Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis running for president. What you need to know

From small government champion to powerful executive governor, DeSantis has evolved

FILE - Incumbent Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, his wife Casey and their children on stage after speaking to supporters at an election night party after winning his race for reelection in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File) (Rebecca Blackwell, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – On the state of Florida’s official website for the governor, there’s a tab that says “Meet Ron DeSantis.”

When you click on it, you’re taken to a page with a picture of Florida’s 46th governor and a promise that his biography is “coming soon.”

In a way, it’s an apt metaphor for a man who is often characterized as aloof — a politician who desires the big jobs but eschews the unwelcome limelight that comes with it.

“You know, the rap is that when he talks to people, he looks at his shoes — that he looks at his cell phone, he’ll be having a conversation with somebody and he’ll be reading messages on his cell phone,” said News 6 political analyst Dr. Jim Clark.

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“Ron DeSantis comes with the policy package. He may not be the warm and fuzzies guy, but he’s not going to embarrass you at Christmas dinner,” said Republican consultant and DeSantis supporter Anthony Pedicini.

It also says something about a lawmaker whose legislative priorities seem to have shifted, turning him into a culture warrior that the Republican base can rally around.

Now DeSantis seeks the biggest limelight of all — the American presidency.

[WATCH: Dr. Jim Clark on DeSantis’ presidential run]

Raised in Florida

Ronald Dion DeSantis was born in Jacksonville, Florida on Sept. 14, 1978, and grew up in Dunedin in Tampa Bay.

In his most recent book, “The Courage to be Free,” DeSantis describes himself as being regionally from Florida, but identifying culturally with the Midwest. While critics have slammed the line as pandering to blue-collar voters, his family does have Midwestern roots.

His family came over from Italy in the early 1900s. His parents and grandparents grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and his parents met at Youngstown State University before moving to Florida.

DeSantis’ mother was a nurse and his father installed TV rating boxes.

As if adding to the all-American boy image, DeSantis played Little League baseball. In 1991, he played on the Dunedin National team and competed in the Little League World Series, eventually losing to Taiwan.

Baseball helped get him to college, securing a place on Yale’s baseball team after graduating from Dunedin High School.

He got a degree in history from Yale in 2001 and taught for a year at a school in Georgia before going to Harvard Law School, graduating in 2005.

The year before, however, he got a commission with the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He served at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville before going to Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2006, where he worked as an advisor.

He also met his future wife, Casey, a news anchor with WJXT in Jacksonville. They married in a lavish wedding at Walt Disney World’s wedding pavilion. DeSantis wore his dress uniform.

In 2007, DeSantis became a legal adviser to SEAL Team One and was deployed to Iraq, serving forces in the Al Anbar province. The following year he was reassigned to the Naval Region Southeast Legal Service. He was in active service in the Navy until his honorable discharge in 2010.

He served with the reserve until February 2019, retiring with the rank of lieutenant commander.

He spent some time as an assistant U.S. attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and taught at Florida Coastal School of Law before going into politics.

Courting Congress

DeSantis took his first steps into politics with the birth of the Tea Party movement, which rebuked the policies of President Barack Obama.

He wrote “Dreams from our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama” in 2011, the title and cover both a play on Obama’s own best-selling memoir.

The book highlights DeSantis’ political philosophy, his disdain for the “redistributive” policies of Obama and progressives, like the Affordable Care Act, and attacks attempts by the left to “control people’s liberties.” He wrote that the Founding Fathers saw individual liberties and limited government as the core of the Constitution, and Obama was moving the country away from that with executive overreach.

The book is not available for sale in print, but it did at the time help introduce DeSantis as he ran for Congress in 2012 for U.S. House District 6, covering an area that included St. Johns, Flagler, Putnam and part of Volusia counties.

In Congress, DeSantis helped found the Freedom Caucus, championed traditional conservative causes and supported reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He voted against the Affordable Care Act, supported the Fair Tax national sales tax proposal and supported some non-binding resolutions that called for slashing Social Security and Medicare. He also called for eliminating payroll taxes on seniors. DeSantis also supported a constitutional amendment on term limits for Congress and bans on allowing former lawmakers and staff to become lobbyists.

You can look at all the bills DeSantis sponsored on Congress’ website.

Colleagues described him as a quiet and aloof person who chafed under the constant politicking needed to rise in the House, but also as a hard worker.

“We’ve been hearing stories from congressmen and congresswomen who served with them, who said in one case, a guy sat next to him for two years in a committee room and DeSantis never talked to him,” Clark said.

Seeking higher office

In 2016, DeSantis briefly ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. But he dropped out after Marco Rubio ended his presidential campaign and took up the race for his senate seat.

Instead, he decided to run for governor of Florida in 2018. Campaign ads touted his loyalty and support for President Donald Trump, even showcasing him teaching his young children some famous Trumpisms.

It was an endorsement by Trump that propelled DeSantis’ profile past that of Adam Putnam, the well-known and liked Republican agricultural commissioner, to win the Republican nomination.

DeSantis won the gubernatorial election by a slim margin in 2018 against Democrat Andrew Gillum after a recount of votes.

That slim victory helps make his landslide reelection victory against Charlie Crist in 2022 more impressive. Democratic support all but collapsed in several strongholds, allowing DeSantis to turn counties like Miami-Dade and Palm Beach red. He made inroads with the state’s Hispanic voters as well.

Time in office

DeSantis may have started out in 2019 as a more libertarian governor, but he soon began cultivating a populist conservative image that has made him a hero of right-of-center voters.

His bucking of recommended COVID-19 protocols, including opening businesses and schools early, as well as fighting mask guidelines, cruise ship protocols, and even vaccine guidelines, earned him a national following. Those policies may be why thousands of people moved to Florida to get away from more restrictive policies in other states.

“If you’ve lived in Florida, like I have since I was in sixth grade, you enjoyed a level of freedom that your cousins in New York were envious of for 18 months,” Pedicini said. “I mean, I could go out to eat and they couldn’t even order food because they couldn’t get delivery. So I think that those things uniquely catapulted him into a stratospheric reverence.”

[WATCH: News 6′s Matt Austin interviews Gov. DeSantis about COVID-19 in 2020]

DeSantis has been buoyed by a compliant legislature that helped him push through a number of massive reforms and made him a culture war hero.

While many champion his policies, others see them as dangerous for minorities and marginalized groups.

Like his bucking of COVID-19 protocols, he appointed controversial doctor Joseph Ladapo as surgeon general. With a conservative Florida Legislature behind them, the two have essentially banned gender-affirming care for minors and are tightening care for adults, in defiance of a broad swath of medical groups who support allowing gender-affirming care on a case-by-case basis.

His Stop WOKE Law banned any ethnic education and workplace training that caused white people to feel persecuted.

He followed that up in 2023 with two major actions — a law banning diversity, equity and inclusion programs in colleges and universities, and the takeover of the liberal arts university New College of Florida, which he and conservative advocates want to turn into a bastion of conservative higher education, the “Hillsdale of the South.”

His “parental rights in education” law banned sexual identity discussions or instruction in the lower grades or in other areas as considered appropriate. That law has since been expanded to the upper grades in school.

Laws that allow parent critiques of books in school have unleashed a wave of complaints and attempts to get hundreds of books banned across the state. DeSantis is a fervent supporter of one of the major groups behind the book complaints — Moms for Liberty. He has attended their conference, taken meetings with them in Tallahassee, appointed Moms for Liberty members on government boards and supported Moms for Liberty members in school board races.

That’s another area where he has bucked tradition. Normally, a governor does not endorse candidates for nonpartisan school board races. At least half of his endorsed candidates won their races in 2022.

Some other things he’s done that have turned into major changes for Florida — making the Florida Supreme Court more conservative through his appointments, making Florida a state where the permitless carry of guns is allowed and banning abortion after six weeks.

While DeSantis has taken millions in donations from corporations, he has shown that he is willing to stand up to those donors if they criticize his policies. After Disney World criticized the “parental rights in education” law, he convened a special legislative session to strip the Walt Disney Company of its special district status — a move that has not been fully resolved yet, as both sides go to court and DeSantis and Republican legislatures push more initiatives to try to rein in Disney.

Under DeSantis, Florida continued to thrive, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and a budget surplus, though federal funds bolster the budget. And Florida continues to grow, with nearly 1,000 people moving to the Sunshine State per day.

He has raised starting teacher pay, increased pay and bonuses for law enforcement and cut corporate taxes. He’s opened school vouchers to all Florida children and helped oversee the growth of charter schools.

DeSantis has evolved from his early days as a politician in Congress, from someone who abhorred government overreach in “Dreams from Our Founding Fathers” to someone who champions the benefits of more executive power in “The Courage to be Free.”

“I think he’s moved into the governing from the right. I think (that) also means check in the left if that makes sense,” Pedicini said. “I think DeSantis, his philosophy has evolved from a limited government conservative to, almost like a conservative activism, where we have to now let the pendulum swing back (from the left) a little bit, clean it up.”

It’s a policy he now wants to take back to Washington, where he felt stymied, and spread across America.

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About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.