles, dual challenges in state and federal court have yet to yield any hard-and-fast results that would undo the map, which challengers say improperly diminished Black voting power.

The state case is moving too slow to impact this cycle. A federal ruling could still change things, but time is running thin there as well.

DeSantis clearly got aggressive in dictating his map, benefiting Republicans in 2022 (though by how much is an open question, given that Republicans performed historically well regardless of how the congressional map was drawn).

It’s been nearly two years since the Legislature approved DeSantis’ map. The Governor signed that plan just months before the 2022 election, ensuring the map would be in place for that cycle.

But opponents thought there would be sufficient time to get a firm ruling regarding the map by 2024. That hasn’t happened so far, thanks to a court system that often moves like molasses. The longer this process stalls, the more it looks like we won’t have clarity until the 2026 cycle.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Parrotheads. House lawmakers aren’t wasting away a chance to honor the late Jimmy Buffett.

The chamber this week approved legislation (HB 91) to rename A1A the “Jimmy Buffett Memorial Highway.” Islamorada Republican Rep. Jim Mooney, who represents the Keys in the House, is fittingly one of the bill’s two prime sponsors, along with Newberry Republican Rep. Chuck Clemons.

The legislation would also see the state erect mile markers in 13 counties across the east coast to mark the designation.

Buffett may have been born in Alabama, but he made his home in the Keys and was one of the biggest embodiments of what it means to be a Florida Man. The Senate is moving a companion bill as well, and hopefully Florida’s lawmakers give Buffett the recognition he deserves.

The biggest winner: Kathleen Passidomo. Passidomo has been a staple in this place for doing something that’s increasingly rare in this current political era: standing against the fringes on principle to oppose misguided legislation.

And she lands here again after confirming this week that the Senate is shutting down a slate of controversial culture war legislation central to the Republican Party of Florida agenda.

Among the bills being killed this Session: legislation banning the government display of Pride flags, restricting local officials from taking down Confederate memorials and regulating pronoun usage.

Passidomo is also sticking to her guns and refusing to lower the age to purchase long rifles to 18, a move which would have undone a major piece of the legislation passed following the 2018 Parkland shooting.

“Our bill process is not the Republican Party of Florida. We are the Legislature. We make the laws,” Passidomo told James Call of the USA Today Network. “None of those bills are moving in the Senate anymore.”

We’ve got more thoughts below on how well Republicans have executed their purported “war on woke.” But Passidomo has clearly decided to focus on substantive legislative issues that voters outside the hardcore GOP base care about, such as her Live Healthy plan that would help surge workers into the state’s health care system.

Passidomo’s decision also answers a question we pondered about weeks before the 2024 Session began.

Turns out, the Legislature is (for now) moving away from the all culture war all the time mindset they have had the past few years, and lawmakers are showing some more independence from the executive branch now that DeSantis’ presidential dreams are dead. And Passidomo is a huge part of that.

No party does the right thing 100% of the time. And it’s important for each party to have leaders that will stand up and put a stop to policies put forward by the most extreme when they don’t make sense.

Passidomo is a Republican through and through. She doesn’t need to play along with the culture war game to prove that. And by appealing to more than just the base, she’s putting the party as a whole on more healthy ground.


Dishonorable mention: Joe Gruters. Gruters had a good week in a vacuum, landing a position as a national committeeman for the Republican National Committee (RNC). But he lands here this week for missing out on an even bigger role: taking over the RNC as Chair.

Gruters, the former Republican Party of Florida Chair, has been floated as a potential RNC Chair in the last week or so as the party looks to move on from Chair Ronna McDaniel. The move would have made sense. Gruters is a longtime Trump loyalist, standing alone originally among Florida’s state lawmakers in endorsing Trump in the 2024 GOP Primary over home-state Gov. DeSantis.

Reports had Gruters and North Carolina Republican Party Chair Michael Whatley pegged as possible successors to McDaniel. Ultimately, however, Trump threw his weight behind Whatley, with his daughter-in-law Lara Trump floated as Co-Chair. Because strong-arming your family into positions of power is in no way swampy, am I right?

Gruters quickly followed suit and endorsed Whatley. And the move may make strategic sense if Republicans feel they have Florida locked up. North Carolina could be more in play in 2024.

Still, it can’t help but sting a bit to miss out on such a significant move that would have put Gruters in the national spotlight in what will be a very closely watched election. And landed as a national committeeman isn’t anything to sneeze at either.

Plus, with plenty of signs Republicans down ballot could be in for a rough election cycle, maybe Gruters ultimately dodged a bullet here in not landing the Chair role.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Florida’s schools. The state continues to drop the ball when it comes to guidance for municipalities to navigate a series of culture war-inspired laws passed in recent years. And while state officials are continuously falsely labeling these controversies as “hoaxes,” the buck ultimately stops with Tallahassee.

This week saw the spotlight on Miami-Dade County, where reports emerged about parents needing to sign permission slips in order to allow students to hear guest speakers discuss Black history or the Holocaust.

The move to require those permission slips was apparently enacted in response to the state’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, which requires schools to better inform parents about what’s going on in and out of the classroom.

Now, if the state law really does require this, it’s so self-evidently stupid and destructive that we aren’t going to spend much time here laying out that case. State officials, however, say the state law does no such thing. And the county appears to be reevaluating its policy after getting blowback here.

But what we do want to make clear is that even taking those state officials at their word, this parental rights law is still a massive failure, and the state needs to begin taking responsibility.

First and foremost: Local governments did not make the first move here. The state, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, started leaning into this “war on woke” to ramp up support among the GOP base ahead of his presidential run (a move that didn’t quite work out).

And the state has a right to regulate education. People can disagree on the merits, and many have. But if the state wants to start meddling more in education, that’s within their authority.

But if you affirmatively start changing the rules, it’s then your responsibility to make those rules clear for the local governments charged with enforcing them.

Here is what we wrote more than a year ago in response to news — again more than a year old — of books being removed and a school weighing to cut a Hanukkah presentation because of concerns it could run afoul of the parental rights law:

“Students and schools do need some rules about what is and isn’t appropriate for children. But is this law actually giving that guidance? … The law, as of now, seems to simply be providing only confusion.”

Here we are a year later, and we’re still dealing with high-profile WTF moments stemming from this law.

State-level Republicans go out of their way to deny responsibility every time one of these issues flare up.

In response to this week’s episode, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz called it “a hoax.” Well, for one, a “hoax” is something that was purported to happen but was actually fabricated. This was, per all current reporting, an actual permission slip floating around. It did happen.

It may have been misguided in Diaz’s eyes. “Any school that does this is completely in the wrong,” he said. Fine, make that case. But he and the Governor need to stop throwing the word “hoax” around every time a school district does something they don’t like in response to their own law.

The Florida Department of Education should have been giving these officials some guidance instead of throwing perpetual tantrums about so-called “hoaxes.” News broke Friday that the Department will consider a rule aimed to curb any erroneous challenges. But rather than clarify the law, it opens up an avenue for punishing school officials who improperly remove or block materials.

So again, it’s a refusal to actually make the boundaries more clear and instead a move to crack down on school officials trying to navigate these landmines the Legislature has created.

We aren’t reacting here in concert with the standard Democratic outrage over anything and everything this Governor does. There are indeed some materials in schools which should be removed, or where parents at least should get a say about whether their kids read them. And we’ve clapped back at critics when complaints about these education changes have been over the top or outright false.

But something needs to change here. These challenges have been happening for more than a year straight and it shows no signs of getting better. Even the Governor admits the law may need to be updated to make more clear what can and cannot be challenged under state law more tightly regulating school library contents.

Bottom line: This is what happens when you care more about exciting your base with culture war distractions than actual good governance. Credit to people like the Senate President for putting a pause on this nonsense for the time being.

The biggest loser: Linda Stewart. As uncovered by Stephen Hudak of the Orlando Sentinel, Stewart worked with a lobbyist to move forward legislation that would have restricted her home county government from cutting funding from Visit Orlando.

That bill is dead now, according to Stewart, as it never gained a House sponsor. And the Democratic Senator now just says she filed the measure as a message to showcase the importance of Visit Florida, an agency which aims to boost tourism in the area.

But the reality is the legislation would have hamstrung her own local government in order to appease the hotel and tourism industry.

Of course, that lobbyists hold sway behind the scenes in the Legislature is no secret. But so openly appealing to a lobbyist for precise language on a measure that would have handicapped Orange County Commissioners (and, by extension, the voters who elect them), is certainly slimy.

“Get language for bill over so we can be ready,” Stewart texted lobbyist Chris Carmody, per the Sentinel. Carmody initially said he didn’t have precise language ready, but was pushing for the state to require a supermajority vote for a municipality to cut tourist-tax funding.

He added: “And try not to mention my name on this one. :)”

Carmody followed up with a Stewart aide later on to provide language, which made it into the bill nearly verbatim.

Carmody, by the way, works for GrayRobinson, which had a contract with the county. The bill, of course, would have handicapped the county. The Sentinel’s reporting led the county to fire GrayRobinson just days later.

Stewart, though, was the one who introduced the bill and the one with the power to vote on it. She is term-limited, meaning she wanted to push this bill before departing the Legislature and leaving it as the county’s problem.

Caught working in secret to sell out your constituents to the hotel lobby? Happy retirement, and don’t come back.

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].

One comment

  • Defund Dangerous florida; no more Federal aid

    February 18, 2024 at 5:57 am

    A big EFF YOU to the slavering MAGAts out there;

    Among the bills being killed this Session: legislation banning the government display of Pride flags, restricting local officials from taking down Confederate memorials and regulating pronoun usage.

    Passidomo is also sticking to her guns and refusing to lower the age to purchase long rifles to 18, a move which would have undone a major piece of the legislation passed following the 2018 Parkland shooting.


Comments are closed.


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