Records obtained by American Oversight reveal that the offices of multiple Florida officials — including Gov. Ron DeSantis and conservative lawmakers — have met with conservative groups known to push an extreme far-right agenda, including abortion restrictions, anti-LGBTQ measures, and opposition to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in education.
The records reflect several meetings between DeSantis’s office and the Manhattan Institute and the Alliance Defending Freedom. Other records show that representatives of ADF and other far-right groups, like the Florida Family Policy Council, have met with members of the Florida House.
DeSantis’ Meetings with the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Institute creates and circulates model bills in support of conservative causes. The records show that between April 2022 and January 2023, DeSantis’ office received several reports from the Manhattan Institute on topics including gender-affirming care, affirmative action, teachers unions, and diversity in higher education.
In one email sent on Jan. 26, 2023, a staffer for the U.S. House Republican Study Committee connected Alex Vargo, DeSantis’ director of external affairs, with members of the Manhattan Institute, introducing Vargo as a “friend of the movement.”
The institute’s director of external affairs responded, copying DeSantis’ deputy chief of staff, Alex Kelly, and wrote, “I wanted to thank your team for engaging with our fellow Michael Hartney ahead of your new teacher policy rollout earlier this week.” Days earlier, the DeSantis administration had rejected the Advanced Placement African American studies course, and at a press conference had announced a proposed “Teacher’s Bill of Rights” and changes to how teachers’ union dues were deducted from paychecks.
The Manhattan Institute representative also alluded to the office having “been in contact with my colleague Chris Rufo regarding our model legislation to abolish massive DEI bureaucracies, curtail other forms of political coercion, and end identity-based preferences at public universities.” Rufo, a senior fellow at the institute who is credited with having unleashed the conservative panic over critical race theory and DEI measures in education, was appointed by DeSantis to the board of New College earlier this year.
In May, DeSantis signed a bill defunding DEI initiatives in Florida’s public universities, drawing criticism from experts and advocates who claimed the decision violates academic freedom. While speaking at the signing ceremony, Rufo mocked the demonstrators for what he called “kindergarten-level protests.”
Communications with Alliance Defending Freedom
Other records show that DeSantis’ office has also been in touch with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal group that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as an “anti-LGBTQ hate group.” ADF provides government officials with model legislation and lawsuits that aim to “overturn same-sex marriage, enact a total ban on abortion, and strip away the already minimal rights that trans people are afforded in the U.S.,” according to a June 2023 report in the Guardian that outlined the group’s role in the nationwide wave of anti-LGBTQ measures.
The conservative group helped draft the Mississippi law that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022. In June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado web designer who, represented by an ADF lawyer, argued she could refuse to create wedding websites for same-sex couples. In July 2023, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach hired ADF to represent the state in a lawsuit challenging a law that dictates what information clinics must provide to abortion-seekers.
In January 2022, ADF’s communications director invited DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw (who is now working for DeSantis’ presidential campaign) to the organization’s 2022 “summit on religious liberty.” Pushaw responded that, as a state employee, she would need authorization, later emailing to say that she could attend.
That same month, records show that Florida Rep. John Snyder met with two representatives of ADF to discuss HB 747, a bill that would have made it easier for health care providers to legally deny care according to their “conscience.” After the meeting, ADF provided Snyder’s office with advice on the bill’s language.
In February, Tonya Shellnutt, ADF’s state government relations director, emailed DeSantis’s chief of staff, James Ultheimer to request a meeting that would also include ADF senior counsel Matt Sharp and Louis Brown from the anti-abortion religious organization Christ Medicus. Ultheimer responded, “For you guys always.”
In April 2022, ADF proposed another meeting with DeSantis’ office, this time regarding Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination in federally funded health care, including discrimination based on sex.
Additional records show that in January 2022 Snyder also met with the Florida Family Policy Council (FFPC), which the Washington Post says is the state’s largest anti-abortion rights group, to discuss HB 747. That same month, Aaron DiPietro, FFPC’s legislative affairs director, had a telephone call with state Rep. Randy Fine, who has sponsored and supported bills targeting LGBTQ rights. The records also reflect a meeting scheduled between DiPietro and state Rep. Stan McClain, but its date is not included.
In April, FFPC President John Stemberger emailed Fine two model bills drafted by the organization that would ban gender-affirming health care for minors. Although Fine did not introduce the same exact bills sent by FFPC, Fine sponsored a bill banning such care that was passed by the legislature in May 2023.
Read more about American Oversight’s work investigating the DeSantis-led right-wing attack on education and student self-expression here.
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