DUNEDIN, Florida — Ron DeSantis is chasing the ghosts of his past — as a way to tell the story of his future.
On a Wednesday morning, the 46th governor of Florida is acting as navigator for the state trooper driving the narrow streets of DeSantis’ Gulf Coast hometown — looking for the the Huettig Electric storefront where he worked, installing electrical wiring for commercial businesses, while in high school.
“So much of this stuff has just been built up around here. This was a pretty blue-collar town growing up and it was just small mom-and-pop businesses and strip malls,” DeSantis says, looking intently up and down the streets for the small company that helped him defray the costs of his Ivy League education.
But the Republican smiles when the car rounds the corner of where he believes Huettig’s used to be and instead sees sleek modern condominiums. “Artisan? We definitely didn’t have Artisan when I was growing up,” DeSantis says of what he views as positive changes for his hometown.
Indeed, this city of just about 36,000 has changed a lot since the governor was a boy, as has the entire state, especially since he took office five years ago. Since then, his major governing decisions — from keeping Florida open for business even as much of the country shuttered over pandemic fears, to, this week, announcing a Digital Bill of Rights protecting against Big Tech censorship — has won him lots of attention and praise and attracted new residents from all over the country and beyond.
Now, the 44-year-old, whose memoir, “The Courage to Be Free,” is out Feb. 28, is under intense scrutiny for any sign he is going to throw his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination. DeSantis is not ready to say if he is running for president — only that he is focused on the current legislative session in front of him, and he wants to get done the things that he promised.
The former congressman narrowly won his first run for governor in 2018, but became the shining beacon for the Republicans in the party’s otherwise underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms.
He has done so by publicly tangling with Disney over their condemnation of the Florida State legislature’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed the “Don’t say Gay” bill by critics, and managing the cleanup after the devastation of Hurricane Ian.
Even President Biden was forced to admit DeSantis’s emergency efforts were “remarkable.”
“I don’t promise things I can’t deliver,” DeSantis said, referencing his recent education reform. It includes fighting for “education, not indoctrination” by curbing ideology: requiring state universities and colleges report resources devoted to critical race theory and blocking an AP high-school course on African-American history that, his administration has said, “runs contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”
“Virtually every major institution in our country is attempting to impose a ‘progressive’ agenda on society,” the governor tells The Post. “Florida strives to protect the ability of its citizens to live their lives free from this agenda being shoved down their throats. “
And he is thinking about a national agenda, especially the idea of moving federal government departments outside of Washington, DC, to help drain the swamp.
“Too much power has accumulated in DC and the result is a detached administrative state that rules over us and imposes its will on us,” De Santis said. “While there are a host of things that need to be done to re-constitutionalize government, parceling out federal agencies to other parts of the country could help reduce the negative effects of this accumulation of power.”
For the moment, though, the governor still has his high-school job — and how it helped him shoulder responsibility — on his mind.
“Back in Little League, I was one of the pitchers … My team was sponsored by Huettig Electric, a local electric company, and I was the best player on that individual team. And the owner of [Huettig] told me as a kid, ‘If you ever need a job …’” he recalls. “When I graduated high school, I needed money before I went to college. So I went to his shop and asked him if I there were any odd jobs I could do.
“A week after graduation, I show up 6 a.m. and worked until 4 o’clock or later, 40 hours or more a week, for the rest of the summer. The paychecks all went to the school, to pay for my necessities and everything like that,” DeSantis says of his freshman year at Yale.
As we head towards his high school, he points out the street leading to his parents’ modest home, where his wife, Casey, a former television host, and their three young children — daughters Madison and Mamie, and son Mason — are hanging out for the morning.
Hard work was an ethos that was part of his family legacy, he explains. His father, Ron, was born in Aliquippa, Penn., a once-mighty steel town; his mother, Karen, was from across the state line in Poland, Ohio, part of the Mahoning Steel Valley. The two met at Youngstown State University in the 1970s and left the area because job opportunities there were slim.
“My dad got a job working for Nielsen TV ratings, installing boxes for Nielson families in their homes,” DeSantis says of growing up in Dunedin.
As a teenager, he would drive his mom to her nursing job early every morning, then, go back home to get ready for school. “She worked a 12-hour shift, so I would do all that, then pick her up, usually after baseball practice.”
When we pull up to what was the baseball field of Dunedin High School, his alma mater, it’s now a city-owned stadium. Now, as it was then, the space is used by the Toronto Blue Jays for spring training.
“The Blue Jays would have spring training games at 1 o’clock and we would come to practice at 4 and the pros would be leaving,” DeSantis remembers, adding the big leaguers would often tease the high-schoolers.
“We would have our names on the lockers and sometimes the pros would change the spelling of our names to make bad words,” he says.
Asked if his was ever changed to DeSanctimonious — the derisive nickname bestowed upon him by Donald Trump — he laughs. “No. There weren’t enough letters to be able to do that. I don’t know if anyone even can spell that.”
As fans head to the ticket window to purchase seats for the upcoming season, they are delighted to run into the governor.
Sarah Pardy — formerly of Kingston, Ontario, Canada — is one of dozens of people who walks up to the governor to talk to him about various things they attribute to him for making their lives better.
“We moved here because of you,” Pardy says.
Pardy tells The Post she respects how DeSantis rarely says, “I did this, or I did that” — it is always “we,” whether he is talking to a bystander, giving a speech, or addressing government. “There is something to be said about understanding it takes a lot of good people to make things work.”
That populist touch also made him a success at Yale — even though he had a bit of a surprise when he first arrived on the Connecticut campus.
“My world had always been … this blue-collar town of Dunedin, and summer trips to my grandparents places in blue-collar Pennsylvania and Ohio steel towns,” he recalls, adding he had no idea at the time that the college was so liberal. “I showed up the first day at Yale wearing jeans and flip-flops and it was a major, major culture shock; I was definitely an outlier just in terms of how that culture was up there.”
The first thing DeSantis knew he needed to do was get a part-time job. What he ended up doing was a lot of part-time jobs.
“I arrived in the fall of ’97 … I worked every odd job. Along with a couple of my [baseball] teammates, we would be the ball boy at the men’s and women’s soccer [games]. We would park cars for hockey games. I would do recycling and trash pickup and set up for events,” the governor recalls. “It got to the point, then, after I was at Yale for a couple years, if someone around campus needed a job, I was one of the guys that would be called.”
When he graduated, DeSantis says, his baseball coach told him: “’You’re the most employable person at Yale,’ because I needed to do it. That was just the reality, so I did so many different jobs.”
The experience was a defining one for him, in terms of perseverance and fighting for what’s important — including going on to Harvard Law School and joining the US Navy while in his second year there.
“You’re working, you’re doing all the athletics, and then school, it was a huge, huge amount of stuff. And people say, ‘Well, you just got to balance everything,’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to balance it. I’m just going to do everything to the hilt and let the chips fall where they may.”
We finish the day with a stop at Flannigan’s, one of his favorite local diners, on Dunedin’s main drag. By now, word has spread through town that the governor might stop by and the place is packed. As he walks in, hugs are given, hands are shaken, and any myth he is aloof easily evaporates.
“This is going to be the best legislation session we’ve had,” DeSantis tells locals as he steps up onto a stage usually reserved for local bands. “We don’t promise things we can’t deliver,” he says, before launching into his plan to put more focus on classical education in the state’s higher education system.
By the time he leaves, everyone in the place has told him the same thing: “You need to run for president.”
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