As political junkies wonder if Ron DeSantis will make a bid for the Republican presidential nomination next year, the Florida governor stopped in the suburbs Feb. 20 as part of a three-state tour.
Billed as a pro-police “Back the Blue” event, the gathering at Elmhurst’s Knights of Columbus club attracted more than 250 people, including many police officers and GOP leaders including former Illinois gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey, former state Rep. David McSweeney and U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood.
Tailoring his speech to the audience, DeSantis touted what he and Florida legislators have done to boost morale, employment and pay for their state’s law enforcement personnel, including hiring bonuses and not requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.
At times, the speech sounded like a recruiting pitch.
“I’m here saying come to Florida if you want to be part of this,” DeSantis told the enthusiastic crowd.
DeSantis also criticized legislation and policies in other states, including Illinois, that he labeled anti-police, such as a controversial – and legally stalled – plan to eliminate cash bail here.
He blamed crime rates on “politicians putting woke ideology ahead of public safety” and complained about the “woke-ification of law enforcement,” lines that got the expected responses from the audience.
DeSantis didn’t just talk about policing. At one point, he detoured into the state’s controversial education policies, which now restrict inclusion of racial and gender-related topics in reading materials, among others.
Parents know their kids are going to get an education and “not a political indoctrination,” DeSantis said.
“In Florida, we will never, ever surrender to the woke mob,” DeSantis said, once again using an adjective that appeared often in his text.
In what could be a sign of political battles to come, DeSantis took a couple of swipes at Gov. JB Pritzker, who reportedly is mulling a Democratic presidential run in 2024. In one such whack, DeSantis mocked Pritzker for shutting down Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic while allowing his family to spend time in less restrictive Florida.
“They did want to flee some of the COVID insanity going on in other jurisdictions,” DeSantis said of people who visited Florida in the early months of the pandemic.
Pritzker has taken repeated shots at DeSantis, most recently Feb. 17 when news of the Florida governor’s suburban visit surfaced.
“He does not represent the values of the people of Illinois,” Pritzker said. “In fact, he’s the antithesis to that. He’s demonstrated that he’s homophobic, that he’s got tendencies that provoke racism. He’s somebody who doesn’t mix well with the values of the people of Illinois.”
Last year, Pritzker traveled to Tampa to headline the Florida Democrats’ annual Leadership Blue Gala.
Dozens of demonstrators protested DeSantis’ appearance outside the Knights of Columbus hall on the other side of York Street.
Using bullhorns and loud voices, they chanted anti-DeSantis slogans and waved signs in support of abortion rights and gay rights – two stances DeSantis opposes – among other political statements.
The speech was not an official gubernatorial event for DeSantis, his office insisted, nor was it a campaign event. A staffer on-site said it was organized by the governor’s “political team.”
DeSantis’ other stops Feb. 20 included suburban Philadelphia and Staten Island, New York.
Several people in the room discussed whether DeSantis would make a run for the White House, and he had support for such a bid.
Bailey, who was backed by former president and frequent DeSantis critic Donald Trump last year, wouldn’t say if he expects a Trump-vs.-DeSantis showdown for the GOP nomination in 2024.
“I’m looking forward to see that play out,” Bailey said.