How Lakewood Ranch Became a Fiasco

Under The Hood


It’s been more than a week since a routine press conference in Lakewood Ranch went off the rails. In a matter of minutes, a community outreach story that generated kind headlines for Gov. Ron DeSantis for weeks was recast as a tale of favoritism.

DeSantis rode to town Feb. 17 with 3,000 vaccines ready to dole out to residents. It turns out his administration reached out through developer Rex Jensen to set up a temporary site and Premier Sports Campus seemed a good spot for shots. The Department of Health negotiated with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh; locals were tasked with reaching out to eligible individuals to receive the vaccine.

In truth, this had been done before in other places— and has been done since. But headlines rolled out differently this time. That’s largely thanks to some pre-game gloating by Manatee County.  A press release hit media inboxes before the pop-up clinic opened announcing vaccines, but only for folks in two ZIP codes. Wealthy ones. White ones. Lakewood Ranch ones within Baugh’s district. This may never have come up had individuals been quietly contacted, and then an event held in front of a crowd of people happy to be there. Now, the story was about who wasn't invited.

Other members of a fiercely divided Manatee County Commission turned on Baugh. Didn’t this violate a local lottery system? Had Baugh intentionally directed shots to her constituents at the expense of others? When DeSantis stood before press the following morning, reporters’ knives had been whetted by scandal. He responded angrily.

“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, we are totally fine doing this in counties that want it,” he said.

The pushback did seem unprecedented. For weeks, clinics provided reliably positive coverage. These clinics hadn’t served exclusively as favors to rich, white and unapologetically Republican donors. DeSantis previously directed surplus vaccines to Democratic areas through Black churches, Jewish synagogues and even mosques. At least 51 houses or worship and rec centers in underserved communities provided channels, according to The National Review.

Yet, indisputable inequities instantly recast these pop-ups. Media since scrutinized other surplus shipments sent to politically-connected developers. Sure, shots also found their way to Opa-Locka. But the clinic in Lakewood Ranch simply failed the smell test, and the odor drew national attention.

The conservative Review seemed content to act as media apologist, but The Washington Post and CBS News catalogued angry reactions. The Daily Show cut a video lampooning “Ron DeSantis’ Club Vax” offering “first-rate vial service straight to your table” if you had the donations to get past a velvet rope.

For many, this feeds the narrative media long ago turned to a pipe organ for attacks on Republicans. Rod Thomson, a journalist-turned Republican communications strategist, suggested as much. 

"The reality of just how bad the reporting has been in this was the complete absence of mentioning that by the time the Lakewood Ranch clinic opened, more than 50 pop-up clinics had been held at mostly minority churches, that Democrat-heavy Broward and West Palm Beach had the majority of the clinics and that Governor DeSantis had responded quickly to virtually every underserved area, all of which drew yawns," he said. "But one underserved location that is mostly white and high income with some DeSantis supporters, and instantly the media machinery kicks in and DeSantis is uniformly savaged.. Trying to blame the overtly partisan coverage on poor communications by the Governor is the height of hubris and a self-admission of dereliction of professional duty."

Fine. But the exclusivity narrative sure cemented upon news Baugh requested she and Jensen be placed on a VIP list to get shots first. The public revelation of this ensured the commissioner never get that shot and instead issued a public apology.

County Commissioner Misty Servia feels embarrassed for Manatee’s moment in the hot seat. The Republican criticized directing shots to affluent neighborhoods, not Black and Brown communities with less access to transportation and internet connections to book appointments. But she never intended to critique the Governor, only Baugh. "Anyway we can get vaccines to the public is a great thing," she said.

Yet here we are. DeSantis stressed repeatedly since this blowup surplus shots come in addition to county’s normal shipments, though Servia noted it’s never been explained why. The embarrassment may mean no more pop-ups in Manatee. But it may also mean anywhere these clinics open in the future, DeSantis must answer, why here? I doubt the positive headlines in local papers ever return.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor of SRQ MEDIA.


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