Florida Politics

Ron DeSantis’ early appointments yield some surprises, including two Democrats

The campaign tours may be over and the TV appearances put on hold, but Governor-elect Ron DeSantis and his transition team have been busy since the election carving out a state government, at a pace both rapid and glacial.

So far his appointments have favored experienced bureaucrats from a range of political ideologies — surprising critics that expected DeSantis’ embrace of President Donald Trump to translate into appointments of loyal supporters with missions to destroy the agencies they lead.

For now, two Democrats — state Rep. Jared Moskowitz and longtime public official Jim Zingale — count themselves as part of DeSantis’ new administration, alongside a former Trump White House communications director and many other Republican lawmakers and insiders. “It would be an understatement to say I was not DeSantis’ supporter, but it appears he has appointed solid, competent people,” said GOP political strategist Mac Stipanovich, who is strongly opposed to Trump. “I expected the appointments to be much more heavy on campaign operatives and to have had a much greater Trumpian ideological edge and that has not been the case.”

But one key appointee is all about ideology: Richard Corcoran for education commissioner.

The bombastic former House speaker and top transition adviser made expanding Florida’s network of charter schools and voucher-like scholarships one of his chief missions in the Legislature.

DeSantis picked Corcoran to be the state’s top education official overseeing all public schools and the state college system. After an hour of questioning, the State Board of Education unanimously appointed him Dec. 17, saying his qualifications were impressive enough to forgo a national search.

That greatly disappointed Gwen Graham, former congresswoman and Democratic candidate for governor, who brought up Corcoran’s appointment unprompted in a recent interview.

“It’s very painful for me,” she told the News Service of Florida. “Of all that’s happened since [Election Day] that’s been difficult for me, it’s been that selection.”

About 30 percent done

So far, DeSantis has named his picks to lead about a third of the state’s 27 agencies.

Some have been around in state government for many years. Zingale, who DeSantis recommended to lead the Department of Revenue, has had a 35-year career in state government dating back to Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Two have Tampa Bay connections: Zephyrhills Republican state Rep. Danny Burgess was selected to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. For Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership that serves as the state’s corporate recruitment agency, DeSantis picked Jamal Sowell, the chief of staff at Port Tampa Bay.

“Each has been considered on their own individual merits,” said state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, an early supporter of DeSantis who said he’s offered some advice during the appointments process. “These are competent people who have an interest and skill in the particular areas they’re asked to oversee.”

Top governor’s office personnel hired so far include Chief of Staff Shane Strum, who served in the same position for Gov. Charlie Crist and as a transition adviser to Gov. Rick Scott. All in all, nearly 10 key staff positions have been filled in the office of the governor, plus the lieutenant governor’s chief of staff.

Even with the two Democrats, the administration is strongly Republican. The new chief legal adviser, Joe Jacquot, played an instrumental role in 2011 in helping then-attorney general Bill McCollum craft the 26-state lawsuit that served as the first challenge against the Affordable Care Act. And the new director of communications, Helen Aguirre Ferré, was director of media affairs for Trump’s White House for two years.

And don’t forget Corcoran.

State Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said Corcoran was one of the few picks that didn’t seem right for the job.

“He is a bankruptcy attorney at the end of the day. He has no educational experience,” Jenne said. “He also ruled with a stick instead of a carrot. I don’t know if you can run an organization that large quite that same way.”

It’s still yet to be determined who will lead several fundamental agencies like the Department of Corrections, the Department of Children and Families, the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Transportation. Many of the incumbents have been asked to resign and re-apply for their jobs.

Each job candidate has spoken in-person with DeSantis and the lieutenant governor-elect, Jeanette Nuñez, who’ve been sitting in back-to-back interviews for days at a time, along with other top advisers. The interviews take place in Tallahassee or, occasionally, in Ponte Vedra, where the First Family is busy packing up their home to prepare for their move to the Governor’s Mansion.

Close advisers

The appointments also offer clues into who has DeSantis’ ear. Some, like Moskowitz — who will oversee the Division of Emergency Management, and state Rep. Halsey Beshears, who will lead the Department of Business and Professional Regulation — had the backing of Republican firebrand U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who befriended both men during his time in the statehouse.

Jenne said the Moskowitz pick, to him, showed Gaetz’s fingerprints.

“I thought, ‘Oh, Matt’s got a seat at the table for this thing,’ ” he said, but praised Moskowitz’s experience as the executive vice president of AshBritt, a debris removal company.

And for a candidate who vowed he was an outsider willing to shake up the status quo, DeSantis is deferring to the Tallahassee establishment in setting up his government.

Ken Lawson, who’s slated to head the Department of Economic Opportunity, was recommended by Gov. Rick Scott when he met with DeSantis shortly after the election. James Blair, now DeSantis’ deputy chief of staff, was Corcoran’s political adviser during his short-circuited campaign for governor. Adrian Lukis, also a deputy chief of staff, was an aide to House Speaker José Oliva — DeSantis’ earliest ally in the state political establishment. And Stephanie Kopelousos, DeSantis’ legislative affairs director, has a long professional relationship with Susie Wiles, who’s managing the transition, and a top job in Charlie Crist’s administration as his Department of Transportation secretary.