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More than 80 members of the public came before the all-Republican Brevard County delegation to the Florida Legislature to tell the seven Senate and House members what they want from Tallahassee. And for many of the speakers, the wish list included adding to the conservative agenda for what some described as “The Free State of Florida” — a term championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

At some points, the meeting at the Brevard County Government Center in Viera resembled a conservative rallies/" 1014 target="_blank">political rally, with speakers cheered and U.S. flags waved in support when people in the audience agreed with the speakers. Florida Rep. Thad Altman’s office said the Brevard Federated Republican Women handed out the flags for members of the audience to wave, if in agreement with statements made at the delegation meeting.

One of the major focuses of the speaker comments was on conservative social issues ― things like stricter rules on abortion, keeping a closer watch on vote-by-mail balloting for elections and less restrictions on gun ownership.

Separately, representatives of government bodies and community organizations asked the state legislators for support on various projects, including ones related to environmental issues and road improvements.

After listening to five hours of public comment, Florida Sen. Debbie Mayfield called it “a very productive delegation meeting,” then indicated that she expects many of the conservative asks brought up Wednesday likely would be considered during the 2023 legislative session, which runs from March 7 through May 5.

“We do have a great governor, Gov. DeSantis,” Mayfield said, in discussing the potential 2024 Republican candidate for president. “A lot of the issues that you guys have brought up are exactly the issues that he has been covering. Is it perfect yet? No. But we are on the the right direction. And we are better off now than we were six years ago, before he came into office.”

Other areas of concern raised by speakers during Wednesday night’s meeting included development along Brevard’s south beaches area and skyrocketing homeowners’ insurance rates.

During one of the lighter moments of the evening, Brevard County Commissioner John Tobia came to the speaker’s podium dressed as Roman Emperor Theodosius I to deliver the county’s legislative requests ― complete with a series of Italian food puns. Wednesday marked the 1,676th anniversary of the emperor’s birth.

What Brevard wants:Brevard commissioners set legislative priorities for state action, from roads to aquarium

And in one of the more intense moments, Brevard Democratic Executive Committee Chair Pamela Castellana was cut off in the middle of her remarks by Altman, who chaired the meeting, Castellana was warned by Altman seconds earlier not to persist in directly criticizing Rep. Randy Fine.

The DeSantis impact

DeSantis owed his resounding reelection victory in last year’s election in large part to his focus on hot-button social issues popular with his conservative base.

It’s only natural Republicans at the state and local levels would seek to capitalize, according to Beth Rosenson, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

“He’s brought these issues to the fore, and that has mobilized people,” Rosenson said.

The efforts have been driven partly from the top by national party elites and partly by groups like Moms for Liberty that have harnessed grassroots conservative activism to force coordinated partisan changes at the local level, Rosenson said

It’s a play that has seen wild success in recent years. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was instrumental in the spread of false claims that Democrats had stolen the 2020 election, which he used to urge local Republicans to flood precincts across the country as poll watchers and election officers.

“We’re going to take this back village by village, precinct by precinct,” Bannon said in a May 2021 episode of his “War Room” podcast, according to ProPublica.

Rosenson said Republican legislators are responding to the hyperpartisan political environment by jumping behind issues like clamping down on mail-in ballots and banning minors from drag shows, if only as a means of self-preservation.

“For me, it’s about an electoral calculus,” Rosenson said. “That may be a cynical way of looking at it, but I think the other side is they think people really want this.”

Hot-button issues raised

Maria Dockery, president and founder of Femme Fatale Arms and Training in Palm Bay, was among several speakers to lobby the legislators to implement “constitutional carry” in Florida, allowing for the open carrying of firearms without a permit.

“It’s time for Florida to join the other 25 states who already recognize constitutional carry,” Dockery said, to cheers from the audience.

Several speakers, including members of Florida Freedom Keepers and people involved in health care, sought greater protections from workplace and other discrimination against people who choose not to get COVID-19 vaccinations.

Maija Hahn, director of United for Healthcare Workers LLC, told legislators: “We have seen repeated and significant discrimination towards the less-vaccinated in all sectors of our society. We should have equal protections under the law. Education, careers, jobs, commerce, health care. We need privacy laws. Our medical choices should be confidential, and never required to show our papers. We are a targeted class, and our rights are being usurped.”

Robert White, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida and Central East Florida, presented legislators with requests that included establishing term limits of eight years for all elected offices, including school board members; establishing a statewide process for recall of school board members and elected superintendents; and having school board elections switch from nonpartisan to partisan, with the political party designation of candidates listed on the ballot.

White also said that “it is time to put an end to the ‘legal laundering’ of millions of dollars in special-interest campaign contributions that flows through political committees and electioneering communications organizations.”

Oher speakers pushed for a ban on minors attending drag-queen story hours and for greater scrutiny of what books are available at school libraries.

Requests for funding

There were also requests for more traditional support for local projects. Here are among the legislative asks from government representatives and community organizations:

Tobia requested state support for the widening of Ellis Road, the Brevard Zoo’s planned aquarium project at Port Canaveral, two new advanced wastewater treatment facilities, water projects to reduce pollution sources for the Indian River Lagoon and cost-share funding for beach renourishment.

Brevard School Board Chair Matt Susin focused much of his remarks on the need to expanded technical education programs for aquaculture, aviation, carpentry, commercial truck and bus driving, firefighting and welding. He also discussed the importance of keeping teacher salaries competitive and of allowing home-school students to take one or two classes in the Brevard schools.

Brevard Federation of Teachers President Anthony Colucci also stressed the need for increasing pay to retain teachers, noting that there are 124 instructional vacancies in the Brevard School District. He also suggested a new scholarship program for college and university students enrolled in teacher education programs; waiving fees for background checks, certification renewals and certification tests; removing the waiting period for retired educators to return to the classroom; and addressing student discipline issues.

School discipline:Sheriff Wayne Ivey announces a ‘brand new day’ for discipline at Brevard schools

Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray pushed for continued state support for widening of State Road 528 and replacement of the State Road 401 bridge, which he described as “critical links to this region’s economic vitality.” He also asked for support for seaport infrastructure and port security project grants.

Palm Bay City Manager Suzanne Sherman presented a wish list that included funding for widening of a section of the St. Johns Heritage Parkway to four lanes; conversion of septic systems to sewer systems for 1,364 properties; expansion of a gun range in the city that’s used for public safety training; and upgrading of radios used by Palm Bay Fire Rescue.

Satellite Beach City Manager Courtney Barker said her city’s priorities include allowing municipalities to continue regulating short-term rentals within their cities or towns; funding for research of impacts of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS; and a statewide look at the coastal construction control line.

Melbourne Mayor Paul Alfrey focused his remarks on the need for continued funding of projects to help the Indian River Lagoon.

Cocoa Beach Mayor Ben Malik said his city’s legislative priorities include municipal home rule, including for regulating short-term rentals. Another priority, he said, is finding ways to deal with the property insurance crisis.

“In talking to some industry experts, we’re in for a world of hurt this year for insurance,” Malik said. “So not only are we going to see premiums go up, you’re going to see the replacement value coverages go up because of the increased cost of building material. So it’s going to be a double-whammy. Not a fun time for all of our residents. And every property owner is going to feel this.”

Altman agreed that the insurance crisis has reached a dire point.

“I think we’re about to see a homeowner insurance tsunami,” Altman said. “It’s really beginning to hit us.”

Donn Weaver, chairman of the Brevard Veterans Council and vice president of the Veterans Memorial Center on Merritt Island, asked the legislators for a $1 million grant to help funding for an outdoor amphitheater project at the center that would accommodate up to 5,000 spectators.

Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation President Ronald Ecker said his organization is looking for state support for its planned $675,000 project to finish recreating the historic lighthouse footprint with construction of two additional cottages.

Environment and development

A number of representatives of community and environmental-focused organizations addressed the state legislators, focusing on protecting the Indian River Lagoon and on the threat of overdevelopment.

Mark Shantzis, executive director of the Barrier Island Preservation and Protection Association, said he fears there will be increased development along the south beaches. He asked the legislators to do what they can to have the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity provide more oversight before such development could take place.

Sandra Sullivan, president of WAVESaction LLC, asked for a balance of growth management in Florida’s most vulnerable areas, including to protect the barrier islands and wetlands from inappropriate development.

She also urged an end to spraying of herbicides, especially near environmentally threatened waterways, saying “these chemicals kill seagrass.”

Several residents of mobile home parks asked the legislators to address what they felt were unreasonable lot rent increases and harassment by the corporate owners of the parks.

Conflict involving speaker

Audience members cheered during one bout of partisan jousting when Altman cut off the microphone for Castellana, as the Brevard Democratic Executive Committee chair lobbed shots at the Republican legislators on the dais.

Castellana blasted members of the delegation for supporting past legislation she said “overruled” voter-approved referendums, including class size restrictions in public schools and a 2018 state constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions.

Altman interrupted Castellana and eventually turned off her microphone to shouts of approval from the audience when she called out Fine by name and then continued to criticize the Palm Bay legislator.

“You can cut her off, Thad, because you can,” Fine said to Altman.

“That’s it. Your time is up,” Altman said, cutting off Castellana’s mic.

Castellana shot back in a sarcastic Facebook post after the meeting, calling the exchange “ironic.”

“Welcome to free Florida folks. You’re free as long as you’re praising the people ‘in the room where it happens,’ ” she wrote.

Contact Berman at  [email protected], on Twitter at @bydaveberman and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dave.berman.54.

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