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Ron DeSantis tramples over Trump turf with his outreach to law enforcement

The Florida governor addressed police groups in New York City and the Chicago and Philadelphia suburbs as he ramps up for a possible presidential bid.
Image: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he speaks to police officers about protecting law and order at Prive catering hall on Feb. 20, 2023 in the Staten Island, N.Y.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he speaks to police officers about protecting law and order Monday in Staten Island, N.Y.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

ELMHURST, Ill. — The law enforcement groups Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke before Monday may have been in three different cities, but they had one thing in common: They're squarely in Donald Trump territory.

DeSantis, who is widely expected to announce a run for president, visited New York City and the suburbs of Philadelphia and Chicago to laud policies he helped put in place in Florida that he said give law enforcement the support it needs.

By taking a pro-police message directly to the rank and file of some of the biggest police unions in the country, DeSantis was homing in on a specialized electorate Trump has owned since he first ran for president in 2016.

DeSantis is ramping up his messaging outside Florida before a possible White House announcement. Next week, his book is to be released, and he is scheduled to headline GOP events next month in Alabama, California and Texas.

Presidential hopefuls covet the endorsement of the national Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police labor group in the country. The group backed Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. An aide said DeSantis had no more plans in the near term to address other police groups, but he is expected to make similar points in speeches moving forward.

On Monday, in the Knights of Columbus hall in Elmhurst, a suburb less than 20 miles outside Chicago, DeSantis dazzled the crowd of about 250 people, who frequently cheered and whistled at his statements about what he had enacted in Florida.

Meanwhile, outside the venue and across the street, a group of protesters arrived well before the event began, holding signs that read things like “It’s OK to say gay” and chanting “racist, sexist, anti-gay, Ron DeSantis, go away.” 

DeSantis took the audience on a tour of his tough-on-crime measures and said he wanted the death penalty for anyone who murdered a police officer. DeSantis' "Back to Blue" messaging began with embracing law enforcement, which he said had been taken for granted.

"You’re not going to have a good economy if the streets aren’t safe. You’re not going to good education if people don’t feel safe," he said. "None of it works unless you have the foundation."

He also bashed states that had implemented no-cash bail policies, like Illinois, as well as Oregon, for what he called the system's leniency with rioters in Portland in 2020.

"If you’re engaged in mob violence in Florida, you ain’t going to be treated like they do in Portland," DeSantis said. "In Florida, if you’re doing that, you’re not getting a slap on the wrist; you’re getting the inside of a jail cell."

As if to underscore how close DeSantis had crossed into his arena by focusing so heavily on law enforcement, Trump released a video Monday announcing a seven-point plan to reduce crime and “restore law and order.” It included going after “radical Marxist prosecutors who are abolishing cash bail, refusing to charge crimes and surrendering our cities to violent criminals.” He also called on the Justice Department to open civil rights investigations into prosecutors, naming those in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, “to determine whether they have illegally engaged in race-based enforcement of the law.”

But DeSantis went beyond law enforcement policies in his speeches, spinning through a reel of his latest political and legal entanglements, including wrestling with Disney, removing a prosecutor who had refused to enforce laws about abortion and battling the "woke education" and "woke indoctrination" of students. 

While the room was made up of law enforcement, including members of the Chicago FOP, it was also a who's who of state legislators and members of Congress. The array of politicians alone was a telling sign that Republicans were ready to hear from an alternative to Trump.

GOP Rep. Darin LaHood, who is also a former prosecutor, said he knew DeSantis from when they overlapped in Congress for three years. DeSantis, he said, called him recently to invite him to Monday's event, where LaHood had a speaking role.   

“This is about supporting police and supporting law enforcement. In my view, this isn’t about 2024,” LaHood said in an interview. “This is about him highlighting the success they’ve had in Florida.” 

Another Illinois Republican, Darren Bailey, who recently ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor with Trump's backing, said he turned out to support law enforcement and hear DeSantis’ message. 

“I’m excited someone of this prominence would come — especially here, in this part of the state,” Bailey said. Asked whether he thought DeSantis was encroaching on Trump’s turf by showing up before FOP groups, Bailey said: “You can read between the lines and you would assume that, but I don’t know. I’m just glad he’s out elevating men and women that serve and protect.”

The Democratic National Committee responded to DeSantis' tour of police groups Monday, saying the improvements he touted were possible at least in part because of White House-backed funding.

“Actions speak louder than words — and it was President Biden and Democrats who passed the American Rescue Plan that funded first responders and law enforcement departments across the country," DNC spokesman Ammar Moussa said in a statement. "If Ron DeSantis had his way, Florida wouldn’t have had the resources to deliver for the law enforcement community.”