Ron’s hot asphalt folly

It’s never too soon to start working on the legacy thing.

I had rather hoped that Gov. Ron DeSantis would carry on the legacy of fellow Republican Claude Kirk. Instead he has opted to emulate Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. A Democrat.

Yeah, I know, Kirk was a bit of an eccentric, even a loose cannon. But he was also Florida’s first real environmental governor. 

In his biography “Claude Kirk and the Politics of Confrontation,” Edmund F. Kallina Jr. writes that Kirk “gave impetus to the environmental movement in Florida. Before his election environmentalism was anathema to all but a few politicians….Kirk personally led a crusade that made environmental protection a popular issue.”

Kirk brought Nat Reed – a visionary Florida conservationists – to Tallahassee to help shape state environmental policy. He opposed construction of a massive jetport in the Everglades. Heck, years after Kirk left office, he traveled around the state arguing for normalized relations with Cuba – if only to get major polluter Big Sugar out of the Everglades and back to the island paradise where it came from. 

But DeSantis hasn’t got the sand to be a Claude Kirk. Far better to emulate Florida’s turn-of-the-20th century “open for business” Gov. Broward. 

Broward was also a colorful boat rocker. Hell, he used to run guns to Cuba. But unlike Kirk, Broward was a graduate of the school of Florida politics that deems extremism in the defense of growth, growth and more growth never quite extreme enough. 

Case in point: When Henry Flagler was building his railroad up and down the east coast of Florida, he left an inconvenient problem behind up north – namely a wife who had been committed to an asylum.

Flagler wanted a divorce, but Florida law didn’t allow divorce on the grounds of mental health. That is until an accommodating Legislature, in 1901, passed a law declaring that “incurable insanity in either husband or wife shall be a ground for dissolution” of marriage.

As a state legislator, Broward voted for the “Flagler divorce bill.” But, really, he was only kidding, as Diane Roberts points out in her terrific Florida book “Dream State.”

After Flagler secured his divorce, Broward became governor. And then, as Roberts writes, Broward had Flagler’s mental health loophole repealed “with a maximum of righteous table-whacking and rococo speeches from legislators about the sanctity of marriage.“

But no question Florida was open for business under our home-grown Napoleon. 

If playing divorce lawyer for robber barons was his only offense, Broward might be forgiven. But it wasn’t. Instead, he was the governor who began in earnest the ditching, dredging and diking of the Florida Everglades in an attempt to turn all of that worthless swamp into productive farms, towns and cities. “Water will run downhill,” was Broward’s battle cry, as he tried to drain the Glades downhill into the Atlantic Ocean. 

“The water used to rule,” Roberts writes of Broward’s legacy, “now men with dredging machines and dynamite would rule.”

More than a century later we taxpayers are still paying for Napoleon’s folly – spending untold billions of dollars trying to restore the some semblance of natural hydraulic flow and function to the gutted Glades. 

So what has all of this to do with Gov. DeSantis? Well, his carefully cultivated a Teddy Roosevelt Republican image was shredded all to hell when our new governor signed a bill authorizing major new turnpike construction up and down the western half of the Florida peninsula. 

These days it isn’t just water, but asphalt that determines Florida’s destiny. And just as Broward went to bat for Flagler when he wanted a quicky divorce, DeSantis is helping out millionaire and billionaires who own thousands of acres of undeveloped land in rural Florida – land that will eventually become prime developable real estate after we taxpayers pay to connect them with new hot asphalt. 

“I think we need new roads in Florida to get around,” DeSantis said right before he signed the turnpike extension bill. 

Like Broward, DeSantis was only kidding. He really meant to say that we need new roads to create new sprawl and generate new profits for land speculators and developers. That expansion will expose vast areas of heretofore protected natural springs, rivers and wetlands to dredge and fill development. 

Oh, but DeSantis did bolster his environmental creds a tad by vetoing a legislative ban on local governments outlawing disposable plastic straws. Big whup. 

While we’re on the subject of legacies, I predict that going forward DeSantis will no longer draw favorable comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt, but rather to another, less estimable, Republican, Herbert Hoover. 

Hoover’s name graces the dike that turned the once wild and free Lake Okeecobee into a festering cesspool. That’s another colossal ecological mistake that we Floridians are still throwing money at and trying to rectify more than a century later. 

Republicans named the Florida Turnpike after Ronald Reagan. Please, oh please, let’s name these expansions the Ron DeSantis Freeway, so our descendants will know who to blame long after we are dead and the damage has been well and truly done.  

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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