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With the end of his presidential run, will DeSantis retreat from the culture wars?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is no longer a candidate for president in 2024, but he has three years left on his term in Florida. Will he be the Governor DeSantis of his early years in office, where he won some praise for reaching across party lines, or will he remain the culture warrior of his presidential campaign? WFSU's Lynn Hatter reports.

LYNN HATTER, BYLINE: Florida's Republican Senate President Kathleen Passidomo introduced DeSantis at his State of the State Address recently as America's governor.

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KATHLEEN PASSIDOMO: Members of the legislature, ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege and honor to introduce to you America's governor, the governor of the great state of Florida, Ron DeSantis.

HATTER: DeSantis built his national reputation challenging schoolbooks and restricting gender discussion in classrooms. He signed a six-week abortion ban, still stuck in court, and opposed diversity programs, even in private businesses. His critics view his moves as anti-Black, anti-woman and anti-LGBTQ. But DeSantis' first two years in office looked a lot different. He pardoned four Black men wrongfully accused of a 1949 rape. He appointed a Democrat to lead the state's emergency management agency, and Florida, like the rest of the nation, went on lockdown early in the pandemic. Now, upon his return to Florida from the campaign trail, many people are openly wondering which version of DeSantis will show up next.

MAC STIPANOVICH: He needs to remain active, but in perhaps, in my judgment, a less controversial way.

HATTER: Mac Stipanovich Panovich is a former lobbyist and political strategist who long worked for Republicans. Today, he's a registered independent and now retired. DeSantis' policies are having very real impacts on the lives of Floridians, says Stipanovich.

STIPANOVICH: There are teachers losing their jobs for doing their jobs, people who aren't hurting anybody, the drag queen on Sunday morning at the brunch. The government of the state of Florida tells me, as a businessman, what I can tell my employees about race. How is that conservative?

HATTER: Observers say DeSantis' combative style has taken a toll inside state agencies as well.

R B HOLMES: People in state government, a great many people, feel like they are in prison, that they have lost their voice, lost their place and really going to work just to try to finish up. That's a bad workplace.

HATTER: Prominent Florida pastor R.B. Holmes is a former Republican turned independent who has been friendly with several Florida governors, but not this one.

HOLMES: I'm not his enemy.

HATTER: Holmes has been openly critical of DeSantis' approach, especially when it comes to issues of race.

HOLMES: I thought I could have a good relationship with Governor DeSantis, but that has not worked. I'm not against him. I'm against his policies.

HATTER: DeSantis' return to Florida is being met with wariness by Democrats, says Lauren Book, the Florida Senate's minority leader.

LAUREN BOOK: I thought that it was good that he was preoccupied, certainly, and let us do our job. But, you know, I think that the rest of the country didn't want to be Florida or his version of Florida.

HATTER: DeSantis says he's given Floridians what they want, restoring conservative values to the public square. He won a second term in 2022 by a wide margin and notes that Florida Republicans now far outnumber Democrats. Here he is recently.

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RON DESANTIS: It just shows you that's what leadership does. People - they are going to gravitate to good results. And we see that in the migration patterns. We also see it in the party change pattern. So we're going to continue to do that. We'll have a lot of good results this legislative session. And Florida will continue to lead the way.

HATTER: And as he's reminding people now, he still has three years left in office and still wields the veto pen.

For NPR News, I'm Lynn Hatter in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lynn Hatter
Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.