TALLAHASSEE — There was a chill in the air at 9 a.m. when the first people began to file past a police line set up on the north side of the old Capitol and onto the courtyard in front of the building where spectators were to gather for the swearing in of the state’s Cabinet.
An hour later the day had turned glorious and the dribble of people had grown into a steady stream that quickly became a pedestrian traffic jam.
“I heard they were gonna have 3,200 people here and I said ‘nah,' ” a brawny law enforcement officer muttered as he tried to muscle his way through the crowd. “They were right. There are 3,200 people here.”
Florida’s political elite on Tuesday mingled with Republican partisans from around the state, hordes of media types, stern looking military officers and state and local police. There were also Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, protestors advocating against such diverse topics as fracking and racism, and three African American men wearing “Blacks for Trump” T-shirts.
All had come to bear witness to the changing of the guard in Tallahassee, culminating with the swearing in of former congressman Ron DeSantis as Florida’s 46th governor.
“To 2019, the beginning of a new era,” state Senate President Bill Galvano would say later as he raised a glass to Florida’s new leader at a legislative luncheon.
Maybe it was the spring-like January day that got everyone’s blood stirring, but there was definitely excitement in the air.
Republican state Rep. Mel Ponder of Destin noted that DeSantis, by inviting members of both the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike, to sit down for the luncheon that followed the swearing in was “breaking down walls on day one.”
“I think on the first day of the next session he’s going to have a team-like atmosphere,” Ponder said. “Inviting the Senate and the House, across party lines, I think that is encouraging.”
Current state House Speaker José Oliva, accompanied by previous Speaker Will Weatherford exchanged hugs, hand shakes and good-humored insults with Richard Corcoran, Florida’s most recent past speaker and Congressman Matt Gaetz when he ran into them in a hotel lobby.
Each man thanked the others for helping get DeSantis elected and for the work done to assemble a governor’s team Gaetz, as a transition co-chairman, called first-rate. It includes a former White House press official as top media coordinator, a former general and head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons tabbed to oversee the Department of Corrections and Corcoran as Secretary of Education.
“We’re very happy with what he’s doing,” Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said of the new governor.
No one in attendance though, with the possible exception of DeSantis’ immediate family, was more proud Tuesday of the new governor than Dee Sentinaro, who 33 years ago was his first-grade teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Dunedin. She carried a class photo to prove it.
“He was very bright. I put him in the back of the class because I knew he would listen and do his work,” a beaming Sentinaro said. “I taught him to read.”
Sentinaro said she figures the qualities DeSantis displayed as an elementary school student should translate well to his new role.
“If he listens to people and does work for the people, there will be no problem,” she said. “He’ll be the best governor ever.”
DeSantis was introduced as the governor of Florida for the first time at 11:58 a.m. EST. Rick Scott, his predecessor, had been present for most of the event, but had to leave before the new governor addressed those who had come to see him sworn in. Scott himself would be sworn in to the U.S. Senate later the same day, DeSantis said.
DeSantis emphasized that his administration would not forget the people of Northwest Florida whose communities were devastated by Hurricane Michael. Gaetz said the governor intends to visit areas hammered by Michael before the end of the week.
“We will rebuild those areas better than they were before,” he said.