South Florida advocates form coalition to oppose ‘overbearing state control’

WLRN | By Kate Payne | March 7, 2023

Standing outside the historic home of a pioneering Bahamian American leader who lifted up immigrants and people of color in the early days of Miami, a group of advocates said a new kind of coalition is needed to preserve the rights and privileges of working families in Florida.

The advocates formed the new Economic Prosperity and Education Coalition or EPEC to advocate for “freedom from overbearing state control” and oppose the policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled state legislature.

“We are going to try our darndest to apply pressure to the legislature,” said Dwight Bullard, a former Democratic state senator who’s now a senior political advisor for Florida Rising, one of the member organizations of EPEC.

“But we’re also going to have to take this thing to the courtrooms around the state of Florida,” Bullard said. “Because if you want to protect the interests of your children, now’s the time to show them proof.”

The launch event on Friday at the E. W. F. Stirrup House in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami came just days before the start of the 2023 legislative session on March 7.

Members of the collective — which includes Equality Florida, United Teachers of Dade, the South Dade Branch of the NAACP, P.S. 305 and others — called out what they say are “attacks” on freedom of speech, LGBTQ people, immigrants and public schools.

“What we’re encouraging folks to do is stand and fight,” Bullard said.

In recent days and weeks, state lawmakers have filed a series of bills that advocates say would do irreparable damage to the state’s K-12 and higher education systems by dramatically increasing the flow of public funding into private schools, further restricting who can work at the state’s public universities and what they can teach on topics like race and gender, and handing over faculty hiring decisions to appointed trustees.

Lawmakers are also seeking to make it easier for Floridians to be sentenced to death, allow residents to carry firearms without a permit, and revise the state’s defamation laws in a way that could limit free speech and weaken protections for journalists.

“What we need is to educate families, communities. Empower them and make sure that we’re mobilizing them,” said Karla Hernández-Mats, the president of United Teachers of Dade and the Florida Democratic Party’s unsuccessful candidate for Lieutenant Governor in 2022.

“What we are seeing now, the attacks that are happening in the state of Florida are something that is unfathomable. And we have to be able to push back,” she said.

Heading into this session, conservative lawmakers hold historic sway over Florida’s legislative process. Republicans now have a supermajority in both chambers, giving them enough votes to override a governor’s veto and hamstring Democrats’ ability to pass legislation.

DeSantis is expected to capitalize on the Republican supermajority — and the “unprecedented” political loyalty he enjoys within the Republican caucus — to usher in proposals aimed at centralizing power over the state’s institutions and combating what he calls “woke ideology” — to fuel his anticipated bid for the White House.

Harold Ford, president of the South Dade Branch of the NAACP, said DeSantis is shaking the foundation of the state’s democratic institutions — pointing to the governor’s efforts to wield state power to punish critics and political adversaries — such as the law he recently signed stripping Disney of its special governing status, after employees there criticized the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

“That’s a dictatorship,” Ford said. “Those Republicans of this legislature that continue to allow him to do these things knowing they are contrary to democracy, we need to hold them accountable. We need to call them out. Because there’s no way we can justify his actions.”

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the governor defended his policies.

“Fortunately for these groups, “freedom from overbearing state control of our citizens’ lives and choices” is exactly what Governor DeSantis is accomplishing,” said press secretary Bryan Griffin, pointing to DeSantis’ efforts to restrict discussions on race and gender in the classroom, and to ban vaccine mandates.

Despite Florida Democrats steep losses during the 2022 elections — and pledges from Republican state leaders that they’ll give DeSantis everything he wants — members of EPEC say they’re ready to put up a fight.

“Now’s the time for you to stand up, fight back and push back against the attacks that are happening,” said Bullard.

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