Sunday, October 29, 2023

ANNALS OF DeSANTISTAN: DeSantis staffers continue to leave Florida government for 2024 campaign. (Tampa Bay Time)


DeSantis staffers continue to leave Florida government for 2024 campaign

Top House and Senate leadership say even with staff shakeups, their relationship with the governor’s office is strong.
Gov. Ron DeSantis talks during a press conference before signing legislation banning state funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at Florida's public universities on May 15 at New College of Florida in Sarasota.
Gov. Ron DeSantis talks during a press conference before signing legislation banning state funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at Florida's public universities on May 15 at New College of Florida in Sarasota. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 23|Updated Oct. 23

To help Gov. Ron DeSantis carry out some of his most conservative policies, in 2021 the governor created the role of a Florida public safety czar. He gave that role to Larry Keefe, a former prosecutor, with some fanfare.

Keefe quietly resigned from his $125,000-a-year role in September, and since then has been volunteering for the DeSantis presidential campaign, according to the New York Times.

It is not clear what Keefe’s new role with the campaign is, and he did not appear on the payroll in the campaign’s latest financial filings.

But the move is the latest in a trend of high-profile DeSantis staffers leaving state government to go work for his campaign. Keefe is at least the fifth high-profile DeSantis administration employee to leave in the past five months and shift to the governor’s presidential campaign.

Some of those staffers, like former press secretary Bryan Griffin and communications director Taryn Fenske, moved at the beginning of the campaign and their roles have since been filled.

Others, like chief of staff James Uthmeier, departed later, as DeSantis struggled in polling and fundraising. Uthmeier has not been permanently replaced, but rather has a department secretary filling in for him as acting chief of staff.

The changes come as DeSantis has been jetting outside the state in an effort to win over early primary voters, but top leaders in the Florida House and Senate say that their working relationship with the governor’s office has remained strong, even with staff shake-ups.

“We have an open line of communication with the governor, his team and our partners in the Senate,” Andres Malave, a spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Renner, said.

Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor and the author of the American Law Institute’s Project on Principles of Government Ethics, said employees moving from politics to government or vice versa is common.

“It is actually fairly common, I think, for senior people in government to go work on a campaign, and if a campaign is successful, to come back,” Briffault said. “That is typically where the people are staffed.”

The staffers who left to join DeSantis’ political campaign were some of the most outspoken or the most instrumental in DeSantis’ agenda as governor. Keefe and Uthmeier were both heavily involved in coordinating Florida’s migrant flight program, which in September of last year flew migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

Keefe also helped in the process of removing Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. His role also had him overseeing the newly created Florida State Guard, according to the state’s organizational chart. The State Guard was a DeSantis proposal which has struggled to find a program director and which has faced pushback from veterans in the program.

The State Guard is now under Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff Jared Williams, according to a recent organizational chart.

The governor’s office did not answer whether they had refilled Keefe’s position. With Keefe absent, the migrant flights program would be coordinated by the Florida Division of Emergency Management, DeSantis’ director of policy and budget Chris Spencer and acting chief of staff Alex Kelly.

Kelly has held that role since Uthmeier took a leave of absence to become DeSantis’ campaign manager in August. According to Florida statute, an employee of the state or any political subdivision “may not participate in any political campaign for an elective office while on duty.”

Kelly is also the Secretary of Commerce, a role he was appointed to in May of this year. In his acting chief of staff duties, Kelly is assisted by David Dewhirst, a senior consultant for the governor who also works with the Heritage Foundation.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office did not answer how much time Kelly spends on chief of staff duties compared to how much time he spends on secretary duties. Kelly makes $177,038, according to Florida records.

DeSantis’ campaign is expected to overlap with the upcoming 2024 legislative session, which begins in January. And though DeSantis’ former director of legislative and intergovernmental affairs, Stephanie Kopelousos, left to work on his campaign, she has been replaced by Peter Cuderman. Cuderman was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and a former DeSantis gubernatorial campaign employee.

Around the time when Uthmeier left the executive office, the governor’s office also brought on new deputy chiefs of staff, including Anastasios Kamoutsas and Cody Farrill. Kamoutsas had been chief of staff at the Department of Education, and Farrill was cabinet affairs director.

Katie Betta, a spokesperson for Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, said that from their standpoint, there has been no impact on the relationship or duties between the executive and legislative offices ahead of the upcoming session.

Betta said Kelly and Cuderman are in frequent communication with Passidomo’s staff, and they also work with Spencer on budget issues.

“President Passidomo remains very pleased with the level of communication with the Governor’s staff,” Betta said. “They have always been very responsive, and that continues to be the case.”

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