The governor, an authoritarian boss who needed to look tough in his re-election year, had a problem down in the Tampa Bay area.
The conservative Republican could not tolerate any insubordination on one of his signature issues — especially not on a hotly controversial topic that Florida voters were talking about. Oh, sure, there were certain picky little details of law, constitutionality and legal precedent involved, and the governor’s antagonist was a duly elected public officer who didn’t answer to Tallahassee.
But when you’ve got political power, you use it. And so, with a stroke of his pen, the governor fired the disobedient local officer and proudly proclaimed he was standing up for common sense and the will of the people. Public reaction was swift and furious — which was just what he expected.
More from Bill Cotterell:
If you think this is a column about Gov. Ron DeSantis suspending Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, you’re right. But the events recounted above happened not last week but just over a half-century ago, in a very different era of Florida politics.
There are some amusing similarities to today’s news.
Gov. Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, had made school busing for racial integration a big part of his 1970 bid for a second term. When the Manatee County School Board obeyed a federal court edict, Kirk suspended not only the entire board but the county superintendent — and flew down to Bradenton to take command of the schools himself.
Kirk had devised a definition of “neighborhood schools,” essentially saying kids would attend the schools closest to their homes, which he said was better than cross-town bus rides. Federal judges are notoriously impatient with governors who say, “Uh, no, see, instead of your order, this is what we’ll do….” so Kirk was threatened with fines of $10,000 a day and possible arrest.
Long story short, he relented.
The school board and superintendent went back to work and the standoff was buried among a dozen or so other marvelous Claude Kirk legends.
But there are also some dissimilarities in these epic election-year events.
Kirk ousted the Manatee County officials for something they did, obeying a court order. DeSantis removed Warren for something he intended — stating he would not prosecute under Florida’s new abortion law or the governor’s intended edict regulating medical practice for youthful gender dysphoria.
“Warren has effectively nullified these laws in the 13th judicial circuit, thereby eroding the rule of law, encouraging lawlessness, and usurping the exclusive role of the Florida Legislature to define criminal conduct,” DeSantis said in his executive order.
Maybe. Maybe not. But he didn’t do anything yet. He advocated a legal position, which is every lawyer’s job. No abortion or gender cases have reached state attorney’s office yet.
“DeSantis is trying to take away my job for doing my job,” Warren countered.
Another difference from 52 years ago is, Democrats ran the Legislature back then and the Senate would never have upheld Kirk’s suspension of the school officials. Today’s GOP-controlled Legislature would happily do anything DeSantis wants — law and precedent be damned.
And Kirk, a self-described “tree-shaking SOB,” was in deep political trouble after nearly four turbulent years. His election in 1966 was a fluke and he drew two serious opponents in the Republican 1970 primary — one of whom forced him into a runoff.
He was headed for defeat in November by moderate Democrat Reubin Askew.
DeSantis, born about eight years after Kirk left office, has no such re-election obstacles in this Trump era of GOP dominance. Warren’s ouster was hotly denounced by editorial writers — as Kirk’s action was in 1970 — but Republicans have been winning without them for decades anyway.
Warren is fighting to reclaim the office to which voters twice elected him. But even if he succeeds, DeSantis comes out of this with the political points that Kirk couldn’t score so long ago.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org