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Column: Ron DeSantis proves cruelty is a Republican trait

Florida’s governor has been dubbed “Donald Trump with brains” so often by other Republicans, and the journalists who quote them, that he might as well be identified as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Brains). But what about a heart?

Well, no need for DeSantis to turn Tin Man and go looking for one. As he seeks reelection on Nov. 8, en route perhaps to a presidential run, it happens that a heart isn’t required in the Republican Party. Indeed, it’s discouraged. The party’s aggrieved voters are pining for authoritarian strongman types (aspirants don’t have to be men, as Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake proves), Trumpians who will tromp on whatever marginalized group they fear to ascend the political ladder.

Fresh off his national notoriety for rounding up four dozen mostly Venezuelan migrants — in Texas! — and flying them to Martha’s Vineyard on false promises of jobs, DeSantis made national news again this week for another cruel political stunt.

The Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald released video clips from local police officers’ body cameras that captured the arrests in August of nearly 20 Floridians for illegal voting. All were former felons who thought they’d been cleared to vote and had voter-registration cards issued by the state to prove it.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

The scenes are heartbreaking — those arrested are blindsided at their homes, stricken, confused. Yet that cruelty is the point for DeSantis and his ilk. They want to prove themselves enforcers against the right’s perceived threats, politicians who will do anything and everything to “own the libs.”

Not that long ago, in contrast, another Republican angling to be president, George W. Bush, labeled himself a “compassionate conservative” to win votes. The moniker wasn’t intended to please his basest base; Bush used it to appeal to independents, moderate Republicans and even some Democrats as he worked to separate himself from the mean-spirited Newt Gingrich brand of Republicanism.

That’s not DeSantis’ way. For a sort of split-screen reveal of his M.O., watch the videos from Florida showing three of the 19 arrests on Aug. 18, most of them of Black voters, and then turn to a clip of DeSantis’ news conference announcing the apprehensions.

The governor, surrounded by uniformed law-enforcement officers and applauded loudly, is all gung-ho machismo as he touts those first scalps taken by his new Office of Election Crimes and Security, which he created to crack down on alleged but virtually nonexistent voter fraud in Florida.

“That was against the law,” he fumes over the former felons’ voting, “and they’re going to pay a price for it.”

Meanwhile, the officers left with the dirty job of actually making the arrests are almost apologetic as they approach stunned but compliant citizens, cuff them and haul them to jail. A man identified as Tony Patterson, 40, insists on his innocence throughout: “I thought felons were able to vote. That’s why I signed a petition form, that’s what I remember. Why would you let me vote if I wasn’t able to vote?”

“I’m not sure, buddy,” the officer replies. “I don’t know.”

“Oh, my God,” 55-year-old Romona Oliver exclaims repeatedly as police, who intercepted her as she walked to her car to drive to work, explain why they’re arresting her. She sputters that she’s done no wrong. An officer says softly, “Hold up, listen. I know you’re caught off-guard. I understand, right?” He tells her she’ll be booked and quickly released. “You can go right out,” another officer adds reassuringly.

As the cuffs go on, Nathan Hart, 49, protests that he was encouraged to register to vote when he applied for a driver’s license after leaving prison, even after telling the clerk that he is a convicted felon. “Then there’s your defense,” a sympathetic officer tells him.

The confusion among DeSantis’ targets that day is understandable. Blame the governor and Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature.

Four years ago, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to amend the state constitution to restore voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences. That’s what most people remember: “When I got out, the guy told me I was free and clear to go vote because I had done my time,” Oliver tells the police on the video. But the state’s Republican politicians, unhappy with an expansion of the franchise, set conditions on the restoration of voting rights, and state law holds that people convicted of murder or felony sex offenses, like those arrested in August, aren’t automatically eligible to vote.

The law also says a person has to commit voter fraud “willfully” to be found guilty. In most instances, people vote illegally by mistake, and they typically get a slap on the wrist, if that.

“What is wrong with this state, man?” Patterson lamented as he was led away.

It’s not the state, it’s the governor. The question should be: What kind of person does the things DeSantis does?

If the empathy of the officers who made the arrests that summer day is any sign, I imagine they went to their homes that night trying to forget what they’d been called upon to do to fellow citizens who’d served time, paid their debt to society and then found themselves back in trouble for simply performing their civic duty.

DeSantis was probably in his governor’s manse, tallying his latest political points.

“He has always loved embarrassing and humiliating people,” a former teammate on Yale’s baseball team told the New Yorker.

And now that predilection has made him the man who’s deemed Trump’s leading potential rival for Republicans’ 2024 presidential nomination. Trump likes to boast that he “made” DeSantis, by endorsing him for governor in 2018. He did his work too well.


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