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Who is Ron DeSantis? Florida governor reveals few clues about what makes him tick

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis poses for a picture with voters after giving a speech at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Wednesday. Several hundred people filled half of an event center to listen to DeSantis speak in his first trip to Iowa since announcing his presidential campaign.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis poses for a picture with voters after giving a speech at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Wednesday. Several hundred people filled half of an event center to listen to DeSantis speak in his first trip to Iowa since announcing his presidential campaign. (AP Photo/Josh Funk) Photo Gallery

DUNEDIN, Fla. — The parents of the man who would be president live in a tidy, single-story ranch house in a Gulf Coast suburb of Florida.

The three-bedroom, two-bath, concrete block house with a brick facade is the childhood home of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced his run for the White House last week.

The home’s landscaping is well-maintained, though with a browning lawn likely due to Florida’s recent drought. A gold Jeep Patriot and a black Toyota Prius are parked in the driveway. The Prius has an “FSU Dad” bumper sticker and a Ron DeSantis campaign sticker.

A welcome mat with an FSU logo is a second reminder of the other child, their daughter and DeSantis’ only sibling who died unexpectedly eight years ago. The governor has rarely spoken about her.

A slender, elderly man in glasses and a dark T-shirt answers. He apologizes as he fends off a reporter’s attempts to find out more about his son’s evolution into an ambitious politician and conservative firebrand.

“I’m afraid I’m not going to be that much help,” says Ronald DeSantis, 77. He stands at the front door open just a crack, blocking the reporter’s view inside the house. He says he’s been burned by reporters in the past who took his comments out of context.

He says he doesn’t talk to his son often, maybe every couple of months or so when he goes to Tallahassee to see him and the family. His wife, and the governor’s mom, Karen DeSantis, 75, sees the governor more frequently, he says. Every three weeks or so. For the grandkids, mainly.

When asked if she’d be willing to give an interview, he said she would be even less cooperative.

This is how it typically goes whenever one tries to dig deeper into the roots of Ron DeSantis’ political ambitions and beliefs, the people and events that molded him into the person he is today.

Every attempt to reach out to the people closest to him has been rebuffed or ignored, leaving many questions unanswered about who the intensely private Ron DeSantis really is, particularly why he has taken a hard line against the LGBTQ and transgender communities and minorities.

And the most glaring omissions are the friends, mentors, teachers and coaches who helped shape his thinking about culture, politics and the Constitution.

“One of his traits is that he’s always the smartest person in the room, arrogant. People like that don’t seek out mentors,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman who served with DeSantis, briefly ran against him for U.S. Senate, and now is an MSNBC political analyst. “He and Casey have thought from the beginning that he was destined to be president.”

DeSantis, 44, and his wife, Casey, are also intensely private and don’t say much about their lives that isn’t tightly scripted. The things we know about include his baseball career and time at Yale and as a Navy lawyer; the couple’s first meeting at a driving range in Jacksonville and their political career together; and his frequent appearances on Fox News as a member of Congress.

But that leaves a lot untold: His relationship with his parents, his year teaching at an elite private school outside of Atlanta, his experiences at the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba, his year in private practice and his aborted run for U.S. Senate in 2016.

It’s a bit unusual for a presidential candidate to be so close-mouthed, said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

“But we have seen a different political climate in the last few years where candidates seem to emerge out of nowhere,” Jewett said. Rick Scott, for example, was a relatively unknown quantity when he successfully first ran for governor in 2010, he said.

“We know some things about DeSantis, but certainly not in contrast to Donald Trump who’s led a very public life for decades,” Jewett said. “Trump was clearly an early influence on DeSantis. But over the last few years, he’s emerged on his own, trying to position himself as his own man.”

Yet, there are things known about DeSantis’ earlier life, which can be pieced together from excerpts of his latest book, interviews and public records.

A Florida childhood

The governor’s parents, Ronald DeSantis and Karen Ann Rogers, met at Youngstown State University in Ohio, where she was getting a nursing certificate. He was from Aliquippa, Pa., the son of a steelworker.

Her family had lived in Youngstown for several generations with strong ties to conservative politics and the Catholic Church. Her father was a YSU alumnus and had been a staff member in the political science department. He also was a lifelong member and one-time chairman of the county Republican Party. Her sister is a nun and her brother a priest.

“Growing up as a kid it was non-negotiable that I would have my rear end in church every Sunday morning,” DeSantis says in his memoir. But he doesn’t publicly talk about whether he remains a Catholic or if he attends church regularly.

The DeSantises married and lived briefly in Michigan before moving to Florida in the 1970s for the elder Ron’s job as a field rep with the Nielsen ratings company. Ron was born in Jacksonville in September 1978, but the family moved around a lot because of his father’s job with Nielsen, a pioneer in market research.

They moved to Orlando when their son was 4 and settled in Dunedin, just west of Tampa, by the time he was in first grade in May 1985, the same month his sister was born.

Between 1980 and 1990 Dunedin’s population grew from 30,203 to 34,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It now stands at about 39,000.

Dunedin was home to Nielsen Media’s production operations until 2005 when it moved to a plant in Oldsmar.

“Nielsen was our biggest employer,” said Gregory Brady, the local chamber of commerce chair and longtime gay business owner. “It really tore a hole in our economic fabric.”

The family home was built in 1974 and sold for $36,000. DeSantis’ parents bought it for $65,000 in May 1985, the same month and year their daughter Christina was born.

The combined income of her working as a nurse and him working for the city’s largest employer likely gave the DeSantises a solidly middle-class lifestyle, if not putting them among the city’s upper echelon. In his memoir, DeSantis doesn’t mention any economic hardships growing up but describes his background as “blue-collar.”

Talking with neighbors

Dunedin is a sunny city with a bustling downtown and beaches that are annually ranked among the best in the world. It’s a mostly white, prosperous, gay-friendly community that hosts a big annual Pride Festival in June.

“DeSantis doesn’t identify with Dunedin” or embrace its values, Brady said. “We are bohemian, artistic, and accepting, and a great ally to the LGBTQ community.”

Dunedin owes much of its downtown revitalization that began in the 1980s to the city’s first gay bar, said Brady, who managed the bar when it opened.

Over the years, several other bars followed, drawing diverse crowds from all over to participate in events like the Mardi Gras Drag Queen contest, he said.

But Brady said he has seen the tide turn over the last two years with the passage of restrictive and punitive laws advocates say discriminate against the gay community. Local municipal support for last year’s Dunedin Pride parade has evaporated this year, he said.

DeSantis has made several trips to Dunedin during his governorship, including the Governor’s Baseball Dinner in February at TD Chase Stadium, the winter home of the Toronto Blue Jays, which has an outreach program for LGBTQ children interested in sports.

And he celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at Flanagan’s, an Irish pub downtown, last year.

A week before DeSantis revealed his plans on Twitter with Elon Musk, supporter Peter Britt said, “I hope he announces his candidacy at Flanagan’s.”

Britt lives a few blocks away from the governor’s parents with his wife, Sheldon, and a half-dozen rescue dogs. They’ve met the governor’s father walking his dogs.

Even though they support DeSantis’ controversial policies, they appreciate Dunedin for its diversity and acceptance.

“People are able to express themselves and choose who they want to be with and how they want to live and that’s why we live where we live right now,” said Sheldon Britt, a nurse.

But they like DeSantis, too. “We’re straight-up people, and we like the way he speaks,” she said.

Their stucco ranch house was decorated for Memorial Day weekend with flags and red white and blue lights festooning the fence around their huge corner lot. The centerpiece of their decorations was a big flag bearing the face of Ron DeSantis and a “Keep Florida Free” sign.

Even though he raised a gay daughter, Peter Britt, who owns a barber shop, said he supports the actions DeSantis has taken against Disney World over its opposition to his signature Parental Rights in Education law opponents dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”

They said they believe parents have a right to say what’s being taught to their children. And they don’t think those policies are discriminatory against gays or reflect on the attitude of Dunedin toward the LGBTQ community.

“The bottom line is there is a lot of diversity in Dunedin and that’s fine,” Peter Britt said.

He attributes the governor’s views to the way he was raised by his parents. “We see it. His dad is a regular guy. A very humble guy. He’ll talk to you here and there. He walks around with the radio going, listening to his talk shows.”

The death of his sister

Until recently, DeSantis had never spoken publicly about his sister’s death in 2015 or the effect it had on him and his family. He briefly mentions her in his memoir.

Seven years younger than DeSantis, she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Florida State University. She worked for KPMG in Charlotte, according to her Linkedin page, and was in London at the time of her death, engaged to a British filmmaker.

“It was just a shattering experience,” DeSantis told British journalist Piers Morgan in March. “I remember my mom calling me, my wife and I were on our way back from church on a Sunday morning, and she said that Christina was in the hospital and she had a blood clot but was stable.”

The blood clot turned into a pulmonary embolism, and she died a few days later.

DeSantis told Morgan she looked up to her big brother and had she lived would likely have moved back to Florida and gotten “involved in a lot of stuff that we were doing,” DeSantis said.

“You have your sibling, their future was robbed, and it’s something I wish I could get back,” DeSantis said.

Baseball expanded horizons

There are two things Dunedin takes seriously, said Jack Greenfield, a retired businessman and longtime Dunedin High School Falcons fan who lives in a golf course community.

“Baseball is a big tradition here, that and Scottish heritage,” Greenfield said. And you don’t want to say anything negative about either if you want to get along with folks in Dunedin, which comes from the Scottish spelling of its sister city, Edinburgh.

As a kid growing up, DeSantis took full advantage of Dunedin’s baseball tradition, using it to blaze a trail out of the town to Yale University.

“Baseball was the engine that expanded my horizons,” DeSantis wrote his memoir-cum-political- resume, “The Courage to be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.”

He was on the Dunedin team that made it to the Little League World Series quarterfinals in 1991. “We were like local celebrities,” he remembered.

Years later, as a member of Congress addressing the West Boynton Little League team about to compete in the World Series, DeSantis sent a message that said: “I would just say you’re having the time of your life, enjoy it. Those are friends that you’re going to have forever. Play hard, work hard… just feel lucky that you’re doing it. And thank your parents.”

He doesn’t mention his Little League teammates or coaches in his memoir or whether he stayed in touch with them. He also doesn’t say much about his time playing ball in high school.

“He was a very private kid,” said Greenfield, who added he watched DeSantis play about 40 times while with the Falcons. “He was modest, the other kids really looked up to him. He didn’t talk a lot and went about his business.”

DeSantis, who went by the nickname of “D,” was also a bright student and excelled in history, yet he doesn’t mention a favorite teacher or a book that stoked his political flames or ambitions. He won the AP U.S. History Student of the Year award in June 1996, according to the 1997 Dunedin High School yearbook.

He also graduated summa cum laude with National Honor Society status.

Twenty-five years later, as governor of Florida, he would ban a new AP African American studies program and clash with the College Board that administers the AP program and the SATs. He also continually mentions that not all students are cut out for college.

By the time the short first chapter of his memoir is over, DeSantis has run through childhood to getting accepted to Yale in a breezy dozen pages.

Yale and culture shock

Yale was one of several universities and colleges that recruited him because of his double threat as an athletic scholar, he recounts in his memoir. He doesn’t name the other schools.

He also said he’d never been to New England and assumed Yale would be “a stuffy social environment filled with graduates from ritzy prep schools.” But he figured a degree from Yale would open other doors down the line.

DeSantis became team captain and close to the head coach, John Stuper, who’d spent three years pitching in the major leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. The two have remained close friends to this day.

“I call him D when it’s just me and him,” Stuper told CT Insider, an online news outlet covering Connecticut. “I call him Mr. Governor when other people are around.”

After 30 years as the winningest coach at Yale, Stupor retired to St. Petersburg with his wife Pam, a former field hockey coach at Yale.

DeSantis returned to Yale several times – once to receive the athlete of the year award in 2014 and later to videotape Stuper’s campus wedding.

“He is truly a man of the people,” Stuper said about DeSantis at the award ceremony, according to the Yale Sports Publicity website. “I’m so proud to call him a former player of mine, but I’m even prouder to call him my friend.”

In a 2022 NBC Connecticut News article commemorating Stuper’s 30 years as Yale’s head coach, DeSantis said, “One, he’s a great baseball guy, but two, he’s been a great mentor for a lot of people, including me, and we’ve remained friends now for, I mean I got here in the late ‘90s.”

DeSantis makes a point of saying while most kids spend their summer before college going to the beach and sleeping until noon, “I was up at the crack of dawn to start work at 6 a.m., five days per week, as an electrician’s assistant.”

He also complains about having to buy a pair of OSHA-approved work boots that cost him most of his first paycheck. “I doubt this made me any safer” than the old worn-out pair of boots his workplace wouldn’t allow him to wear, he said.

Yale was a culture shock, a theme that gets repeated when he goes to Harvard, and even when he gets to Congress. He repeats he’s a blue-collar kid from Florida in his T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, which he said didn’t go over well among these Ivy Leaguers from wealthy communities along the Eastern Seaboard and California.

“I had no idea what I was getting into regarding campus ideology or political culture,” DeSantis said. At Yale, students were led to believe Communism was superior to capitalism, he writes.

“Around campus there was nothing wrong with flying Soviet flags, wearing Che Guevara shirts and paying homage to Mao Zedong,” he wrote.

DeSantis said attending Yale was his “first encounter with the political left.”

“I was geographically raised in Tampa but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio – from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep,” he writes in his memoir.

Because of their upbringing, the typical Yalie would not consider the people in those communities sufficiently ‘sophisticated,’” DeSantis said.

And the professors are smug in their tenured security, he said. He doesn’t mention any by name, nor does he mention any favorites – except for a brief exchange with the athletic director and coach about a visit from former president George H.W. Bush, who like DeSantis, had been captain of the Yale baseball team five decades earlier.

In a June 2022 New Yorker profile of the governor, DeSantis’ father said his son’s acceptance to Yale was “still the thing I’m most proud of.”

Darlington School in Georgia

Before he attended Harvard Law, DeSantis spent a year teaching at the exclusive and remote Darlington School in Rome, Georgia.

His memoir skips that entire year when he taught history, was a dorm supervisor, and coached baseball and football.

It’s also in Rome where the 23-year-old college grad “was a frequent presence at parties with seniors who lived in town,” according to a New York Times report.

One student found a note on a teacher’s desk after DeSantis left that reminded staff that fraternizing with students, even after they graduated, was inappropriate. At least two students recalled him at parties where minors were present and alcohol was served.

A photo that popped up on social media shows a photo of what appears to be DeSantis with several young women, one of whom was holding what appeared to be a beer bottle.

Trump has seized on the governor’s time at Darlington as a way to smear DeSantis, accusing him of partying with teenage girls.

“I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden … I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans,” DeSantis said in response to Trump’s allegations but not addressing whether he was in the photograph.

Students interviewed at a class reunion last year by the New York Times said DeSantis was smug, cocky and popular because he was young and handsome.

DeSantis also challenged students on the cause of the Civil War, which at least one former student, Danielle Pompey of New York, found offensive. She said he treated her differently because she was Black, the Times reported.

Harvard and the Navy

Even though Harvard gave him the legal foundation for his time with the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps and as a politician, DeSantis spends a total of three pages on his time at the Ivy League school in his memoir compared with the 15 pages he gives to the Navy.

It was also the first time in his life he was just a student, without the distractions of sports or a part-time job, he said. He took out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and made extra money preparing other students for the LSAT exam, only to find his heart not in what he learned after three years, save for a few classes, which he doesn’t name.

Yet, he graduated Harvard Law with honors.

Years later, after he left the Navy, in 2010, DeSantis and two of his roommates from Harvard, Robert Tauler and Robert Fojo, set up the LSAT Freedom LLC, a test exam prep company.

Neither Tauler nor Fojo returned calls seeking comment about their time in law school together or running the training program. DeSantis doesn’t list any income from the LLC on his congressional campaign disclosure forms.

But after graduating in debt from Yale, and feeling disenchanted with the law, DeSantis looked into the military as an option and saw the JAG corps as a good possibility. He earned a commission in the Navy during law school and was ready for active duty as soon as he graduated.

JAG and service at GITMO

It was at JAG training that DeSantis met Adam Laxalt, grandson of former Nevada governor and U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt. DeSantis and the younger Laxalt would become lifelong friends and political allies.

DeSantis took several trips to Las Vegas to campaign for Laxalt in his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2022. Laxalt also ran unsuccessfully for Nevada governor in 2018.

Before their time in Congress together, DeSantis and Laxalt both served in the JAG from 2005 to 2010.

DeSantis was first stationed at Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville and had different assignments, including as a legal adviser at Guantanamo and an adviser to a Navy Seal Team in Afghanistan.

He also helped with the prosecution of prisoners in Iraqi courts. He doesn’t mention GITMO but goes into some detail about the detainee center in Iraq.

Among his various duties were collecting urine from prisoners and advising military intelligence officers on the use of force-feeding and torture.

DeSantis vehemently denied accusations from two former detainees that he witnessed prisoners being force-fed, “How would they know me?” he snapped during a news conference at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

He told Morgan, the British TV host, that he was just a junior officer there.

“There may have been a commander that would have done feeding if someone was going to die, but that was not something that I would have even had authority to do,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis arrived at Guantanamo during a period of mass hunger strikes by detainees protesting conditions there, The New Republic reported.

The Washington Post reported that in a 2018 interview, DeSantis recalled times when a commanding officer would ask a legal adviser how to end hunger strikes by detainees.

“Hey, you actually can force-feed,” DeSantis said the legal advisers would respond. “Here’s what you can do. Here’s kind of the rules for that.”

During his time there, The New Republic reported, three detainees died, the largest loss of life in the prison’s history. They were ruled suicides.

Meeting his future wife

While he was stationed at Mayport, DeSantis met Casey Black over a bucket of golf balls at the University of North Florida driving range in 2006. DeSantis said his life changed forever in that moment. She quickly became his closest political confidante and adviser.

Three years later, they got married at Walt Disney World. His only caveat was that no costumed characters could be in the wedding.

Thirteen years later, he and Disney would go toe to toe over the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that many of Disney’s employees and visitors opposed. That battle still rages on.

DeSantis fails to mention in his memoir the year or so he spent working for the Holland & Knight law firm in Jacksonville after he left active duty in the Navy. His congressional financial disclosure shows he earned $128,000 in the one full year he worked there.

Holland & Knight did not return requests for more information about DeSantis’ time there.

Money and politics entwined

From his memoir, it’s clear that money was a perennial issue, and went hand in hand with resentment of others who had more. He said he worked full-time as an electrician’s assistant the summer after high school graduation to help pay for Yale when everyone else was at the beach.

He worked jobs at Yale while the elites partied and needed huge loans to go to Harvard. He chose a less lucrative career in military law than he could have earned in private practice, as the one year at Holland and Knight attested.

He got a Veterans Administration loan in 2009 to buy a $300,000 house in a canal-laced gated community near the coast in Ponte Vedra Beach south of Jacksonville.

In 2011, DeSantis decided to write a book, called “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” criticizing the Obama administration he was toiling under. It sold modestly, earning him about $18,500 between 2012 and 2014, according to his congressional financial disclosure records.

From that book he launched his initial congressional campaign, with Casey as a full political partner, attending political club meetings and going door to door to hand out flyers and ask people for their vote.

To help her make the rounds, DeSantis bought Casey an electric scooter that he’d put in the back of his pickup truck and drive to a neighborhood, where he’d unload it so she could zip around knocking on doors in one direction while he went off in another.

He won the Republican primary and the general election where once again he finds himself as an outsider pit against an entrenched ruling class of Republican insiders.

Even among congressional Republicans, he portrayed himself as an outsider as a member of the Freedom Caucus.

Jolly, the former Tampa Bay congressman, said DeSantis saw the House leadership as the enemy.

“Even among the dozen or so like-minded members of the Freedom Caucus, he was an island unto himself,” Jolly said.

The group, which included U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, wanted to topple the leadership represented by Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and now House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Jolly said.

“I would say his personality was reclusive, even among those he was closest with. Quixotic,” Jolly said. “They had their spot on the House floor and he seemed separate, aloof. He was not a gregarious guy – a loner. He would say his ultimate destiny was proof of that approach.”

Like many other first-year congressmen, DeSantis slept in his office when in D.C. and showered in the House gym.

DeSantis had his eye all along on the specific goal of becoming president, Jolly said. “He did nothing in Congress. He was sidelined, he had zero legislative input. It was a waiting room for him.”

When his run for Senate was blocked by U.S. Marco Rubio’s decision to run for reelection (after promising not to seek a third term), DeSantis ran for governor.

With Trump’s endorsement and the help of political strategist Susie Wiles of Jacksonville, he won in 2018 and set about to reshape the role of governor in the state, and was re-elected by an overwhelming margin to a second term in November.

Most of all, DeSantis has an ability for anticipating where the political herd is moving, Jolly said.

“As [hockey legend] Wayne Gretsky said, ‘you have to skate to where the puck is going, not where it is.”’

A prime example of how DeSantis employs that calculated strategy is when he enacted anti-gay laws right before the June 1 beginning of Pride Month, said Brady, the chamber leader in DeSantis’ hometown of Dunedin.

“There has to be something underlying to all that … to go after gays, drag queens and trans people and pass all that legislation to lay out the groundwork to prove that you’re tough on them,” Brady said. “It’s no accident he signed all those bills before Pride Month.”

©2023 Orlando Sentinel. Visit at orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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