Eager to clamp down on power and rile up their evermore extreme right-wing base, Republican legislators have spent the first four months of 2021 passing one egregiously bigoted and short-sighted bill after another.
For the most part, GOP state legislatures have each prioritized one signature initiative. Many have seized on an abject lie to push extreme voter suppression laws, others have stoked culture wars with attacks on trans people, and still others have gone the tried and true route of further collapsing the social safety net.
Florida Republicans, ever the ambitious bunch, are in the midst of pursuing all of the above.
Over the past few weeks, they have floated and in some cases passed legislation to advance malicious policies that, taken together, are designed to hurt anyone that isn’t a wealthy white person:
- Restrictive voting policies that make it far harder to vote by mail.
- An attack on teachers’ unions.
- Blockades on unemployment benefits.
- The criminalization of protesting.
- And a bill that would not only ban trans kids from participating in girls’ high school sports, but would subject students to “genital inspections” that one Democratic lawmaker has likened to “state-sanctioned sexual assault.”
That last one is no misprint or copy error — HB 1475, which passed the Florida House late last week, would subject kids suspected of being trans to invasive examinations regulated by the state board of education, which happens to be chaired by the father of the bill’s lead sponsor, state Rep. Kaylee Tuck.
As we’ve documented here over the past few months, the Florida Democratic Party has been in disarray for a while now, and its recent run of losses has only emboldened Republicans in the state to tack further to the right. But there is also a new generation of young progressive leaders who are presenting a more vigorous and principled opposition to these GOP policies, including Rep. Anna Eskamani, who we spoke with last month about her work to rebuild the party. Rep. Carlos Smith, another member of that young progressive clique, has also been sounding the alarms about the GOP assaults on Floridians over the past few weeks.
I spoke yesterday with Smith, the first LGBTQ Latinx legislator in Florida history, about the most egregious of these policies, the politics behind them, what brought the state to this point, and what Democrats are doing to stop them. Consider this the opposite of last week’s report on New York’s big victories.
The House passed HB 1475, the bill that would ban trans kids from girls’ sports, this week. Can you explain to me what’s in the bill and how this happened? Was this a long-simmering “issue” finally bubbling over or are Republicans just jumping on a national trend?
This legislation is absurd. It targets the most vulnerable youth in our schools, transgender children, and it’s totally unnecessary. Trans kids have been playing in team sports in Florida openly since 2013 thanks to the FHSAA — the Florida High School Athletic Association, which adopted guidelines to allow trans students to participate. We have not heard any problems whatsoever, no one has complained — not one parent, student, teacher, or anyone else has ever had a problem with trans kids competing in team sports.
The bill is politically motivated. It is meant to feed red meat to a base of Republican voters who want to make an issue out of this. And unfortunately, our most vulnerable kids, transgender children in our schools, have to pay the price. It’s wrong and we can still kill it because the Florida Senate has not yet taken up the bill on the floor. They’re taking it up in the Senate Rules Committee next week. You don’t have to be transgender, or have a transgender child, or know someone even who is transgender to speak out against this.
What is the deal with the genital examinations? Are they really going to pursue that?
It’s an inappropriate invasion of a child’s privacy. The bill basically says that if someone wants to dispute a child’s gender, then the way that the child will prove their gender is through checking their reproductive anatomy or submitting themselves to invasive hormonal tests of testosterone levels.
First of all, let’s just acknowledge how absurd the idea of disputing a child’s gender is, which is what this bill basically creates a process for. It could be a parent, it could be a mean girl who’s a classmate and wants to weaponize the process of disputing a student’s gender to humiliate either a trans classmate or even a cis classmate. Just imagine how humiliating that would be for any child. Like “Hey, they don’t believe that you’re a girl, so unfortunately, we’re gonna have to go to the doctor to prove that.” It’s totally asinine and it will inflict real damage on the mental health of these vulnerable kids who are impacted.
Republican supporters of the bill offered absolutely zero defense of this provision in the proposal. We have not heard any comments on the record defending the genital inspection requirements for a child whose gender is disputed in this bill. That’s been their approach all along because Republicans can’t defend the indefensible. We filed 19 amendments on the House floor to draw attention to and remove some of the most egregious provisions of the bill, including the section around genital inspection.
When Rep. [Michele] Rayner presented her amendment to remove the gender inspection portions of the bill, not one Republican stood up and argued against its removal. No one stood up to say “you should not do this, we need to keep this in the bill, we need to insist on genital inspections of children.” But their votes said everything we needed to know — every single Republican voted against Rep. Rayner’s proposal to remove the genital inspection. And they offered absolutely no comment and defense because they can’t defend the indefensible.
Is this something Gov. DeSantis wants to sign? Has he encouraged it?
Governor DeSantis has not made any comments publicly about the bill that I’m aware of, but we believe very strongly, and with lots of good reasons, that the governor will sign it. We’re also going to face economic consequences if we move forward, because the NCAA has basically threatened to not hold their championships in states where these types of discriminatory laws have passed. They have issued public statements saying that they are watching these anti-trans athletic bills and that states that adopt them are risking their ability to host NCAA championships in their state because they would not be aligned with their non-discrimination policy of the NCAA.
That is $75 million of economic activity that Florida would lose from NCAA championships because they have events scheduled in Florida over the next five years that are basically on the line. And what’s sad is that we heard a statement from the Speaker of the House, Chris Brown, after the bill passed, asking him to respond to the NCAA’s position. His response was, “I could care less.” He basically said the Republican Party was not going to succumb to “corporate bullying” in a way that would influence their policy agenda.
It’s just appalling to see that the place where Republicans draw the line, where they will no longer listen to their corporate overlords, is when they demand for trans kids to be treated with dignity and respect.
You mentioned the tax breaks at the expense of social services. I know the unemployment system has been a disaster, denying many people benefits. Has there been a fix there?
Florida has unequivocally the worst unemployment system in the country. We saw that happen when the pandemic hit and millions of Floridians applied for unemployment benefits and were hung out to dry because the system crashed. They were excluded from qualification. Sure, there were many states that struggled with just the volume of applicants because of the economic consequences of the pandemic. But nowhere was it worse than Florida
Florida also has one of the most restrictive qualification standards for unemployment. Let’s say you’re a gig worker, you’re not eligible to receive unemployment benefits in Florida versus in other states that you are. We also have one of the lowest weekly benefits for unemployment in the country, $275. And one of the shortest the length of time to collect unemployment benefits, a 12-week benefit.
Governor DeSantis made headlines when he said he thought the $275 weekly benefit was “fine” and that he wanted people to get back to work, which is just insulting, considering everything that he put unemployment claimants applicants through in the past year. So what they’re doing is they’re throwing money at fixing the broken website that Republicans asked for.
I know the website has long been flawed. How did this system become such a disaster?
So in 2011, a new unemployment reform was rammed through with their intent being to exclude as many people as possible from being able to claim benefits. That way they could keep the business unemployment insurance tax low. So that was the justification for all of this. And one of the ways that they kept people from claiming benefits was they cut off and terminated the call center where you could file your unemployment claim.
So you were only able to apply for unemployment benefits online and that online system was not designed to handle any sort of capacity really whatsoever, so the system crashed. And it crashed by design because that was the website that the legislature intentionally asked for. So that’s a long way of just saying, so what have we done this session to fix all of this? Well, they’ve thrown a bunch of money into fixing the website that they asked for, but not one penny of the taxpayer money we are investing to fix the broken website is actually going in the pockets of unemployment claimants or expanding benefits.
When the pandemic hit, they had to contract out several call centers. And some of these contracts were terminated, some of them were extended, it’s been all over the place.
And the big budget surplus coming thanks to the stimulus isn’t going to unemployed or otherwise struggling people either, right?
This is just again, a budget that rewards giant corporations at the expense of working people. We’ve not seen any direct relief for the millions of Floridians who were pushed into poverty due to COVID. We’ve not even seen any direct relief for the small businesses that have been impacted by COVID. In this budget, we received $10.3 billion from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. And yet they’ve decided that they want to spend the majority of those resources on fixing leaky state buildings rather than actually helping Floridians who need it.
So I have to ask, for all these awful and publicly unpopular policies being pursued by Republicans, they’re winning elections by wider margins and picking up seats. What’s the disconnect? How do Democrats pin this on them and make the case that they can do better?
People need to see Democrats standing up and fighting for their values. They need to see Democrats standing up and fighting for pocketbook issues. That’s why we — people like myself and Anna [Eskamani] — were so aggressive for many years and advocating for increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, expanding Medicaid, making sure that we address the affordable housing crisis so that working-class people can have the money that they need to put food on the table. These are the types of things that we need to push really, really hard for, and be loud about because they have such a substantial, direct impact on the lives of working people.
Last question — the Matt Gaetz scandal, through Joel Greenberg, seems like it could engulf a lot of Republicans in Florida, including Ron DeSantis. What do you expect to happen there?
The web of corruption that Matt Gaetz, Joel Greenberg, and Frank DeSantis are all wrapped up in is really a web that appears to tie up the entire Republican Party of Florida. It seems like everyone in the Capitol is nervous about what the next revelation is going to be and who else is implicated in this sweeping saga of corruption that they’ve been a part of for so long. This is what happens when any particular party is allowed to stay in power for as long as Florida Republicans have. It’s not only about corruption, but they just get sloppy, they get lazy, and they get messy and arrogant. And I think that that’s how Matt Gaetz got in trouble — he got arrogant.
Note: This is an excerpt from today’s edition of my newsletter, Progressives Everywhere. Every week, I send deep dives and big features with original reporting. Recent stories include an inside look at the gun control movement’s new strategy, interviews with top progressive lawmakers, and experts talking about voter suppression in different states, the gig economy, and Democratic victories. I also spotlight groups that are helping build progressive election power and retake red states. We’ve raised over $6 million for candidates and causes and your help is crucial. Every sign-up helps me keep the reporting going and helps me raise money for progressive candidates and causes.
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