DeSantis visits 3 states on tour meant to show he is tough on crime
By Jonathan Weisman and Emma G. Fitzsimmons
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a presumed but unannounced candidate for the presidency, barnstormed through three Democratic metropolises earlier this week, appealing to embattled police officers and crime-concerned citizens with an address pledging more support for law enforcement and vowing to battle liberal-minded criminal justice reforms.
The Presidents Day stops in New York and the suburbs of Philadelphia and Chicago were meant to tweak Democratic politicians who run those cities, with denunciations of “woke” prosecutors and anti-police talk. Part Florida boosterism, part campaign stump speech, the three stops were also supposed to establish the Florida governor’s appeal with the kind of Republican-leaning suburban voters who fled former President Donald Trump and must be pulled back for the GOP to recapture the White House next year.
“We’re grateful to be here to deliver a very important message, a message about safe communities, the rule of law and about standing by the people that wear the uniform and put themselves at risk to protect us,” he told an audience of law enforcement officers at an Elmhurst, Illinois, Knights of Columbus hall, well outside Chicago, a city that has been demonized as lawless and ungovernable since Trump’s 2016 campaign.
He also appeared in Fort Washington, a Philadelphia suburb, and on Staten Island, the one borough that voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.
DeSantis, 44, has captured the attention of Republican voters by presenting himself as a younger, more policy-focused heir to Trump. Violent crime, which surged in the last year of Trump’s presidency, has ebbed slightly with the virulence of the coronavirus pandemic. But it remains a major concern for voters. And it has dominated a mayoral campaign in Chicago whose first round of voting ends Feb. 28.
By appearing with the Fraternal Order of Police, the conservative police officers union, DeSantis seemed determined to generate headlines, three months after Trump became the first declared Republican candidate of the 2024 presidential election and a week after the former president was joined by Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor.
Mayor Eric Adams of New York coldly welcomed the Florida governor to his city and said he might find it different from his home state because, Adams said, it does not ban books, discriminate against gay residents or interfere with abortion rights.
“We’re happy to teach you something about values while you’re here,” Adams said.
If anything, DeSantis elicited a sharper response in Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, called on “every candidate hoping to hold public office in the land of Lincoln” to denounce the appearance, and where Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, in the midst of a difficult reelection campaign, sought to link DeSantis with a rival, Paul Vallas, who is backed by the police union.
On Monday, Lightfoot called DeSantis “a right-wing demagogue” who is “racing to the bottom to outdo Trump, whether it’s trying to sanitize history and, frankly, erase the things that he doesn’t agree with” or “denying the fact that COVID is real and deadly.”
Vallas, who is running in the nonpartisan mayoral race as the law-and-order candidate, released a statement Friday saying, “There is simply no place in Chicago for a right-wing extremist like Ron DeSantis, and I am disappointed in F.O.P. leadership for inviting him to speak to officers.”
DeSantis and his staff have delighted in stirring up such turmoil in Democratic strongholds. His combative press secretary, Christina Pushaw, tweeted back at Adams, “Nice rhetoric — but here’s reality: More Americans fled NYC than any other metro area last year. More Americans moved to Florida than any other state.”
She concluded, “Maybe it’s you who can learn from” DeSantis.
In Elmhurst, it was clear the political wars of the Trump years were not about to abate if the spotlight turns to DeSantis. Suburban Chicagoans faced off, one side shouting through bullhorns to protest DeSantis’ policies on education, abortion and LGBT issues, and the other, just as loud and amplified, extolling his views on crime and policing.
Inside the hall, Rep. Darin LaHood, a Republican whose district stretches through the Chicago exurbs from Peoria to Rockford, introduced DeSantis. Outside, Rep. Sean Casten, a Democrat who represents close-in Chicago suburbs, joined the protesters.
One of those protesters, Kim Cambra, 60, of Elmhurst, said she voted for Trump twice, but one of her daughters is gay, and another, who was transgender, died in 2020 of a heroin overdose, possibly self-inflicted. The anti-transgender talk of both DeSantis and Trump brought her out Monday.
“I wish I could vote for Trump again, but if he’s going to make my daughter unsafe, I just can’t,” she said.
DeSantis was introduced in New York by Lee Zeldin, the former Long Island congressman who lost last year’s governor’s race to Kathy Hochul, the incumbent Democrat, and who has been a staunch ally of Trump’s. Zeldin’s presence suggested a possible loosening of Trump’s political grip on top Republicans in his former home state.
DeSantis’ message resonated with New Yorkers who are frustrated about a rise in major crimes, said Joseph Borelli, the City Council’s Republican minority leader, who attended the event, at the restaurant Privé.
“His message was simple — that Florida has hit a 50-year low in crime because they haven’t enacted policies like bail reform and defund the police,” he said. “Every time you open a newspaper, they’re talking about crime in New York and other big progressive cities.”
Experts have questioned how substantially crime has decreased in Florida because data for 2021 was released as law enforcement agencies moved to a new FBI methodology for collecting such statistics.
Many New Yorkers moved to Florida during the pandemic, including wealthy residents like billionaire Carl Icahn. In 2020, New York City had a net loss of nearly 21,000 residents to Florida, according to IRS data, almost double the average annual net loss from before the pandemic.
Illinois experienced a similar migration, which included Ken Griffin, founder of the hedge fund giant Citadel and one of the GOP’s largest donors. Undeterred, Democratic leaders in Illinois have pressed forward with progressive legislation to limit cash bail and ban assault weapons, the kind of governance DeSantis railed against at each stop Monday.