TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — “Don’t say gay.” Regulation of books and discussion in the classroom. Teachers, parents, and school librarians, all navigating new and uncertain terrain. LGBTQ+ rights under attack. A very public dispute between the state government and Disney. And at the center of it all is a governor who has become a rival to former President Donald Trump and now has his eyes on the White House.
See also: As DeSantis officially launches his presidential campaign, Trump has a huge lead in the polls
This is Florida at this point in history, in the middle of 2023.
For many who live in Florida, the past few months have brought some changes, many related to Governor Ron DeSantis. Here, veteran Associated Press journalist Brendan Farrington, who has covered state politics since 1997, reflects on the changes of different groups and puts them in the context of the cultural and political landscape.
Below is Farrington’s look at how life in Florida is changing for various individuals and groups.
For the average Floridian: Cost of living concerns have become an issue and aren’t really addressed as openly as most people would have hoped.
Rents are through the roof. Homeowners insurance, whether you live near the coast or not, is becoming less available and less affordable.
Obviously, inflation has played a role, but much of the discussion has veered away from the issues that affect Floridians every day toward an “us against them” on cultural issues or abortion and race discussions.
Weapons are something else. Under a new law, anyone who can legally own a gun can also carry it concealed without a permit. You now need a permit to carry a weapon and go through training and a background check to carry a concealed weapon. That will no longer have to happen as of July 1.
There also seems to be an increase in hate-related incidents. Someone projected anti-Semitic messages at the Jacksonville Jaguars stadium last season and there have been self-proclaimed Nazis waving flags and banners at events.
And again, abortion. In April 2022, Florida passed a law banning abortion after 15 weeks, two months before the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, and passed a stricter law enforcing that ban after six weeks this year. It is clear that reproductive rights are being affected in Florida.
For teachers: With the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — opponents call it that because it prohibits talking about sexuality in schools with students — the argument of people who support the legislation say that it does not mention the word gay, that it is simply to protect children of material in which parents should have more say.
But because of the vague language, some people wonder if they can bring up LGBTQ+ issues. A student may ask, “Why does so-and-so have two moms?” Some teachers feel they can’t even address the question without ramifications.
The bill has also left some teachers feeling like they can’t even represent who they are in the classroom. If they are gay, transgender, or bisexual, they have been left to conclude that they cannot have or say anything to indicate that. This includes hiding items like couple photos and gay pride emblems.
Some people say it’s better to say nothing than risk violating the mandates of the state Department of Education.
For parents: It empowers parents who agree with DeSantis’ philosophy and ideology on education. But parents who welcome this discussion think, “What about us? What happened to our right to have our children taught these things? Parents with LGBTQ+ children feel that they are being denied access to health care and consequently their children will be at risk of depression or suicide.
It’s almost symbolic of a lot of what DeSantis has put forth. It divides people of different ideologies and empowers people who agree with it to speak up more. He empowers parents who, for religious or moral reasons or for whatever reason, do not want their children to be told about sexuality, particularly gender transition or other gay students.
And those parents who welcome these policies with open arms are becoming more involved in school boards. DeSantis, more than any other governor, has promoted school board races, encouraged people to run, helped out candidates who share his ideology, and encouraged parents to complain to school boards. He has put a lot more stress on the schools. And he is dividing people between ideologies. A Sarasota school board member recently walked out of a meeting after the Republican chairperson allowed a parent to personally attack him for being gay.
For library staff: School books must be approved by the school librarians. And that raised questions about schools that don’t currently have a “media specialist,” someone trained to work with staff on approving library and classroom materials.
It allows book investigations to be carried out more easily, forcing people to justify why books should be in schools in the face of complaints from people who want to ban them.
There are still many questions about the vague language used, such as whether a book can include an LGBTQ+ character even if it doesn’t contain sexual content. It’s causing schools to be a little more cautious, perhaps even more cautious than necessary, in an effort to comply with the governor’s wishes.
See: Florida school library limits access to Amanda Gorman poem for Biden inauguration after parent complaint
Also: Writing group PEN America and Penguin Random House publisher sue over Florida book ban
For LGBTQ+ people: It has caused some steps back in LGBTQ+ rights. I think people feel more threatened, that they may be subject to hate attacks, and by getting the government involved in these issues, homophobic people may feel that they can act badly more often.
I have spoken to many LGBTQ+ legislators and activists who feel they are not being treated as whole people and that the government is trying to suppress who they really are. In some cases, it is reminiscent of the anti-gay movement of the 1970s. But now, instead of fighting for rights, they are standing up for rights.
For Disney employees: I don’t know how it affects Walt Disney Co.
employee rights on a day-to-day basis. I’m sure they’re very interested in the dispute between DeSantis and his employer right now.
I don’t think Disney is ultimately going anywhere. North Carolina has brought up the idea of trying to attract famous theme parks. Some people have discussed that and wondered, “What happens if Disney moves?” But it’s a big company with such a big footprint in central Florida that it’s highly unlikely it’ll get to the point where Disney says, “No, we don’t want to be in Florida.”
However, the company has scrapped a billion-dollar plan for a new office campus, accompanied by relocating part of its workforce from southern California to central Florida.
For Democrats and Republicans: Democrats once dominated politics in the state of Florida. For decades, his party was in control. They controlled the legislature and the governor’s office most years. Even when Republicans were elected to the governor’s office, they had to contend with a Democratic legislature until Jeb Bush seemed to breathe new life into the state Republican Party, despite losing his first election in 1994. By the time he won in 1998, Republicans he had a legislative majority and he built on that year after year after year.
Republicans now have a large majority in the legislature. They now hold every state office and have more registered voters than Democrats. And the power of the party is playing to its strengths and voter turnout and messaging.
Democrats appear to be frustrated in Tallahassee because they have no power to stop legislation without the numbers to keep the bills from moving forward. Now they’re mostly relegated to courier, trying to work with colleagues across the aisle to change legislation to make what they call bad bills a little better.
But in general, they know they can’t do anything. The Republicans are having a field day and basically doing what they want. DeSantis has exerted more control over the Legislature than any governor he has seen.
To Ron DeSantis himself: Gov. DeSantis won re-election last fall by a greater margin than any Republican who has won in the state of Florida, refusing on the debate stage with Democrat Charlie Crist to say whether he was running for a second full term. He has used his re-election as a mandate that the state support him and his politics and ideology.
So you’ve made it more powerful in Florida. He has made him more emboldened. And the agenda that he has approved fits very well for a Republican presidential primary.
A lot of the problems he’s tackled, he’s doing it to play in places like Iowa and South Carolina as well as Florida. She has used the word woke up more times in the last year than probably in the previous four years. That has been a big change for him.
He’s been doing his book tour and traveling. Name recognition of hers has skyrocketed nationally outside of Florida. But with that, he is coming under increasing criticism from his fellow Republicans, especially Trump.
Other candidates and potential hopefuls, including Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, have criticized him for attacking Disney, which they say is attacking corporations and not what Republicans do. In turn, DeSantis has had to defend himself more. Even before formally entering the 2024 race, he had essentially been campaigning while traveling to Iowa, New Hampshire and other key primary states, as well as trying to build foreign policy credentials by traveling abroad.
Keep reading: NAACP and other civil rights groups issue Florida travel advisories