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Insight: How the coronavirus crisis has set off odd, angry crosscurrents across Southern politics

Budget woes, religious liberty, economic freedom crash against public health concerns

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The collision between an untreatable and potentially deadly virus and a conservative Southern political culture that is both business-friendly and skeptical of government dicta has sent odd and even angry crosscurrents rippling across the region’s politics.

For example, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, who was slow to close down his state, had to backtrack on plans for a quick reopening when coronavirus cases rose, on the same day that legislators from both parties united to strip him of authority to spend a $1 billion pot of federal coronavirus money.

An angry Reeves accused them of “stealing.”

Editor Rich Shumate

In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper proposed a whopping 32 percent property tax increase to deal with a coronavirus-related shortfall in city revenue — and admitted that he agreed with critics who began howling about the possibility of sharply higher tax bills.

But, said Cooper, the city has no other choice.

In Kentucky, the new Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a ban on interstate travel ordered by the new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear — which Beshear imposed because Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, wasn’t imposing stay-at-home orders as strict as what Beshear issued in the Bluegrass State.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp stubbornly stuck to plans to reopen his state, even though Peach State mayors and even President Donald Trump had urged him not to do so.

Coronavirus lockdowns have triggered angry protests across the South, and governors have struggled to stop pastors from holding church services — raising First Amendment arguments in the nation’s most religious section.

With a few exceptions, states in the South were among the last to close down due to the coronavirus, and they are now among the first to begin reopening, in spite of warnings from some public health officials that doing so might be dangerous.

The decisions being made by Southern governors certainly reflect the political split that coronavirus is increasingly causing nationwide, with conservatives willing to accept risk to revive the economy and liberals taking a more cautious (critics might say overcautious) approach that prioritizes public health over economic good.

Ten of the 14 Southern governors are Republicans, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in every state except Virginia, fostering a political culture that tends to be friendly toward business interests and libertarian when it comes to questions of personal liberty.

But the push to reopen also reflects that fact that except for Louisiana, the coronavirus crisis has not been as extreme in the region as it has been in hot spots such as New York and New Jersey.

While Louisiana’s death rate per 100,000 people stands at 40, Georgia comes in at 11, and the rest of the Southern states are all less than 10 — statistics that bolster the arguments of unemployed people demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, although providing little comfort to people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

The push to reopen is also attractive to Southern leaders for another reason — the lockdown is blowing a hole in state and local budgets that will only get worse the longer it goes on, presenting an unpalatable choice between steep budget cuts or higher taxes.

State governments can’t deficit spend, and the income and sales tax revenues they rely on are falling sharply. The effect of the sales tax plunge will be particularly acute on three Southern states that don’t have an income tax to fall back on, Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism for being late to close — is also heavily reliant on taxes generated by tourism, which has been decimated by the crisis. Oil prices have also crashed, which affects Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where lawmakers have been warned that they’ll need to deal with a $3 billion hit to the state’s budget.

Southern legislators have traditionally been reluctant to raise taxes, particularly income taxes in states that have them. But if they stick to that tradition, the cuts needed to balance budgets could be extreme — prompting outrage not only from those affected by the cuts, but also from those who believe the lockdowns were an unnecessary overreaction that caused more problems than they solved.

The strongest coronavirus crosscurrents have been seen in North Carolina and Kentucky, where Republicans control the legislature and Democratic governors were quicker to close and have been more reticent to reopen than their GOP counterparts.

In North Carolina, Roy Cooper faces the unenviable prospect of running for re-election in the middle of the pandemic against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who has been pushing the governor to move more quickly to reopen parts of the state less affected by the virus.

Anti-lockdown protests have also grown in size and anger in North Carolina, with much of the ire directed toward Cooper.

In Kentucky, Beshear’s moves to clamp down on church services have drawn criticism from U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and other Republican leaders.

The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and could force Beshear to back down from his coronavirus restrictions, although — perhaps fortunately for the governor — legislators don’t have the power to call themselves back into session to undo his handiwork.

In the Southern state hit hardest by coronavirus, Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s imposition of a lockdown has encountered less resistance. But even there, some Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to use an obscure state law to force him to reopen the state.

The coronavirus crisis has focused attention, both nationally and regionally, on governors; however, governors in just two Southern states, North Carolina and West Virginia, have to face the voters this fall.

Of more consequence come November will be whether the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis affects Republican candidates in races for federal offices, particularly the U.S. Senate, where 14 Southern seats are up.

That list includes both seats in Georgia, where Kemp has, for better or worse, forged his own path in dealing with the virus, and McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, where he’s already running ads touting his role in pushing coronavirus relief bills through Congress and his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is deriding those bills as a sop to special interests.

Because no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how things will turn out, its political consequences are as yet unknowable, particularly because we’ve never been through a crisis quite like this before.

Political stability and certainty, it seems, lie among coronavirus’s victims. The rest is unlikely to be peaceful.

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Andrew Gillum withdraws from politics, enters rehab after encounter with police in hotel room

Gillum, the Democratic candidate for Florida governor in 2018, was found “inebriated” in a Miami Beach hotel room where drugs were present

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

MIAMI (CFP) — Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost a bid for Florida governor in 2018, has announced he will withdraw from political life and enter a rehab program for alcoholism after after police found him “inebriated” Friday night in a Miami Beach hotel room where paramedics had been called to treat a man for a drug overdose.

Police found what they believe was crystal methamphetamine in the room with Gillum and his companion, Travis Dyson, who was taken for treatment at a local hospital.

Andrew Gillum

Gillum, 40, was not arrested or charged and denied he was using drugs.

He announced Sunday that he would enter an undisclosed treatment facility for “alcohol abuse,” which he attributed to depression in the wake of his defeat in the governor’s race.

“This has been a wake-up call for me,” he said in a statement. “I am committed to doing the personal work to heal fully and show up in the world as a more complete person”

Gillum said he would be “stepping down from all public facing roles for the foreseeable future,” including working as a political analyst for CNN and leading an organization he set up to help his gubernatorial run, Forward Florida Action, which has been working to register 1 million new voters ahead of the 2020 election.

According to the police report of the incident, paramedics and police were called to a hotel in South Beach by a man identified as Aldo Mejias, who told them he arrived at the room to find Dyson and Gillum “under the influence of an unknown substance.”

Dyson was having trouble breathing, and Gillum was vomiting in the bathroom, the report said.

When police arrived, Gillum “was unable to communicate with officers due to his inebriated state,” according to the report. Gillum left the hotel on his own, police said.

Police found three small baggies of what is believed to be crystal meth in the room, according to the report.

Mejias told police he had given Dyson his credit card to rent the hotel room. The report does not describe what connection, if any, he had with Gillum.

In 2018, Gillum, then mayor of Tallahassee, surged to a surprise win in the Democratic primary for Florida governor. He lost to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis by 34,000 votes in November.

Last year 2019, a federal grand jury subpoenaed records from Forward Florida and Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign. The scope of the federal investigation is still unclear, and no charges have been brought.

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New Florida secretary of state resigns after Halloween blackface photos published

Mike Ertel departs over pictures showing him impersonating black, female Hurricane Katrina victim in 2005

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — After less than three weeks on the job, Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel has resigned after a Tallahassee newspaper published photos of him in drag and wearing blackface while posing as a Hurricane Katrina victim at a Halloween Party in 2005.

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who appointed Ertel as secretary of state in December, accepted his resignation January 24, just hours after the Tallahassee Democrat showed the photos to the governor’s office as it was preparing to print the story.

Photos of Mke Ertel at 2005 Halloween party (From Tallahassee Democrat)

“I think he’s done a lot of good work, but at the same time, I’ve got to have an administration that’s going to be focused on what matters to Floridians,” DeSantis told reporters at a news conference in Marianna, which had been called to talk about hurricane recovery. “I don’t want to get mired in side controversies.”

The Democrat reported that Ertel confirmed he was the man in the photos but declined further comment.

The photos were taken just two months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. At the time, Ertel was the supervisor of elections in Seminole County, which includes the suburbs of Orlando.

The photos show Ertel in blackface, wearing earrings, false breasts and a purple T-shirt on which the words “Katrina Victim” had been written.

The newspaper did not say how it obtained the photos.

Ertel, 49, a Republican, was appointed as elections supervisor in Seminole in February 2005 and re-elected four times, most recently in 2016.

After a series of hurricanes hit Florida in 2004, Ertel worked on media relations for an organization that promoted Florida tourism in the wake of the storms.

Florida is one of nine states in which the secretary of state is appointed by the governor rather than elected, with confirmation by the State Senate. County elections supervisors are elected.

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Video: New Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sets out agenda in inaugural address

Republican DeSantis sworn in as Sunshine State’s 46th governor


Video From WJXT-TV Jacksonville via YouTube

Decision ’18: Florida governor’s race ends as Andrew Gillum reconcedes

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis will ascend to governorship after just four years in politics

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — The Florida governor’s race has come to an end with Democrat Andrew Gillum’s second concession to Republican Governor-elect Ron DeSantis.

Gillum — who had conceded on election night but took it back after late-reporting results showed the race tightening — took to Facebook Saturday to offer his congratulations to DeSantis and thank his supporters.

“More than 4 million of you decided that you wanted a different direction for the state of Florida,” he said. “We want you to know that we see you, we hear you, and that you voices will continue to power us.”

DeSantis responded to Gillum’s reconcession on Twitter: “This was a hard-fought campaign. Now it’s time to bring Florida together.”

After a statewide machine recount, Gillum still trailed DeSantis by 32,500 votes, which was more than the margin that would have triggered a hand recount of over-votes and under-votes that is underway in races for U.S. Senate and state agriculture commissioner.

Florida Governor-elect Ron DeSantis

When DeSantis takes the governor’s chair in January, it will mark the latest step in his swift political rise, becoming the chief executive of the nation’s third-largest state at the age of 40, after just four years in politics.

DeSantis, who has degrees from Harvard and Yale, spent six years as an attorney in the U.S. Navy. In 2012, he was elected to a U.S. House seat representing part of metro Jacksonville.

In 2016, he entered the race for U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s seat, which he had given up to run for president. But when Rubio reversed course after losing the Republican presidential nomination to President Donald Trump, DeSantis withdrew and ran for re-election to his House seat.

After Trump became president, DeSantis became one of his strongest defenders on television — a relationship that paid huge dividends when he decided to enter the governor’s race in January,

DeSantis was considered a long shot to defeat the establishment favorite, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Then Trump tweeted an endorsement that catapulted DeSantis to a lead in the polls over Putnam that he never relinquished.

In the primary, the DeSantis campaign aired a TV ad in which he is seen reading Trump’s autobiography to his infant son and showing his daughter how to build a wall out of blocks, an echo of Trump’s call for a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump tweeted out congratulations after Gillum’s concession: “Against all odds, he fought & fought & fought, the result being a historic victory. He never gave up and never will. He will be a great Governor!’

However, Trump — who during the campaign had accused Gillum of being a “thief” — also tweeted out kind words about the Tallahassee mayor: “He will be a strong Democrat warrior long into the future – a force to reckon with!”

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum

Gillum, 39, became mayor of Tallahassee in 2014. Like DeSantis, he also won his party’s primary over the establishment favorite, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a victory which instantly made him a national political celebrity.

In his concession, Gillum indicated that he planned to remain in the political arena, although he gave no specifics. He will step down as mayor in January.

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