Nate Monroe: Did DeSantis' FDOT attack Pride display because of cruelty, incompetence - or both?

Nate Monroe
Florida Times-Union
Acosta Bridge, with blue lights, in Downtown Jacksonville Tuesday night, June 8, 2021.

COMMENTARY | If Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis isn't a homophobe, then he must be the unluckiest man alive given the series of purportedly unrelated blunders that have befallen him. First, he just so happened to have signed a divisive bill banning transgender women athletes from competing in high school girls' and college womens' sports teams on the first day of Pride month, at a private school affiliated with a church that has a complicated history with child sexual abuse. Oops!

Then, he accidentally vetoed $900,000 out of the state budget for programs, like mental-health services, that were intended to benefit LGBTQ people in Central Florida, including survivors of the 2016 mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub. Hate when that happens!

Oh, and don't forget that time he issued a proclamation on the anniversary of the Pulse attack that contained no reference to the very people targeted — LGBTQ people. “When someone said that this wasn’t in there, I said then put it in there,” DeSantis said at the time, after massive public backlash. Doh!

What happened with the Acosta Bridge? JTA lit the Acosta Bridge in rainbow colors for Pride. A day later, it changed it back

And then:After controversial removal, Acosta Bridge's rainbow Pride lights will be back on tonight

And most recently, wouldn't you know it, three separate Florida Department of Transportation districts from Jacksonville to Sarasota to Pinellas just so happened — all on their own and totally independent of the governor — to deny requests to display Pride-themed rainbow lights on local bridges. Good help is hard to find!

In Jacksonville, state officials actually went a step further. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority has, for the past year, operated a dazzling light display on the Acosta Bridge that can be adjusted to an array of colors to observe everything from the very sober — mental health month — to the very light-hearted, like the Jaguars drafting Trevor Lawrence (Clemson's purple and orange). But when JTA made the kind-hearted decision to display a rainbow along the bridge in honor of Pride month, DeSantis' Florida Department of Transportation swiftly ordered it be taken down.

Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The backlash came swiftly Tuesday night and into Wednesday, and the governor's office ultimately reversed course. The Pride display will last through the end of the week.

That's DeSantis' story: He had nothing to do with it. Wasn't me! He may even want credit for his agency's decision to relent — at least in Jacksonville; it's not clear whether decisions in Pinellas and Sarasota will be reversed.

Others who have watched DeSantis closely on these issues are a bit more, um, skeptical. "(Canceling Pride lights) has happened in other municipalities across the state ... the buck stops with the governor, who appoints the head of FDOT," Michael Womack, communications manager at Equality Florida, told me Tuesday.

"There's very few coincidences in the work that I do."

From Sarasota:State denies plan to light Ringling Causeway in rainbow for Pride Month

Unhelpful to the governor's cause — beyond the credulity of this random series of spectacular events — are public statements about why Jacksonville's local FDOT office canceled the lights that contradict what's contained in the scant public records on the topic. The governor's office insists, echoed by FDOT, the lights were taken down because of a permitting issue. An email, however, from a local FDOT official to several JTA employees indicated there had been "several complaints," and therefore, JTA was to take the lights down and comply with an existing agreement FDOT has not once sought to enforce otherwise.

Permitting has not once, in fact, been an issue in the year JTA has run these lights. Perhaps that's because the local head of the FDOT office sits on JTA's board of directors as an ex-officio member. This wasn't exactly a secret: These lights are one of the highest-profile things JTA has done the past year, with a monthly schedule of upcoming light themes posted publicly, as well as a process for people to request light themes for observances of holidays, memorials and nonprofits. The local FDOT Twitter page has even "liked" some of the colorful displays on social media.

These Very Concerned FDOT officials sat on their biscuits while JTA turned the Acosta Bridge into a kaleidoscopic display for months.

Acosta Bridge lights:A look back at lighting schemes for causes, holidays and Trevor Lawrence

But something must have really pushed that local FDOT official into action over the Pride lights, which had only been up a single night. After receiving those unspecified "several complaints," the official didn't just promptly reach out to JTA. Displaying a tenacity and responsiveness in customer service rarely found in state government, he called a desk phone, a cellphone and then promptly emailed four JTA employees, including the agency's CEO, to take the lights down.

Did one of those complaints, by chance, come from 700 N. Adams St. in Tallahassee? Big, Greek Revival-style house? Lotta rooms?

Since voluminous public records clearly delineating the decision-making process of state government officials are as rare as snowflakes in Florida, the world is likely to never know what exactly happened (although it's not unheard of for Florida governors, including DeSantis, to keep tight reins on executive agencies). 

FDOT's denials in Sarasota and Pinellas happened the previous week. They generated controversy, news coverage, and an unflattering quote from U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, one of the people hoping to unseat DeSantis next year. It's hard to believe that flew under the radar.

But no one in the governor's office seemed inclined to do anything about it. They most certainly wouldn't have in Jacksonville, had people who liked the light display not raised a stink. And it's not as if that about-face came without a bit of snide taunting: "Thank you for acknowledging that the JTA violated the terms of their permit with FDOT regarding aesthetic lighting on the Acosta Bridge, to which you are the permittee," the state agency wrote to JTA officials Wednesday, when the governor apparently forced FDOT to allow the Pride display again.

These episodes disgrace the office of the governor.

Take DeSantis at his word for a moment. Does a middling bureaucrat in FDOT respond frantically to "several complaints" about a Pride display if the governor were someone who hadn't shown such antipathy toward gay and transgender people? Does some engineer in this technical agency blow up the phones of a JTA official if the governor were someone who didn't welcome every opportunity to fight a culture war? DeSantis sets the tone. 

So no mistake: It's perfectly clear who bears responsibility for this latest embarrassment.

Nate Monroe's City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.