While Florida Republicans stay silent, Democrats look ahead to President-elect Biden

John Kennedy
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
President-elect Joe Biden, seen here campaigning in Tampa last month, may bring some Floridians into his administration. But he also could be tested by the state’s ruling Republican leaders.

TALLAHASSEE – Although Florida Republican leaders are staying silent – clearly wary of antagonizing President Donald Trump by acknowledging his defeat – Democrats across the state are looking ahead to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition to power.

Some may even be part of the new administration.

“There’s a lot of talent in Florida,” said Dick Batchelor, a former Orlando state House member and longtime Democratic fundraiser. “I think the Biden administration will be looking here.”

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, an Orlando Democrat who was on Biden’s list of possible vice presidential picks, appears best positioned. She’s talked up as a candidate for the Cabinet post of Homeland Security secretary.

Demings, a former Orlando police chief, also had a prominent role in Trump’s impeachment trial.

Another name floated is former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, who worked in the administration of former President Bill Clinton.

Brown, a self-described “conservative Democrat,” is being mentioned for secretary of Housing and Urban Development and is relatively close to Florida Republican U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, which could help ease confirmation conflicts if Republicans maintain their Senate majority.

Brown also once worked for former Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, whom Scott defeated in 2018.

Nelson, though, ducked when asked to evaluate Floridians angling for the incoming administration.

“As much as I have always given you a straight answer on anything you have asked, I am not in a position where I can answer your questions on this subject,” Nelson said.

Will Florida leaders impede Biden proposals?

But as the relationship between the White House and Florida is reset under a new president, in a state where Republicans hold the governor’s mansion and outsize majorities in the state House and Senate, some also speculate that Florida leaders could emerge as fierce opponents to federal stimulus spending, climate and pandemic policies that eventually emerge from a Biden White House.

More than a half-dozen Florida Republican leaders contacted to talk about the Biden transition failed to respond or acknowledge the requests. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close ally of Trump, has urged him on Fox News to “fight on, exhaust all options,” in refusing to accept Biden’s victory in the Electoral College and by more than 5 million popular votes.

DeSantis easily could follow the lead of his predecessor, now-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who spent his first six years as governor fighting against Obama administration policies, particularly on health care, education and the environment.

Trump carried Florida by 374,394 votes, a margin of 3.4 percentage points. DeSantis is seeing the result as an affirmation of Republican leadership, said some close to the governor.

Florida Democrats worried

That worries Democrats.

“I think Florida Republicans are going to feel emboldened by their successes in this state, and then mad because their guy is not going back to the White House,” said state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, the incoming co-leader of House Democrats, who lost five seats in this month’s elections.

“Being mad and bold could be a dangerous combination,” he added. “It’s going to be interesting to see how far they press to the right.”

“I think Florida Republicans are going to feel emboldened by their successes in this state, and then mad because their guy is not going back to the White House.”

Nelson, who served eight years in the U.S. Senate with Biden, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is central to the success of the new administration if Republicans continue to control the chamber. Two Georgia U.S. Senate runoff contests Jan. 5 will determine the partisan balance.

McConnell and Biden served in the Senate together for 24 years.

“(McConnell) may be the key to whether or not we have the beginnings of cooperation,” Nelson said. “If Mitch decides to do what he did with Obama and stand in the way of policies, and if these deep divisions continue, we will still have gridlock.”

Asked if he had high hopes for the pair, Nelson said: “I didn’t say that. I think that’s still to be determined.”

Others seen as fitting into the new administration include Orlando Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, whose background includes national security work with the Defense Department, and outgoing U.S. Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Murcasel-Powell, both of Miami and defeated in this month’s elections by Republican challengers.

Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz, a former state House Democrat now working for DeSantis, also has been mentioned to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Florida lawmakers returning to Tallahassee

Florida lawmakers return Tuesday to the state Capitol for the first time since March for a mostly ceremonial organization session of the new Legislature. With a Democrat soon to take over in the White House, Republicans have strengthened their hold in Tallahassee with the elections.

But the pandemic has heightened the need for federal help.

The state is facing a $2.7 billion shortfall for the 2021-22 budget, which lawmakers will begin shaping in coming weeks. The two-month regular legislative session is set to begin in March.

Florida’s current $92.2 billion budget has been bolstered by $5.8 billion in federal CARES Act  funding that, while not plugging revenue losses, at least is covering much of the state’s cost of battling the pandemic.

Still, lawmakers had been expecting more federal relief. But those hopes were dashed when Trump and Congress failed to reach a pre-election agreement on another stimulus package – spending which now looms as a priority for the incoming Biden administration.

The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity has paid out almost $18.4 billion – most of it federal money – to 2.1 million Floridians who’ve lost jobs during the pandemic. But 770,000 remain out of work and the state’s 7.6% unemployment rate is still well above the 4.4% level in March when lawmakers adjourned the 2020 legislative session.

Similarly, there were only 432 coronavirus cases in Florida when lawmakers were last in Tallahassee, with nine Floridians dead of the illness. Now, Florida has topped 850,000 cases, with more than 17,300 dead.

DeSantis has largely followed the Trump White House approach in downplaying the pandemic and driving the state toward maintaining a reopened economy. How that may play with enhanced coronavirus policies coming out of a Biden White House is another uncertainty.

“Even out of the White House, Donald Trump will still be the man in the Republican Party,” Jenne said. “What they think is going to please him and his voting base is what will continue to drive this governor and many Florida Republicans.”