Politics, not record, is behind DeSantis targeting Miami-Dade School Board member, some say
Miami Herald | By Sommer Brugal | March 7, 2023
In late February, Gov. Ron DeSantis released a “target list” of school board members across the state whom he and conservative groups hope to unseat in the 2024 election — signaling he would again weigh in on the non-partisan races.
Among the more than a dozen names included was Miami-Dade School Board member Luisa Santos, who in 2020 overcame a primary deficit to defeat Dennis Moss, a former Miami-Dade county commissioner. The first-term representative and the youngest member on the board at 32 years old was the only representative from the state’s largest school district on the list, despite four others whose terms are up in 2024.
Those close to the governor, including Christian Ziegler, chair of the Republican Party of Florida, attributed Santos’ inclusion over other liberal-leaning Miami-Dade School Board members to her voting record, claiming the 14 board members on the list statewide have supported what they deem to be critical race theory and who “are woke.”
Others, however, strongly suggest Santos’ addition to the list is not about her voting record — which shows she’s both supported and rejected issues championed by conservatives — but instead is viewed as the easiest target for a governor trying to further his mark on education in the state.
In 2020, Santos won with 52% of the vote to represent District 9, the smallest margin of victory in the five board races that year. District 9 encompasses parts of Pinecrest, Palmetto and Cutler Bay and down to Homestead and Florida City.
“When you look at this list and Luisa, I don’t think you can say it’s based on a voting record or political affiliation so much as for whatever reason that seems to speak to (DeSantis’) woke politics hysteria and the culture war he’s decided to wage,” said Anna Hochkammer, Pinecrest’s vice mayor, district parent and co-founder of Parents for Kids, a public education advocacy organization founded in 2022.
Moreover, Hochkammer said, DeSantis’ performance in the 2022 gubernatorial election exceeded expectations in South Dade and Miami-Dade and it seems he is targeting candidates “he thinks he can take out and take credit for.” In 2022, DeSantis, a Republican, flipped Miami-Dade County while running against Democrat Charlie Crist, netting a 16-point swing over his 2018 gubernatorial election in the historically Democratic-aligned county.
Vice Chair Dan Espino and Mary Blanco, both recent DeSantis appointees, and Lucia Baez-Geller and Steve Gallon are also up for reelection in 2024. In 2020, Baez-Geller won 61% of the vote and Gallon ran unopposed to win a second term. In 2016, Gallon successfully defeated an incumbent with more than 60% of the vote.
Each board member is elected to a four-year term with an annual salary of $46,773.
The governor’s political arm did not respond to the Herald about why Santos was targeted over other liberal board members, and Santos declined to speculate on why the governor may be trying to oust her.
Nevertheless, Santos said, her position on the board is “not about politics” but about making sound decisions for her constituents, adding that she has “never shied away from a healthy debate” should anyone want to challenge her results.
NOT ABOUT VOTING RECORDS, SOME SAY
Last year, the governor endorsed more than 30 school board candidates across the state, including two in Miami-Dade.
One was Roberto Alonso, who successfully ran against two other candidates to fill the District 4 seat held by longtime board chair Perla Tabares Hantman, who did not run for reelection. The other was Monica Colucci, who edged out longtime incumbent Marta Pérez in the District 8 seat.
In a recent interview, Pérez, a self-proclaimed conservative who had held the seat since 1998, told the Herald she believed her record had nothing to do with DeSantis endorsing her opponent.
In 2020, for example, Pérez was the only board member to vote against a proposal to review curriculum-based options that address racism and cultural understanding, establish a student-led task force that reported to the board and develop or enhance anti-racism curriculum.
She often called for more parental involvement, and during last year’s monthslong process of adopting a comprehensive sexual-health textbook, Pérez was one of two members who rejected the book on the three votes.
Ahead of the 2021-22 school year, however, Pérez voted in favor of requiring masks with a medical opt-out, defying the governor’s ban on face coverings, as did now-Chairwoman Mari Tere Rojas and Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, who were also up for reelection in 2022. But the governor targeted neither Rojas, the sister-in-law of Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, who won her District 6 seat in 2022 with 64 percent of the vote, nor Bendross-Mindingall, who won her District 2 seat by more than 75 percent of the vote.
Despite the mask vote, Pérez said, “I was the most conservative member on the board, but I was an independent thinker.”
VOTED FOR AND AGAINST CONSERVATIVE ISSUES
Since her election, Santos, a graduate of Miami-Dade public schools, has both supported and rejected conservative issues.
In September, she voted against an effort to recognize October as LGBTQ+ History month — a move hyper conservative groups that often repeat conspiracy theories such as County Citizens Defending Freedom pushed for — after an amendment she requested to ensure the item was in alignment with the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed ”Don’t Say Gay” by critics, failed.
But over the summer, she voted to adopt a comprehensive sexual-health textbook — a measure conservatives, including members of Moms for Liberty, were against. She also voted for a property tax referendum to support teacher pay and boost school safety — a measure the Miami GOP lobbied against.
Like Pérez, Santos also supported the mask mandate before the start of the 2021-22 school year, when Florida was reporting more than 20,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, breaking daily records.
For Harold Ford, NAACP South Dade Branch president, however, DeSantis’ past endorsements underscore that the most recent list is not about Santos’ voting record or how it compares to other liberally viewed members of the board. Notably, Gallon and Baez-Geller also voted to require masks and supported the sex-ed textbook. Gallon is likely “off limits,” Ford said, because “he’s too well known and has too strong a hold on that district.”
“When you look at Luisa’s support and passion for children, that means nothing,” Ford said. DeSantis, he argued, is “looking for someone who is going to support a flag bill instead of bettering classrooms.”
In December, the board unanimously approved a measure to ensure the American and Florida flags are properly displayed in classrooms and school buildings, but only after adding a clause allowing “federally protected flags and classes” to be visible throughout the year. (Federally protected classes refers to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status and disability.)
However, one month later, Alonso, who initially raised the issue, raised the issue again, arguing this time the board should do away with the added clause and allow only the American and Florida flags to be displayed throughout the district. All other flags unrelated to the curriculum, such as flags from another country in a world history class or a rainbow flag to celebrate LGBTQ Pride Month, would be prohibited.
Alonso, Colucci, Espino and Blanco, all either endorsed or appointed by DeSantis, along with board chair Rojas voted to do away with the clause. Baez-Geller, Bendross-Mindingall, Gallon and Santos voted against getting rid of it.
“When I look at Luisa and what she’s done and what she continues to do, she’s done nothing deserving of the attack from the governor,” said Ford. Yet, he added, “I’m not surprised. He has weaponized his office to turn on anyone who opposes him.”