Few governors have been as publicly ineffective during the coronavirus crisis than Florida’s Ron Desantis. He’s kept beaches open, continues to hide death numbers, kowtows to the state’s ravenous right-wing, and has opened up businesses even as the tragic numbers there continue to climb. DeSantis has been able to do all this because Republicans own the entire state government in Florida — they’ve dominated the legislature for a full two decades — and he therefore feels zero pressure to actually make an effort to save lives.
We’ve focused a lot of Florida this year because Democrats are in a position to finally flip the legislature there and force DeSantis to at least pretend he cares about anyone who isn’t a rich white donor. This week, I spoke with Kayser Enneking, a candidate for the State House of Representatives in District 21, in Gainesville. She’s a long-time doctor at the University of Florida who ran for State Senate in 2018 — her first political run of any kind — and came within a single point of winning. The 21st House district was decided by fewer than three points last cycle, so it’s a very juicy flip opportunity, especially with such a great candidate.
Coronavirus has hit different parts of Florida very differently. You’re in Northern Florida, in Gainesville. How are things there?
In my hospital we were certainly prepared for the worst. It was just incredibly weird to go to work for a couple of weeks. The panic about it seems to have subsided now that we’ve got more testing, because before we had no clue who had it and who didn’t. But even here in very liberal Alachua County, it is kind unbelievable to me how quickly this has gotten divided along political lines. It’s just a shame that that’s where we are in America today.
As both a doctor and someone now working in public policy, what is your response to what we’re seeing here?
This is a novel virus. We know a little bit about what the symptoms look like. We know that it is devastating when it occurs and we know that it can overwhelm a healthcare system, as it did in New York, and as it did in other places around the world. And that we all have to be respectful of it. We may not have in many cases over here right now, but that does not mean that we won’t.
I have tried not to scare people. But I’ve tried to give them what I know to be truthful information. We’ve been doing these Facebook and zoom things every Friday, where we’ve talked about exactly what we do know and what we don’t know. And people have been really responsive to it. And so we’ve talked about the effects of this on our health care system. We’ve talked about it in terms of what it means for education. We’ve talked about it in terms of what it means for the agricultural community, why are we having this food imbalance. Now we’re calling for a special session of legislature.
What would you do if you were in office right now?
The first thing I would do would be to make sure that our unemployment system had the resources it needed to help people. Because that’s just been a disaster.
The second thing I would do is put more money into our public health departments so that we can have enough contract contact tracers, so that we can make sure we don’t have a second wave. We now have enough testing but we don’t have enough contact tracers.
The third thing is I’d love to talk about passing Medicaid because we’re going to have all these people that need it. We’re gonna have these new enrollees to Medicaid, and if you expanded it, the costs would go down for the state. The list kind of goes on and on and although it kind of sounds like a Democratic wish list, it is truly what we need to be doing right now to help people in the state.
You ran for State Senate in 2018 and came so, so close to winning. What did you learn from that experience?
My first political run, I did it because I got just so incensed by the repeal and replace discussion around Obamacare. This is what I do every day and I knew Obamacare was working. I couldn’t believe that these people were trying to take it down and they don’t know anything about trying to take care of people. And I just thought, I can keep taking care of my six or 10 patients a day or I can try to change health care for a million people in Florida. I thought people gotta step up and know what, I can do this.
It was about as politically naive as you might imagine. The Republicans threw absolutely everything, they threw the kitchen sink at me. And it worked, but it made a lot of people in this area really mad. Our local paper did a great job of covering it. It was a boatload of dark money that went in against me. So what I learned is that people who are in power use their power to stay in power. And that was a very sobering and powerful message for me to learn.
After that election, I felt really bad. Not so much because I lost, but because it felt like I’d let people down. But as I went to the grocery store and the plant store and went to the hospital to work, I can’t tell you how many people would be like, “You’re the lady that ran for the State Senate, we should have won, I voted for you. I hope you’re going to do it again.” And I began to realize I had an obligation to all those people that had helped me, that I needed to use that name recognition I had in a positive way. So I started working on Medicaid expansion to get it on a ballot and when that fell apart, I began looking at the House of Representatives.
Ballot initiatives in Florida show how people want progressive policy, but Republicans keep making it more difficult. Amendment 4, which allows over a million formerly incarcerated people to vote, passed with a huge majority, but the GOP is working to roll that back.
The guy I ran against last time. Keith Perry, he would get up there at a forum and say, “Oh, yes, I’m definitely for this, once you’ve once you’ve served your time, blah blah blah.” And then he is the one who was in charge of the committee that came up with the rules on how to implement it. It’s just incredible, the hubris of these guys.
I know there have been court cases back and forth arguing over the poll tax that the GOP passed — what’s the status now?
The judge who gave the latest opinion basically said not only can these seven people who brought the suit forward but everybody who is not able to pay a fine is able to register to vote. The first time he ruled that was about six months ago and Florida has done absolutely nothing to come up with a system of how to implement that. And the same opinion just got reasserted. I would love to think that it would be in play for this election but I’m not holding my breath.
[Note: While 1.4 million Floridians were made eligible to vote by the Amendment, the poll tax laws and confusion have led to fewer than 50,000 people registering to vote thus far.]
So what’s the plan this time around, to get over the finish line?
In Alachua County, which is my home county, we did really well in the outlying counties. There was very little differentiation in the votes that Bill Nelson got there and what I got there. People voted straight Democrat or straight Republican. It means we have to work that much harder to get people registered, get people out to vote. I feel pretty confident about this race in a way that I probably really shouldn’t. This district is a little bit different than the State Senate district, though.
Now with coronavirus, you can’t door-knock really very effectively. I am just really fortunate to have had that name recognition out there before. And I think people are really beginning to understand that we have to do something about healthcare. Whereas when I talked about Medicaid expansion, it seemed kind of wonky — why should I care about getting health care for poor people? Now enough data to show not only if we, if we passed Medicaid expansion and support it, it would help all those people that just lost their job. And it turns out that in states that have already passed Medicaid expansion that overall costs for out of pocket costs go down by about 7% for people.
And as a doctor, you must see that every day, the impact of not having expanding Medicaid.
It’s so frustrating as a physician, we’re supposed to take care of every patient, regardless of insurance status, and I think we do a pretty darn good job, but it’s so uneven for them. Some people can show up at the very first twinge of a problem and other people take way, way, too long to come in because they just can’t afford it. And it’s just wrong.
You order a medication for a patient and they can’t get it because their insurance company won’t let them get it. Or maybe they’ve tried this therapy before and then they got on a different therapy, and then they changed doctors and insurance and now the insurance company — not the doctor — says you have to go back and try the medicine that didn’t work again. This is the most inane way to try to practice medicine and it’s expensive and it’s inefficient. I don’t think that the Affordable Care Act is the end all be all, I think it was kind of healthcare 1.0. But we haven’t even implemented that in Florida.