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On a book tour, DeSantis teases his platform and a possible 2024 run

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been popping up around the country as he teases an anticipated presidential bid. Officially, the governor is promoting his new book, but that book and the events around it tout his record in Florida as a blueprint for a national agenda.

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RON DESANTIS: I think we really have done a great job of drawing a line in the sand to say the purpose of our schools is to educate kids, not to indoctrinate kids.

MARTIN: DeSantis is referring here to his so-called Parental Rights in Education law that was passed last year. It's been dubbed the Don't Say Gay law by opponents because it restricts schools from teaching kids from kindergarten to third grade about gender identity and sexual orientation. The Florida Legislature began last week, and there are at least two new bills which would expand regulations on sex education in schools. We've called Ana Ceballos to tell us more about all of this. She's a reporter for the Miami Herald, and she's been following Governor DeSantis and these new bills closely. And she's with us now. Ana, thanks so much for joining us.

ANA CEBALLOS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to start by asking you to tell us more about these new education bills. I want to - first, I want to hear about the substance, and then I want to hear about the politics. So the substance first - what would these bills do? Like, how might it change what goes on in schools?

CEBALLOS: Right. So these two bills that have been filed by Republicans - one in the House and one in the Senate - would really build on last year's Parental Rights in Education bill, which prohibited discussions and lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. These bills would expand that from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. And they also add a few other provisions that would bar educators and school staff from referring to students with pronouns that differ from those assigned to them at birth, for example. And as currently written, one of the bills would also make it the policy of every single K-12 public school in Florida that, quote, "a person's sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to their sex."

So they're really trying to take aim at the transgender students in school who might be, you know, telling teachers that they have a preferred pronoun. And to put that into context, there are about 16,000 Florida teenagers - which is roughly, like, 1% of children between the ages of 13 and 17 - that identify as trans here in Florida.

MARTIN: These are the two kind of marquee measures that are being touted so far. Are there other measures also expected along these same lines?

CEBALLOS: Along the culture wars, there really are. We are expecting a legislative session that could be culture wars 2.0 or so for solidifying, really, the platform that DeSantis has been building as he's, you know, flirting with a potential run for president in 2024. And what we're seeing is really a heavy focus, again, on education. But this time it's on what he calls woke lessons in higher education. So he's trying to take aim and making changes to the diversity, equity and inclusion programs at these universities.

MARTIN: So, well, you keep saying he, so do I - can we assume that these bills are being introduced in the Legislature at his request or by his allies? Is that how it works?

CEBALLOS: So DeSantis right now is trying to keep an arm's length with the proposals because he - while he supports the ideas and obviously, based on the universe of information that we have on the positions and the stances that he's taken in the last two years, it's fair to say that the Legislature is - wouldn't be doing this without being sure that it is consistent with the governor's ideology. He's very popular in Florida. But DeSantis is trying to - you know, we've asked for comment, specifically on what his stance is on these measures. And he's saying, well, you know, bills change throughout the process. So we will take a stance when it's appropriate. So he's not really endorsing them as of right now, but we know where he stands on these issues.

MARTIN: So let's talk a little bit more about him. Governor DeSantis has been traveling around the country - California - he's been in California. He's been to Dallas. On Friday, he was in Iowa, interestingly enough, ahead of former President Trump's visit tomorrow. It's - ostensibly, it's a book tour. But from what I can see on just - say, just seeing him on television, it seems like these are more campaign rallies. Would that be accurate?

CEBALLOS: I mean, I think it's certainly - you know, for someone who's saying that he's not really orchestrating a run for president, he sure knows what that checklist would look like, right? I mean, we're looking at him go to New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, which are three Democratic metro areas, to talk about pro-law enforcement. He's using, really, this book tour to present - or to introduce himself to a national audience. He still doesn't have as big of a name recognition. While he is on national headlines all the time, and he has shown to be really popular in Florida, where he recently overwhelmingly won a reelection, he's still trying to introduce himself to voters. So I think he's using this as a test run.

MARTIN: So he's still being coy about running for president. What is he waiting for? I mean, the working assumption seems to be that he's laying the groundwork. What would he be waiting for?

CEBALLOS: One thing to keep in mind, I think, maybe - it's timing, right? I mean, I think he's trying to, again, broaden his platform - like, solidify it, strengthen it. And the legislative session just started, and he has an opportunity to really strengthen the policies that he's been pushing for the past two years to really grow what he can run on if he does decide to run. And that legislative session ends in May. There's still enough time, once that is over and once he has a portfolio that would be worthy of, you know, a national platform. So I think he's really trying to see what more he can do as governor. I think it's really fair to say that the legislative session is going to be used as a springboard for what he can potentially do with an announcement so he can have, you know, the splashiest of announcements if he does decide to make one.

MARTIN: As I think his travel schedule indicates, and as the interest in him sort of indicates, he seems to be among at least a good portion of Republicans - their kind of hope for the presidency as a replacement for the former president, Donald Trump. Why is there so much hype around him?

CEBALLOS: I think during the pandemic, he really became a household name when it came to the pushback - right? - on vaccines and everything that was really going on in the country. And now that he has shown that, you know, in the 2022 election, that he won Florida by a nearly 20-point margin, where - in a state that is won usually by razor-thin margins. And I think that with - at least what we've heard from conservatives is that, you know, they do sometimes prefer Trump, but they do see DeSantis as a Trump candidate without the baggage, without the legal disputes, without the potential criminal charges hanging on the horizon. And so that is an appeal that we hear from conservatives here.

MARTIN: That is Ana Ceballos. She's a reporter for the Miami Herald. Ana, thanks so much for sharing this reporting in these insights with us.

CEBALLOS: Of course. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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