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DeSantis rival compares him to Hitler 'in a lot of ways'; new abortion restriction bill moves forward

Democratic members remain sitting as Republicans stand and applaud while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint session of a legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
FR121174 AP
Democratic members remain sitting as Republicans stand and applaud while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a joint session of a legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Gov. DeSantis calls Florida a "free state" in his annual address this week. But one Democrat vying for his job says he’s like a dictator.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said "Florida has stood as freedom's vanguard" in his annual State of the State address this week.

One Democrat vying for his job instead compared him to a dictator.

Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried said the governor compares to Adolf Hitler "in a lot of ways" during an interview with The Florida Roundup. "I have studied Hitler and how he got to power."

Fried is one of three major Democrats competing for the party's nominate to take on DeSantis this fall.

Photo: Florida News Service
Photo: Florida News Service
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

"Do I think that we're going to get to the extent of Hitler's power?" Fried said. "Of course not. But the rise of his power and what he did to scapegoat certain people, and especially the Jewish community in Germany, and how he utilized going after the media, blaming people, and putting fear and then taking over the military. That's what this governor is doing."

DeSantis has proposed creating a state military force to give him "the flexibility and ability needed to respond to events in our state in the most effective way possible." he said in early December. Florida had a state guard decades ago. Twenty-two other states have their own state guards.

Leon County GOP Chair Evan Powers described Fried's comments as "outrageous." He stated that, "If you look at real, authoritative leaders in our history, they take rights away from people and try to force mandates from the government on those people. But what the governor has done to great success is give those freedoms back to the people and get the government out of the way."

After DeSantis' address, another Democrat running for his office, state Senator Annette Taddeo, took issue with him calling Florida a free state.

“If we are the most free state in the country, why can't our local school boards be free to decide what is best for our local schools? Why can't small businesses be free to decide what is best? What is the best way to protect their employees and customers?” she said in a video posted to her Twitter feed.

In a special session late last year, lawmakers passed bills that outlaw school boards from instituting mask mandates. Several districts put student mask mandates in place during the fall despite the state's efforts to hold back school board member salaries.

Evans defended the governor's stance: "They were infringing on people's right to have their kids attend in the way that they thought was the most free and the way for them to be the healthiest and to have the best ability to go to school."

A separate law also prohibits companies from mandating a COVID-19 vaccine without allowing for a series of opt-out reasons. "This governor has gone away from free markets, attacking businesses for trying to make decisions on what they believe is right," Fried said.

Even before Gov. DeSantis delivered his State of the State address, another candidate hoping to replace him in the governor’s mansion was criticizing his approach. Charlie Crist was governor as a Republican. He is now running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

“Gov. DeSantis is failing to listen to you, the people, at all. He's pushing a partisan agenda that is making Floridians more poor, more sick and more divided than ever before," Crist said in a video message.

Evans described no daylight between the governor's legislative agenda and that of GOP lawmakers. "He has his finger on the pulse of the Republican electorate, and I think the Legislature sees that and is in line with with with all of his big proposals," he said. "I think everyone seems to be in agreement and playing from the same playbook."

Abortion Bill Moving

One of those issues is abortion. Republican lawmakers in Florida are planning to pass legislation this year that would drastically limit access to abortions in the state. It’s a move sure to inflame growing tensions nationally over conservative efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The bill that is moving in Tallahassee would enact a ban on abortion in Florida after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That’s unless two doctors agree the fetus is suffering from a fatal abnormality, or if the mother’s life is endangered. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. Existing Florida law restricts abortions after 24 weeks.

“When you start talking about 15-weeks, where you have really serious pain and heartbeats, and all this stuff, having protections I think is something that makes a lot of sense," DeSantis said Tuesday after delivering his annual address.

With Republicans in control of the Florida House and Senate "there is a strong possibility that this bill can be passed," said Sen. Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach). "It's a really disturbing bill."

The Florida effort is similar to a Mississippi law that went before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. A decision is not expected on the Mississippi law until this summer. The push in Florida is part of a series of GOP-backed efforts to place new limitations on abortions.

"This legislation will end late-term abortions in the state of Florida, and we're optimistic that it has support on both the House and Senate sides," said Florida Family Policy Council Communications Director Melissa Woodford. She defined a late-term abortion as a procedure performed later than 15-weeks into a pregnancy.

"I want to try my very best to protect that baby as early as possible," she said.

Democrats have pinned hopes on local governments passing measures protecting access to abortion. "Thankfully, there is no bill this year overriding any of the abortion issue, so I don't think we will see that that issue come to fruition this year," said Berman.

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.