State Politics

To drain Tallahassee ‘swamp,’ DeSantis hired people from Trump’s Washington world

President Donald Trump shakes hands with then-candidate Ron DeSantis during a rally in Tampa, July 31, 2018.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with then-candidate Ron DeSantis during a rally in Tampa, July 31, 2018. AP

As Gov. Ron DeSantis’ transition team considered candidates to run Florida’s state prisons late last year, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz picked up the phone — and dialed Jared Kushner.

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and key adviser passed along a glowing endorsement of Mark Inch, the former head of the federal Bureau of Prisons and a retired two-star Army general.

That’s exactly who DeSantis ended up naming as Florida’s secretary of corrections.

The appointment shows how DeSantis draws from a different ecosystem of insiders than the usual suspects in Tallahassee, which he derided as the “swamp” during his gubernatorial campaign. He has instead turned to the world of Trump.

“In the first meeting we had with our transition co-chairs, the governor was very clear: He did not want us fishing inside an aquarium for talent,” Gaetz said.

DeSantis has brought at least five former Trump officials into his fold. Some, like Inch, hold high-profile positions aligned with their expertise.

But in politics, loyalty is also a currency, and other hires are former campaign workers now earning six figures in the DeSantis administration despite questions about their professional credentials.

DeSantis calls the appointments another example of how his ties with Trump benefit Florida.

“That speaks well of me being able to get folks like that,” he told reporters at a January news conference, referring to Inch and Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew, Trump’s one-time Medicaid chief.

The hires contrast starkly with DeSantis’ Republican predecessor. Then-Gov. Rick Scott left dozens of jobs open for months after his 2010 election, with dreams of filling them from the ranks of corporate America. When that failed, he ultimately settled for a mix of Tallahassee insiders and young loyalists from his campaign.

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist, has observed administrations dating to Gov. Bob Martinez in the late 1980s. She said that while it’s unusual for Florida governors to draw from such a national network, DeSantis’ hires follow a familiar pattern.

“All governors, especially new ones, tend to go with people who are loyal to them and people who have helped them get there,” MacManus said. “Obviously, Trump helped him get there.”

DeSantis speaks with Trump regularly and leans on a conservative network from across the country when seeking advice. Some of those in that network include Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who also ran for governor with Trump’s endorsement last year but was defeated.

The most prominent Trump émigrés are Inch, Mayhew and Helen Aguirre Ferré, who heads DeSantis’ communications team after doing a similar job for the White House.

When asked whether his time working for Trump has influenced the way he’d approach his state job, Inch answered simply: “No.”

He emphasized that he was not appointed by Trump to lead the federal Bureau of Prisons (rather it was then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions).

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Mark Inch, who Gov. Ron DeSantis tapped as the new Florida secretary of corrections. LinkedIn

“I would think my hiring here was just based on my personal experiences, primarily military. I mean, 35 years is military which by definition is apolitical,” Inch, 58, told the Times/Herald. His salary is $142,546.

DeSantis, a Navy veteran, values military service and has chosen several agency heads who are veterans.

According to reports by The New York Times, Inch left the Trump administration after only months on the job. He reportedly was caught in the crossfire between Sessions and Kushner, who clashed over criminal justice reforms.

Mayhew, 53, also served a short time — around three months — for Trump. She was known to Gaetz and DeSantis for her work in Maine before she arrived in Washington. Gaetz said Maine was consistently “held up as the gold standard for creative cost reduction” by conservatives during healthcare debate on the floor of the U.S. House when DeSantis and Gaetz were both there.

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Mary Mayhew, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new secretary for the Agency for Health Care Administration in Florida. State of Florida

Mayhew, who is paid $161,000, was arguably the transition’s most controversial hire. During her seven years as Maine’s health commissioner she tightened eligibility requirements for Medicaid and added restrictions to food stamps, leading to a decline in Medicaid enrollment and less money spent on safety-net programs.

Gaetz said Mayhew emerged during the transition as the best candidate to carry out the healthcare vision of Florida House Speaker José Oliva after DeSantis suggested “we look for high-end talent that helped Maine.”

Ferré, a native of Miami, is paid $164,000. She worked in Florida for many years first as a journalist, including as an op-ed columnist for the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald, and as a senior adviser to former Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. She was named White House director of media affairs in January 2017.

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Helen Aguirre Ferré heads Gov. Ron DeSantis’ communications team. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@miamiherald.com

Ferré, 61, left in August 2018 for a similar job with the National Endowment for the Arts.

Her exit came amid an investigation into Ferré and other White House officials for using their official offices to promote Trump’s presidential campaign, which is illegal. An independent federal investigator determined Ferré violated federal law by including Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan in the banner of her official Twitter account.

Ferré said the banner was added before Trump officially relaunched his re-election campaign. “Once informed of this, the banner was changed,” she said.

“While that should not necessarily prevent her from finding a job in Florida government, it is worth noting that she does have an ethical strike against her,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government, the nonpartisan organization that made the complaint against Ferré.

Not all the former Trump appointments were strangers to DeSantis.

Tim Page went directly from Trump’s campaign to Washington with little background in the agency where he landed: the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His salary during that stint was $66,510. A 2016 college graduate, his only other professional experience was at a landscaping company he started in college, according to his online résumé.

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Tim Page, deputy secretary at Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. LinkedIn

Page was in that job for 11 months until he left for the Consumer Energy Alliance, a group backed by large energy companies that advocates for offshore drilling and opposes regulation on carbon pollution.

But Page was pulled back into politics by DeSantis’ campaign.

When the election ended, DeSantis named Page, 26, deputy secretary of the department of business regulation. He’s making nearly twice as much as he did in Trump’s administration — $110,000 a year.

Ferré said in a statement that Page earned well at his job for the energy group and took a pay cut to work for DeSantis.

“Tim understands the importance of Gov. DeSantis’ focus on deregulation as it negatively impacts small businesses and job growth,” she said.

Another late edition to DeSantis’ campaign was Justin Caporale, who previously worked for First Lady Melania Trump.

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Justin Caporale, director of external affairs in charge of programs and events, with President Donald Trump. Special to the Tampa Bay Times

According to multiple reports, Caporale had issues with his security clearance and was let go by former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. This led to a rift between Kelly and the first lady that reportedly contributed to Kelly’s ouster.

Now, DeSantis’ office is paying Caporale $120,000 as director of external affairs in charge of programs and events.

In a statement, Aguirre Ferré said Caporale, 30, is a “well-known professional in the world of GOP politics and campaigns,” and was the executive director of DeSantis’ inauguration.

Caporale “left to pursue other opportunities, which is not unusual given the grueling schedule,” Ferré wrote of his White House departure. “We do not have any information from the White House, where he worked for one and a half years, that indicates Justin Caporale had an issue with his security clearance.”

The White House wouldn’t comment on Caporale’s security clearances. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Caporale went through the normal background check, though it added: “A background check for [state] employment is completely different than a federal background check for high-level security clearance.”

Attempts to reach Page were unsuccessful. Caporale declined to comment.

In a better year for Republicans, there may have been more competition for the services of people with federal experience, said Kathleen Shanahan, who has worked on transitions for two previous Florida governors, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. But DeSantis was one of the few bright spots in 2018 for the GOP.

“Florida is an important state to the country and we have a newly elected Republican governor,” Shanahan said. “There wasn’t a lot of success for Republicans last election and they want to work in a big state.”

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