Following his election in November, Ron DeSantis and his wife took a tour of the Florida governor’s mansion and had a few thoughts about what needed tweaking.
“We were actively thinking about ways to baby-proof the governor’s mansion,” DeSantis, who has a 2-year-old daughter and a 9-month-old son, joked during a recent visit to Miami. “We’ve got to figure out a way to move things a little higher, a little out of the way, because I don’t want to hear Florida history crashing to the ground.”
The changes in the office of Florida’s governor may seem subtle as one Republican takes over for another in a state controlled by Republicans, but DeSantis is doing more than moving furniture around in Rick Scott’s old house. In the months and weeks ahead of Tuesday’s swearing-in, when he’ll become the 46th governor in Florida history, DeSantis has flashed signs of how state government will differ under a new chief executive.
Even with Scott delaying his ascension to the U.S. Senate and hanging on a few days longer than expected as governor, DeSantis has slowly molded the executive office in his own image. He’s forged closer relationships with Republican leaders, shown greater deference to his own top lieutenants and even given some Democrats hope for compromise by awarding senior posts to members of the other party.
Among Republicans, there’s a belief that under DeSantis the party will be in sync.
“This is different than when Scott first got in. DeSantis is more prepared to hit the ground running,” said David Custin, a Miami-based political strategist and lobbyist. “They all have a honeymoon period. But his will probably be longer than Scott’s just because he’s had a more collaborative entry.”
When Scott took office in 2011, he did so with arguably the most conservative state Legislature in modern Florida history. But he also rose to power during the depths of a recession and with a Democrat in the White House. Further complicating matters, he campaigned as a government outsider and beat Republican Party establishment favorite Bill McCollum during the primary using his own money. After his victory, Scott, a hospital CEO with no Tallahassee experience, chose his D.C.-based personal attorney to lead his transition, somewhat estranging him early on from Florida’s Republican leaders.
“We became good friends. But everyone started out with McCollum on their backs,” remembers John Thrasher, who in 2010 was chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and later chaired Scott’s re-election campaign. “Everybody has circled the wagons around DeSantis and is trying to be helpful. With Scott, he was more of an outsider. No doubt about it.”
Even in the final years as governor, Scott clashed with Florida’s top-ranking Republicans, most notably former House Speaker Richard Corcoran. DeSantis, on the other hand, was endorsed early on in the Republican primary by House Speaker Jose Oliva, a conservative Miami Lakes Republican who says the two are “very ideologically aligned.”
DeSantis is also becoming governor during a strong economy and with a president who helped him campaign. And he served six years as a Palm Coast congressman, giving him familiarity with the inner workings of a legislative body.
“The fact that DeSantis was a legislator before he was an executive gives him insight. There was more of a learning curve there with Scott, I think,” said Oliva, who said he spoke often with the governor-elect as he tapped several House members to run state departments.
There are also signs that DeSantis — Florida’s first Generation X governor — won’t demand the same outsized attention that Scott, 66, often commanded as Florida’s alpha Republican. The incoming governor has given his lieutenant governor, former state Representative Jeanette Nuñez, the active role in his administration that Scott’s second-in-commands never enjoyed. And he’s tapped Corcoran — a large personality in his own right — to oversee education.
Meanwhile, on the heels of a heated campaign, DeSantis has picked two Democrats to serve as department heads, which has given a glimmer of hope to some Democrats that DeSantis will be more moderate as governor than he was as a candidate — even if they’re in the minority of the minority.
“Ron is surrounding himself with some very good people,” said Thrasher, now president of Florida State University. “Not that Scott didn’t. But the folks Scott surrounded himself with were a little less known. Ron’s agency heads have an incredible amount of experience in making the trains run on time.”
But style and substance are two different things, and Republicans still passed much of their agenda under Scott despite their intra-party clashes. How DeSantis will govern and whether he will be successful are still open questions.
“One of the things that’s impressed me about DeSantis is he’s put together a really good mixture of people who understand how Tallahassee works and outsiders. You want to find that right mix,” said Mike Haridopolos, a lobbyist who became Senate President as Scott was taking office. “I don’t think anyone can really tell yet how Ron DeSantis is going to work, whether he’ll be a micro-manager or a delegator. That verdict is still out in my opinion.”