A Democrat’s Unusual, Up-Close View of DeSantis

When Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — who was sworn in for a second term on Tuesday — tapped Jared Moskowitz to run the state’s disaster-relief agency in 2018, he praised him as “an effective Democratic voice in the Republican-dominated Legislature.”

It was a bipartisan gesture that seems almost quaint in hindsight, given the sharply conservative direction in which DeSantis has steered his state. Moskowitz is now entering Congress representing a newly redrawn House district that includes Boca Raton and parts of Fort Lauderdale, positioning himself as a centrist Democrat who understands how to work across the aisle.

“I’m doing this to fight for normal,” Moskowitz said in an interview. “I think the American people voted for normal in this last election, and they voted against crazy.”

When Moskowitz was appointed, his formative political experience as a state lawmaker was working with Republicans in Tallahassee to pass the first gun-safety law in Florida in two decades. It’s hard to imagine DeSantis, who has promised to allow Floridians to carry concealed firearms without a permit, signing such a bill today.

Moskowitz is an alumnus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a 19-year-old former student murdered 17 people in 2018, and he first gained national attention for the emotional speech he gave to promote the legislation.

The bill was a somewhat awkward compromise that blended — arguably by political necessity in a state long friendly to gun rights — ideas from left and right. It raised the legal age of owning a firearm to 21, imposed a three-day waiting period for background checks to be conducted, increased funding for mental health programs and hardened school facilities.

But the measure didn’t go as far as many advocates had wanted in banning military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines. To the consternation of teachers’ unions and even of Rick Scott, the governor at the time, who signed the bill despite some reservations, it also allowed schools to arm teachers — but only if the local sheriff’s department agreed, and only after extensive training.

Moskowitz’s son was 4 years old on the chaotic day of the shooting and was attending a preschool nearby. His writing teacher, Jennifer Guttenberg, hid with him in a closet; she would later learn that her own daughter was killed at the high school. That night, Moskowitz spent hours with anguished parents as they awaited word of their children’s fate.

“We just went through this with Pulse a year and a half earlier,” he recalled thinking at the time, referring to the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub. “The state did absolutely nothing in response to that.”

Florida’s State Legislature is a part-time body, and Moskowitz was also a senior executive at a company that specializes in disaster recovery. One lesson he took from that experience is that during a crisis, acting immediately is essential. Unlike after the Pulse shooting, the Legislature was in session at the time, and Scott was vying to unseat Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat. There was a chance to jam through a gun-safety bill, but it had to happen quickly.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and His Administration

  • Reshaping Florida: Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has turned the swing state into a right-wing laboratory by leaning into cultural battles.
  • 2024 Speculation: Mr. DeSantis opened his second term as Florida’s governor with a speech that subtly signaled his long-rumored ambitions for the White House.
  • Latino Evangelicals: The governor has courted Hispanic evangelical Christians assiduously as his national profile has risen. They could be a decisive constituency in a possible showdown with former President Donald J. Trump in 2024.

So Moskowitz urged several Republican colleagues to visit Parkland and see the aftermath of the shooting for themselves.

“And they came the very next day and they saw the school exactly what it looked like 36 hours after the shooting,” he recalled. “Backpacks piled up outside, homework scattered all over the place, blood in the hallway, blood outside the door.”

With pro-gun groups threatening to back primary challengers, there was little political incentive for Republicans to get on board. But when the bill passed a little more than three weeks after the shooting, 75 out of 99 G.O.P. lawmakers voted for it anyway.

Moskowitz, DeSantis and the pandemic

After overcoming his qualms about taking the disaster-relief job, Moskowitz would go on to run the Florida Division of Emergency Management under DeSantis for over two years.

The position thrust him into a national political maelstrom over Florida’s handling of the pandemic. It was a grueling experience: months away from his wife and two young boys, 20-hour workdays scrounging the world for protective equipment, and duels with news outlets that questioned Florida’s vaccine strategy and its aggressive timetable for reopening schools and businesses.

His first task was to lead recovery efforts in the Florida Panhandle, which had just endured a Category Five hurricane, and the experience immediately put him in close contact with DeSantis as they toured ravaged areas.

“I probably spent more time with him than any other secretary,” Moskowitz said. And while DeSantis has a reputation for being acerbic in person, the two men have “a good relationship,” he added.

Moskowitz’s office helped devise the state’s strategy of vaccinating older people first, at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was urging a different approach.

“They wanted you to start with essential workers,” Moskowitz recalled. “We got a bunch of crap for that.”

Moskowitz speaking in 2018 to students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which he attended.Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Florida’s vaccination efforts have drawn criticism from academic researchers as well as from the news media. CBS News’s “60 Minutes” broadcast a much-criticized episode accusing DeSantis of using the distribution program as some kind of political favor for Publix, a Florida grocery chain that had been a campaign donor.

Moskowitz defended the Publix partnership as a pragmatic decision because there was little federal infrastructure in place at the time to get shots into arms quickly, and Publix had agreed to get moving within 72 hours. What’s more, he pointed out, Publix had also donated to Democrats.

Where others fault DeSantis for arrogantly brushing aside the advice of public health experts, Moskowitz called him “detail-oriented” and “data-driven.” He described how the governor had pored over studies from European countries that reintroduced in-person learning ahead of the United States, highlighting portions he found noteworthy.

“This is a guy that can absorb a lot of information,” Moskowitz said. “He’s extremely bright.”

As for some Democrats’ view that DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic offers a political opportunity to attack the governor for causing unnecessary deaths — Covid-19 has killed more than 83,000 people in Florida so far, the third-most of any state, in line with its population ranking — Moskowitz is skeptical.

“You might be right that reopening society may have led to more deaths,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that people didn’t want it.”

But Moskowitz demurred when I asked him about DeSantis’s recent call to investigate vaccine manufacturers for allegedly downplaying potential health side effects, positioning himself to Donald Trump’s right as the governor weighs a presidential run.

“I can’t speak for him on this, because obviously I’m not there anymore,” Moskowitz said. “So I don’t know what he’s looking at or what the thought is. I think Florida should be proud of their vaccine administration program.”

‘We have to admit that Florida is a red state’

Underlying Moskowitz’s caution is the fact that along with New York, Florida was the state where Republicans had their strongest electoral showing of 2022.

For the first time since Reconstruction, there are no longer any Democrats in statewide office in Florida. The House delegation shrank to eight Democrats from nine, out of 28 total seats. DeSantis easily dispatched Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor turned Democratic congressman who was widely panned as a lackluster retread. Senator Marco Rubio defeated Representative Val Demings by a similar margin.

In November, Moskowitz defeated Joe Budd, a staunchly pro-Trump entrepreneur, by only five percentage points — a sign of just how far right the state has shifted. The district includes Broward County, a diverse Democratic stronghold, as well as portions of wealthy Palm Beach County to the north. In their 2018 race for governor, Andrew Gillum beat DeSantis in Broward County by 37 percentage points and won Palm Beach County by 17; four years later, DeSantis shrank his losing margin in Broward to 15 points and won Palm Beach by three. It was the first time a Republican had won the county since 1986.

According to a postelection deep dive by Matthew Isbell, a Florida elections analyst, DeSantis won Moskowitz’s 23rd District by about one percentage point.

Surveying these recent electoral trends, Moskowitz said, “I think we have to admit that Florida is a red state.”

If Democrats can’t win back some portion of Cuban and Venezuelan Americans in formerly blue Miami-Dade County, which DeSantis also flipped on his way to a 19-point statewide romp, they won’t have a chance in any statewide elections for the foreseeable future.

The basic mistake Democrats have made in Florida, Moskowitz said, was the same error Republicans committed everywhere else in 2022 — assuming they could simply attack President Biden’s handling of the economy without putting forward a detailed policy agenda of their own.

“We never told people what we were for and what we wanted to do,” Moskowitz said. “We just said: ‘Ron DeSantis is terrible. All these things he’s doing are terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible.’ OK. But we never we never gave them what we would do with power.”

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