DeSantis, ‘Moms’ give county voters the shaft


On her next visit to Tallahassee, Tiffany Justice needs to present Gov. Ron DeSantis with a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Property of Moms For Liberty.”

Clearly, they own him – at least to the point where the Moms and their Vero Beach-based co-founder wield enough clout with the governor’s inner circle to convince him to place their agenda and his political dogma above the will of the county’s voters.

And it doesn’t seem to matter that Justice was a failed one-term school board member, or that the local chapter of her hard-right fringe group gets little traction in our community.

DeSantis gave the Moms what they wanted: control of our School Board, here in the group’s birthplace.

There’s no other plausible explanation for the governor’s petty and wrongheaded decision last week to not allow Brian Barefoot – who erroneously and unnecessarily resigned from the board after moving from the island to the mainland in February – to reclaim the District 5 seat to which he was elected in 2020 with 65 percent of the vote.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Barefoot said last week, after learning he would not return to the board, “but I am disappointed.”

Throughout his tenure, and particularly when he served as chairman in his first year on the board, Barefoot resisted the Moms’ culture-war antics, which have needlessly bogged down meetings and often diverted attention from the district’s mission of educating our children.

More telling, though, was DeSantis’ decision to appoint School Board candidate Kevin McDonald – a Moms-supported political newcomer with little name recognition locally, but who previously led the board of directors at a “classical Christian” private school in New York – to fill Barefoot’s seat for the next seven months.

“It’s purely political,” Barefoot said.

At the very least, it’s curious, given that the application portal in the governor’s appointment office was never opened.

DeSantis could’ve appointed McDonald’s challenger, David Dyer, who enjoyed tremendous success as a retail executive with some of the world’s most-recognized apparel companies before retiring in 2015.

An island resident, Dyer is a longtime Republican with deep Florida roots and credentials in education that are every bit as impressive as his opponent’s – especially here, where he has been immersed in improving childhood literacy, serving as vice chairman of The Learning Alliance before stepping down in mid-February to run for Barefoot’s board seat.

The first candidate to enter the District 5 race, Dyer previously headed a Florida Council of 100 education committee. He later helped our school district recruit Superintendent David Moore, whose leadership the past four years has produced an “A” grade from the Department of Education and a 96-percent graduation rate that ranks No. 3 in the state.

And Dyer already has the backing of several prominent island residents, as well as Barefoot, who has publicly endorsed him.

McDonald, though, has the Moms, which means he has DeSantis.

Barefoot sees DeSantis’ decision to appoint McDonald, who is now running as an incumbent, as a tacit endorsement and an obvious attempt to influence the Aug. 20 election – a race Barefoot believes Dyer, without the governor’s interference, would’ve won easily.

“For the people who aren’t paying attention, it could be a factor, and that’s as unfair as it is unfortunate,” Barefoot said of the appointment. “So, I intend to be very active in supporting David.”

Don’t underestimate Barefoot’s reach, especially at John’s Island, where many of its affluent residents regularly contribute to political campaigns and causes.

Initially, however, Barefoot’s endorsement might’ve backfired.

There’s little doubt the Moms cited the endorsement in their efforts to persuade DeSantis to appoint McDonald over Dyer, when the less-risky strategy would’ve been to reinstate Barefoot or allow the seat to remain vacant through the election and into November, when the winner will be sworn in.

After all, DeSantis’ recent appointments in our area have done nothing but raise questions about the competence of his vetting process:

  • His appointment of Lieutenant Keith Pearson to replace St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara, who cited health reasons when he resigned on Dec. 1, has created a swarm of controversy over his failure to release public records, disturbing social-media activity and connections to a man DeSantis pardoned in January 2023.
  • Closer to home, his January appointment of Brennan Keeler as a circuit judge assigned to our county lasted less than three months, ending with Keeler’s resignation two weeks ago.

Barefoot, though, was already on DeSantis’ highly publicized enemies list – created last year with significant input from the Moms – that contained the names of 14 school board incumbents the governor has targeted for defeat in this year’s elections because they purportedly didn’t support his “parental rights” and “anti-woke” education agenda.

DeSantis was grandstanding, of course, setting a tough-guy tone for what would be an unsuccessful run at the Republican presidential nomination.

Truth is, DeSantis didn’t know Barefoot then any more than he knows Dyer or McDonald now. If he had, he would’ve known the former Indian River Shores mayor was a staunch Republican with traditional conservative leanings and a contributor to the governor’s past campaigns.

He’d also know Barefoot contributed mightily to the district’s success, providing leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the invaluable support and counsel Moore needed to turn around our struggling schools.

When it comes to our School Board, however, DeSantis knows only what Justice and the Moms have told him, mostly through their conversations with his staff – and it’s more than unlikely that they’ve said anything nice about Barefoot.

Justice probably hasn’t forgotten it was Barefoot’s decision to run for her board seat that drove her out of the race in 2020, when, knowing she couldn’t win, she decided to not seek a second term.

Whatever his reasons, DeSantis displayed an alarming lack of judgment and discernment in not allowing Barefoot to return to the board – an unforced error that hasn’t been well-received in our community, even among Republicans.

It’s not as if Barefoot, a former Babson College president who turns 81 this month, did anything to deserve such shabby treatment. He did nothing to prompt his removal from the board. He simply made an honest mistake while trying to do the right thing.

For those who don’t know: When Barefoot moved from John’s Island to Oak Harbor in mid-February, he believed he was obligated to resign from the School Board because he no longer resided in District 5.

So on Feb. 21, he sent a letter of resignation, effective immediately, to the offices of the governor, Florida secretary of state and the school district.

The next day, however – less than 24 hours after sending his resignation letter via U.S. Mail – Barefoot learned the County Commission, as it does every 10 years after receiving the results of the U.S. Census, had redrawn the district lines in 2021.

As a result of the new configuration, the Oak Harbor community on Indian River Boulevard moved from District 2 to District 5, meaning that Barefoot didn’t need to resign.

He immediately tried to rescind his resignation, sending faxes and emails to the governor and secretary of state, and followed up with overnight letters that were to arrive in Tallahassee by 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 23.

In fact, Barefoot is sure his rescission letter reached DeSantis’ office before his resignation letter. He said he doesn’t know why the governor didn’t simply accept his explanation, express appreciation for the efforts he made to correct the situation and let him return to the dais.

“Allowing me to continue to serve out my term should’ve been a no-brainer,” Barefoot said.

“The voters elected me. The voters should decide who’s going to succeed me.

“What the governor has done is very unfair to the voters,” he added, “and it’s very unfair to David Dyer.”

It was also unfair to Barefoot.

At the very least, DeSantis should’ve acknowledged that he had received Barefoot’s resignation and rescission letters – if only as a professional courtesy.

He didn’t.

“That’s not the way you do it,” Barefoot said, adding that he plans to write DeSantis a letter to express his feelings about the governor’s handling of the matter. “It was classless.”

But not surprising.

DeSantis is the Moms’ strongest ally, and Barefoot’s gaffe handed them an unexpected opportunity to claim a 3-2 majority on our School Board – something they’ve been unable to win at the ballot box.

For the record: Two of the board’s three Moms-backed members never received a single vote. McDonald was appointed. Gene Posca ran unopposed for the District 1 seat in 2022.

Dyer did not want to comment on DeSantis’ decision, nor did State Representative Robbie Brackett.

“This isn’t personal,” Barefoot said, adding that he had met McDonald, whom he described as a “nice guy,” before DeSantis’ announcement.

Barefoot’s concern is the impact of the appointment on future board actions and the positive momentum the school district has generated the past four years. But he said he’s not going to challenge the governor’s decision.

“I thought about getting a lawyer and seeking an injunction, but I’ve decided not to,” he said.

“The politicization of public education in this state is disgraceful, but the governor has made his decision. Let the voters decide whether they want to undo it.”

That gives McDonald, who was sworn in prior to Monday’s board workshop, four months to audition for the role. Judge him by his performance.

In an interview via email last weekend, McDonald wrote that he supports DeSantis’ decision to appoint him to the board, adding that he considers it an “honor to have his faith in me and his name connected to my campaign.”

To be sure, Dyer said he, too, would’ve accepted an appointment.

It was neither McDonald nor Dyer who put politics above the will of the people of our community. It was our governor.

Hope he likes the T-shirt.

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