The Wednesday Night Massacre: Governor DeSantis' midnight attack on Florida's Soil & Water Conservation District boards
June 18, 2022
Today, I want to point out Governor DeSantis' late-night attack on Florida's Soil and Water Conservation District boards. These elected boards date back to the New Deal during the Great Depression and used to have much more power, but now have no funding and function basically as advocacy groups, as well as launchpads for many environmentalist politicians, because members are elected by the public. Board members often shine a spotlight on bad environmental practices of developers and industrialists, who primarily contribute to Republican politicians in Florida. DeSantis and the Florida Republicans do not like this. On March 9, 2022, the Florida legislature passed a bill to add a new, unprecedented requirement that board members must be working or have worked in agriculture and must sign an affidavit attesting this in order to run for office. In addition, the bill ends the 4-year terms of any board members elected in 2020 half-way through their terms, requiring them to qualify and stand for election again in 2022 (instead of 2024).
This is, of course, outrageous. Rob Long, Chair of the Palm Beach Soil and Water board, lamented to Florida Politics, "I’ve never heard of anyone being stripped of their elected office halfway through their term. ... I didn’t know that was legal. I feel like it’s a civil rights violation."
In the United States Constitution, it says in Article 1, Section 7 that the President has 10 days (excluding Sundays) to veto a bill, or else it automatically becomes law. The Florida Constitution does not say this. So, DeSantis elected to sit on the bill for over 3 months, and then signed it on the evening of Wednesday, June 15, 2022. This created chaos for Soil and Water board races all over the state (there are 56 soil and water boards), as this week is the candidate qualifying week requiring candidates to file their candidate oath and the new affidavit of being employed / previously employed in agriculture by 12:00 noon on Friday, June 17, 2022. Florida Politics notes that some county supervisor of elections offices did not even receive the new required paperwork until 24 hours before this deadline.
This, of course, is a ridiculous, in-your-face power grab reminiscent of the grievances the founding fathers had against King George III for suddenly and capriciously dissolving representative assemblies in Virginia and North Carolina in 1769, among others, for opposing him. These grievances were enshrined in the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and others. In fact, the new law even says that if a soil and water district does not have a board meeting with 5 members at least annually, the district is dissolved. Some districts may be facing dissolution as they did not have 5 candidates qualify by today's deadline, for obvious reasons. Some incumbents were expecting their terms to end in 2024 and did not get the memo that King DeSantis had changed that on Wednesday night.
DeSantis' maneuver reminds me of 2 other classic power grabs from American history. The first is President John Adams. As he faced the end of his presidency, having been defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800, he appointed a large number of federal judges in the hope of leaving a lasting impact on the judicial branch of the federal government. These were derisively referred to as the "midnight judges," conjuring an image of a lame duck President frantically maneuvering to preserve his legacy and influence.
The second occurred during President Richard Nixon's crisis over his involvement in a cover-up of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate office building. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of that burglary. As Nixon's corruption came closer to the public eye, he sought to terminate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating him. President Nixon carried out this scheme by threatening the top leadership of the United States Department of Justice with termination if they did not comply. Nixon ended up having to fire his attorney general and his deputy attorney general in order to find someone (Solicitor General Robert Bork) who would comply with his demands. This became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
The Soil and Water Conservation District boards consist of elected volunteers with no budgets beyond, in the case of Volusia County where I live, funds earned from an annual tree sale. It might seem hyperbolic to compare Governor DeSantis' actions to King George III, President Adams, or President Nixon. But, these boards are elected by the people, and that means something. The members serving on these boards have been elected by the people of their districts and have often withstood mudslinging, brutal campaigns, and adverse actions in their careers and personal lives to serve without pay. They are often environmental experts and consummate leaders, such as a good friend of mine who chairs the Volusia Soil and Water board while working as a environmental science professor, volunteering as a homeowners' association president, and more.
Throwing the status of these elected officials and candidates into chaos at the last possible moment is nothing short of a Wednesday Night Massacre. It's a grotesque insult to Florida's citizens, to democratic principles, and to the electoral process. DeSantis is punching down, to the maximal extent. Everyone knows that he wants to stay in the news with free wall-to-wall coverage for his future campaign for President of the United States, by stoking hatred and division via exaggerated culture wars, gubernatorial appointments of sycophantic know-nothings, and nakedly imperialistic power grabs. We are seeing this every hour of every day. But, the Soil and Water board issue is one that will be widely overlooked and quickly forgotten. You could probably conduct a wide survey of voters and find most of them know very little about these boards. Nevertheless, despite the obscurity of these boards, Governor DeSantis could easily have signed this bill in March 2022 instead of throwing the elections into chaos at the last moment. This was vengeance.
The electoral success of a lowly soil and water board member seems benign, but it represents a threat to Republican hegemony in Florida. Republicans are losing with younger people, with experts and the highly educated, with immigrants and minorities—with the future of America. Governor DeSantis knows this, and he wants to cement a legacy of influence and power by cutting down pathways to political power, especially for Democrats who often run for Soil and Water, and win. What he accomplishes in Florida is being exported a blueprint all over the United States to perpetuate Republican control of local government, of state legislatures and governors' offices, and of the national government. Now that the Republican party stands firmly for authoritarianism, this is a frightening proposition. Do not let the midnight attack on the soil and water boards—the Wednesday Night Massacre of June 15, 2022—be forgotten.
Volusia County's Soil and Water Conservation District board will live on with 5 members elected unopposed, due to the valiant efforts of current board members to qualify for election on short notice and find strong new candidates who met the new criteria and were willing to step up to serve. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for all of Florida's 56 soil and water boards.
Please have a great Juneteenth holiday weekend and Father's Day. Thanks to several folks who reached out wishing the best for the health of our son, Jonah. I'll see you again on Monday.
On the Florida Soil and Water Conservation District boards:
On the Declaration of Independence, Adams' midnight judges, and Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre: