Culture

Why Florida is ground zero for America’s ‘culture war’

“Just imagine living your life of 30 years, coming to your parents and talking about who you are — and you’re lying to them about who you are,” said Jones, a 38-year-old Democrat from Miami Gardens.

He attempted to convince the GOP-led Senate to weaken the bill, officially called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which explicitly bans teachers from leading lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten through third grade. But his words didn’t sway lawmakers, who on Tuesday approved the measure amid widespread opposition from LGBTQ supporters, including President Joe Biden .

Passage of the bill was, in many ways, the culmination of a legislative session in the nation’s third-largest state unlike any in recent memory. It was a session in which the GOP-led Legislature’s constant focus on “culture war” issues resulted in lawmakers approving policies to grant more power to parents over what their children learn, heighten scrutiny on school instruction and books, and ensure there will be turnover among local school boards, which have been frequent targets of the state GOP.

Together, the proposals, touted as banner legislation, give Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans fuel for the 2022 midterm elections as education has been thrust into the spotlight since the Covid-19 pandemic began and helped spark a backlash in the suburbs and in swing states.

The GOP also passed a strict ban on all abortions after 15 weeksapproved an immigration measure that bars state entities from doing business with companies that transport undocumented migrant children to Florida, and created a new election police unit that DeSantis touted amid an effort by some Republicans to do a full-blown audit of the 2020 election. At each step along the way, there has been raw, emotional debate that featured harrowing accounts from members of both parties.

“I look forward to a time when we’re able to get back to fighting for the real issues facing Floridians instead of these ridiculous culture war distractions that do nothing to meet the needs of everyday people,” said Lauren Book, the Senate Democratic leader .

The long line of legislation shows Republicans in the nation’s biggest battleground state are focused primarily on appealing to the GOP base in a crucial election when the Governor’s Mansion, three Cabinet seats and all 160 seats of the Florida Legislature are up for grabs. The action in Tallahassee is likely an early demonstration of the Republican Party’s strategy to win back the White House by focusing on some of the most divisive, hard-right policy bills the nation has encountered in recent times.

For the GOP faithful in the state, the legislative action marks a moment that they have been looking forward to for a long time. They say it explains why DeSantis has burst into the national consciousness as a possible 2024 presidential contender and potential heir to the populism that propelled former President Donald Trump into office.

“Governor DeSantis hasn’t just campaigned and given lip service on issues important to conservatives, but he has led and delivered on those important issues, and along the way shown a principled backbone of steel that conservatives have been begging to see from all of our their local, state and national elected officials,” said Christian Ziegler, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida whose wife was one of the founders of Moms for Liberty. “It’s not just refreshing, but it is setting the model that all conservative elected officials officials — present and future — across the country should follow.”

And the surge of criticism directed at Florida hasn’t cowed Republicans. Instead, led by DeSantis, who has vowed repeatedly to not back down to the “corporate media” and “woke corporations,” GOP politicians in the Sunshine State have stood proud as they’ve defended the policies, especially the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“When you drop your kids off in the morning like I do, and they go into school, do my rights end as a parent?” GOP House Speaker Chris Sprowls told reporters this week. “Have I ceded all of my authority to the school district so they can teach our kids whatever they want whenever they want? And I think the conversation you’ve seen us have in the House this year is we don’t believe that.”

Florida’s state government has been in the firm control of Republicans for nearly 25 years, and most of the time that translated into cutting taxes, loosening business regulations or clashing with teachers unions over vouchers and charter schools. This is the state that pushed ahead with one of the first ‘stand your ground’ laws in the nation. Lawmakers and Gov. Jeb Bush garnered national attention when they waded into the fierce legal tug-of-war over Terri Schiavo, a woman who was in a persistent vegetative state.

Some of the “culture war” clashes on display this year have already played out in other states. But the condensed nature of Florida’s 60-day session put the nation’s politics into overdrive in the halls of the Capitol.

Democrats see it all as another sign that Florida is trending steadily to the right.

“It means that Florida Republicans are gambling it all on DeSantis cruising to re-election in 2022 and that DeSantis himself sees the clearest and safest path to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination as him becoming the Supreme MAGA commander of the culture wars,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster and consultant.

The bills considered this session were not all at the behest of DeSantis. House Republicans helped craft some of the proposals, including the legislation banning teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in the lowest grades of elementary school.

But DeSantis has embraced the legislation, even engaging in full-throated denunciation of Disney this week after Bob Chapek, the CEO of the company, told shareholders he wanted to meet with the governor to discuss why the company was opposed to the bill headed to his desk.

“The chance that I am going to back down from my commitment to students, and back down from my commitment to parents rights simply because of fraudulent media narratives or pressure from woke corporations, the chances of that are zero,” DeSantis said in a campaign video released Friday.

GOP leaders for the past few weeks have blamed the media for the poor reception the proposals received and claimed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was mischaracterized and misreported nationally.

Democrats and LGTBQ advocates, however, argue that the measure represents a broader attack on the LGTBQ community rooted in homophobia and transphobia. They say it will only further marginalize students, exposing them to bullying, and even push kids to suicide.

One Republican Florida lawmaker, Sen. Ileana Garcia of Miami, sparked intense backlash over her comments on the bill when she claimed that being gay is not “permanent.”

The statements from Garcia, who was also criticized by LGBTQ advocates for referring to personal friend who is transgender by the incorrect pronouns, led to a protest at her local legislative office.

“Gay is not a permanent thing, LGBT is not a permanent thing — and it’s not a bad thing,” Garcia said on the Senate floor this week. “This isn’t at all about targeting. I think this is about perhaps about rerouting the responsibilities back to the parents.” Scientific studies suggest that people don’t choose to be gay.

The intense debate in Florida hasn’t been contained to just one bill.

Legislators on Thursday approved a measure that would expand Florida’s anti-discrimination laws to prohibit schools and companies from leveling guilt or blame on students and employees based on race or sex, taking aim at lessons over issues like “white privilege.”

Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) defended the need for the bill by explaining that her grandfather, a former Sumter County sheriff more than 100 years ago, sacrificed his political career to ensure a Black man received a fair trial and avoided a lynch mob . She said his actions cost him his reelection, and eventually the local courthouse was burned down.

“I will agree … that we all have a stain on our history for the actions of some,” said Stargel. “But I would have a real hard time if my children had to sit in a classroom and be told that they need to feel guilt and shame for what happened, because I think my children have the ability to stand tall and proud for the behavior of their grandfather and what he did — and what he sacrificed for another man and another race.”

In his own remarks to the Senate, state Sen. Bobby Powell also told lawmakers that “slavery happened, hangings happened … Jim Crow happened, George Floyd happened.”

Powell, a Black Democrat from Palm Beach County, started repeating that America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

His final words were then: “The land of the free, yet still the home of the slave.”

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