First lady and second in command of Florida

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hugs his wife, Casey, at their election night party in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 8, 2022. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hugs his wife, Casey, at their election night party in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 8, 2022. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

During a recent appearance in South Carolina, after Ron DeSantis exaggerated his state’s economic and education policies and criticized a litany of ideological opponents, his wife sat in an armchair next to him onstage, reflecting on her role. as the first lady of Florida.

“I didn’t want to be that proverbial potted plant,” Casey DeSantis said.

No one, fan, skeptic or critic, would accuse her of that.

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Casey DeSantis, 42, is widely considered to be perhaps Ron DeSantis’ most important adviser. At the governor’s mansion, he advised on media strategy and helped vet staff. She has narrated some of her most striking commercials and has taken on far-reaching projects on topics such as mental health, disaster relief and cancer, surviving herself.

Now, as Ron DeSantis enters the presidential race, people who know Casey DeSantis or have encountered her on the fledgling election campaign expect her to play a vital role in her biggest run yet, seeking to shape perceptions of the campaign. , to build relationships with party stakeholders and to illuminate the personal side of her tough husband, who sometimes struggles to connect.

“You have the first ladies who are more in a supportive position; they’re not one to be perplexed,” said Steven Wright, the Republican chairman in Dorchester County, South Carolina, who caught up with Casey DeSantis during the couple’s tour of the area. “And then you have the first ladies who are similar to Casey DeSantis.”

In recent weeks, he’s raved about Iowa’s gas station pizza and highlighted his personal connections to South Carolina, the South’s first primary state (he attended the University of Charleston, where he competed on the equestrian team).

She has met with local Republican officials and offered public glimpses into family life as a mother of three. When Ron DeSantis spoke at a Republican dinner in Ohio last month, Casey DeSantis also joined the ride, touring her hometown of Troy, Ohio, where the family met with the mayor.

“She shows the human side of the governor and her personal side,” Wright said.

And she and Ron DeSantis recently invited Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative from Iowa, to lunch at the governor’s mansion.

“They could free her up to go on her own to represent the governor at different campaign events that he can’t be at,” Vander Plaats said, citing her “ability to be very level-headed in front of a crowd.” He recalled dinner with arugula spring salad, prosciutto-wrapped scallops with green beans, and a dessert of fruit salad with strawberries.

Ron DeSantis met Jill Casey Black, a local news reporter at the time, at a driving range complex in Florida, he wrote in his recent book, “The Courage to Be Free.” They were married at Walt Disney World, years before Ron DeSantis went to war with Disney. (“Casey’s family was what one might call a family of Disney enthusiasts,” he wrote.)

Casey DeSantis built a career as a television personality in Florida, though that background hasn’t stopped her from imitating her husband in criticizing the “wake up corporate media.”

“She’s very aware of public events, the news cycle, optics,” said Stephen Lawson, who served as a spokesman for Ron DeSantis during his 2018 gubernatorial run. where she comes from and her story centers around her, and I think she’s going to continue to play a pivotal role in how that story unfolds.

“She is his main sounding board,” he added.

In that 2018 pageant, he narrated an ad that highlighted Ron DeSantis’ loyalty to President Donald Trump by showing him encouraging his young son to “build the wall” with blocks.

Last year, she recorded an emotional direct-to-camera announcement, her voice shaking as she described how her husband had helped her through cancer.

He also promoted a video showing his political rise as divinely inspired.

Casey DeSantis has also been linked to the political drama, and some have questioned the reach of her portfolio in office, wondering if she has too much influence within the governor’s insular inner circle.

“She assumes an authority that she doesn’t have,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Republican-turned-independent who served as a longtime Florida strategist and lobbyist, though he said he was sharing his impressions rather than firsthand knowledge. “Where did this woman’s strategic political genius come from?”

“People were always wondering who is the closest person to Ron, who is someone who can hear him.” added Nikki Fried, now chair of the Florida Democratic Party and a former agriculture commissioner who ran unsuccessfully for governor in the Democratic primary last year. The only name she ever came up with, she said, “was Casey’s.”

Lindsey Curnutte, a spokeswoman for DeSantis’ team, did not respond to a request for comment.

But Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Fla., who worked with the DeSantises as Florida’s director of emergency management, said he found Casey DeSantis someone who was receptive to ideas and whose “door was always open.”

“The first lady, who has significant experience in communications, walks into a room and really wows,” said Moskowitz, who supports President Joe Biden’s re-election bid.

There is a long history of politicians navigating the complexities of involving family members in their campaigns or administrations, including Bill and Hillary Clinton and Vice President Kamala Harris, whose sister was a key adviser during their presidential primary campaign.

In New York City, Chirlane McCray was the closest adviser to her husband, Bill de Blasio, when he ran for mayor and later during his time on City Council, an arrangement that was at times controversial.

In an interview, de Blasio, a Democrat who “strongly” supports Biden, defended the art of the political power couple, saying that “when it feels natural, it’s irreplaceable.”

“You need someone who understands your goals, your motivations, what you can handle, what you can’t, all of that, and all of that goes into a well-rounded spouse,” de Blasio said.

But he acknowledged that, depending on the couple, spousal counselors might also be “too close to the situation.”

“There is a great tradition of spouses being very protective and defensive of their loved one in office,” she said. “Sometimes that can create a blindness or a kind of knee-jerk reaction, or a sense of revenge that isn’t always productive.

“It can be a beautiful model, it can be a powerful model,” he added, “or it can really backfire.”

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