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Does Dunedin, Fla., Want Ron DeSantis as Its Hometown Hero?

The Florida governor lived in Dunedin from when he was 6 years old until he was 18. But the town has changed since DeSantis lived there, and not everyone is so eager to have him as the town’s most famous son.

Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School in 2019
Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School in 2019 to announce his plan to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to 7,500. He has called for more money to continue the effort in 2022.
(Megan Reeves/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)
In February, Ron DeSantis popped into his childhood hometown of Dunedin, Fla., for a couple of national interviews built around the release of his new book.

One was with Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade, who interviewed the governor while playing catch on the Little League fields where DeSantis once starred at first base. Another was with a writer for the conservative Washington Examiner and New York Post, a Fox News sister publication. The headline on one piece: “The DeSantis they know.”

Caught off guard by the governor’s visit to Dunedin: The city of Dunedin.

A deputy fire chief saw a Facebook post about the governor’s visit and notified the chief, who told city leaders, who knew nothing about it. Deputy City Manager Jorge Quintas quickly spread word via email that DeSantis might be downtown, about a block from Dunedin’s city hall.

“I apologize for the late notice,” Quintas wrote, “but we were just made aware of this information.”

“Do we want to do anything for this?” replied Antonella Nakfour, the city’s public information and social media specialist. “Is there a reason for his visit?”

“I have no idea the reason,” replied Dunedin spokesperson Sue Burness. “And not sure we should do anything. I guess we could walk downtown to see what’s going on? It might be a private lunch or fundraiser? Or maybe he is announcing he is running for president.”

If DeSantis declares a bid for the presidency in 2024, as expected, Dunedin would be the place to do it. The governor lived here from about age 6 to 18, a youth baseball standout who has described his late-’80s/early-’90s upbringing as “blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth.” From Dunedin, DeSantis vaulted to Yale, Harvard, the Navy, Congress and the governor’s mansion.

“We didn’t make him,” said Vice Mayor John Tornga, a DeSantis supporter. “He made himself. But we probably played some kind of role in who he is today.”

DeSantis doesn’t talk much about his days in Dunedin. Since 2015, he’s tweeted the word “Dunedin” seven times, four of them in reference to baseball. DeSantis’ office did not make him available for an interview about his childhood or respond to emailed questions.

Dunedin has changed since DeSantis lived here. The town still leans right; its population skews older and whiter than Tampa Bay and Florida. Yet outsiders have long been drawn by its eclectic cultural quirks, from its artists and dog murals and bikers cutting up the Pinellas Trail to its long history of LGBTQ+ acceptance, down to the weekly drag shows on Main Street.

While DeSantis has plenty of supporters here, some of whom knew him back then, not everyone is eager to fly a flag for Dunedin’s most famous son — or even, in some cases, discuss him.

“It just depends on if you like him or you hate him,” said former Mayor Bob Hackworth, a Democrat. “If you love him, and you love that whole ‘free state of Florida,’ then you’re really happy to talk about him and Dunedin. And if you’re a little more concerned about the culture war that he’s waging, you’re not real happy that his hometown is Dunedin.”

Geographically Raised

DeSantis may be Floridian. But in his new book, he identifies as Midwestern.

“I was geographically raised in Tampa Bay,” he wrote in “ ‘The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival,’ “ but culturally my upbringing reflected the working-class communities in western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio — from weekly church attendance to the expectation that one would earn his keep. This made me God-fearing, hard-working and America-loving.”

This excerpt drew a bit of snark online, where many saw it as a slam on the state DeSantis governs.

“It’s certainly not a liberal bastion back when he was growing up, but it wasn’t Youngstown, Ohio,” Hackworth, 67, said of Dunedin. “It wasn’t that kind of blue collar. We were basically very suburban, even back then. Pinellas County was just exploding in growth and residents back then. Even the neighborhood he grew up in probably wasn’t there when I was in grade school.”

Indeed, the 1,829-square-foot house DeSantis was raised in was only a decade old when his parents purchased it in 1985 for $65,000, well below the state’s median price. His father, Ron DeSantis Sr., installed boxes that measured TV ratings for the Nielsen Media Co., which at the time was headquartered in Dunedin and had more than 3,000 Pinellas County employees. Karen DeSantis was a nurse “who juggled helping patients with raising my younger sister and me,” DeSantis wrote. DeSantis and his sister, Christina, enrolled in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, then Dunedin High School.

DeSantis generally describes his childhood as revolving around school, church, family and baseball — and only on that last topic does he tend to go into much depth.

Baseball has been a big part of the town’s culture and economy since the ‘70s, when the expansion Toronto Blue Jays picked Dunedin as their spring training headquarters. Business revenues soared when the team was in town. The Blue Jays shared facilities and resources with Dunedin High School, and the excitement of having a major league team in town spurred interest in Little League.

DeSantis was “obsessed with baseball,” he wrote, and “rarely left the Pinellas area for anything other than baseball.” At 11, he made the Dunedin National team, which competed to play in the Little League World Series. In 1991, it made it, losing to Taiwan in Williamsport, Pa.

DeSantis, who went by “D” as a child (“I like that better than my real name,” he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1991), was a slugging first baseman and power pitcher who practiced “daily,” he wrote.

“He was driven,” said Greg Nichols, his Dunedin High coach. “The successful ones were the ones that were willing to put in the work, and that’s what he was always willing to do.”

Baseball left time for little else — not that he had a lot of options. Dunedin teens back then spent their off hours cruising the causeway to Honeymoon Island, hanging out at Clearwater’s Countryside Mall or just playing video games or pickup ball.

“There was nothing for kids to do except go to school and walk home and run around in the yard playing tag or something like that,” said Michael Lyn Bryant, vice president and general manager at Dunedin Brewery, who grew up a few years behind DeSantis. “They didn’t have the skate park in town until I was just out of high school. Really, the only things besides just hanging around the neighborhood that we would do was extracurriculars at school.”

DeSantis didn’t gravitate toward those, either. Though he was an honor student, in his Dunedin High yearbooks, he appears in no club photos — no student government, no Teenage Republicans, no Fellowship of Christian Athletes. As a senior, he escorted the queen in the school’s homecoming court. He washed cars and sold donuts for baseball fundraisers, and worked part-time at Kash ‘n’ Karry and a local electric company that once sponsored his Little League team.

DeSantis’ athletic and academic talent earned him admission to Yale and a spot on its baseball team. The sport was his ticket out.

“There weren’t that many opportunities for young people to stick around Dunedin and enjoy some kind of livelihood,” said Manuel Koutsourais, Dunedin’s mayor when DeSantis was a child. “It was difficult to find work. Of course a lot of kids went off to college, but afterwards, you had to go to St. Petersburg, Clearwater or Tampa to go to work.”

DeSantis went from Yale to Harvard Law, became a JAG officer in the Navy and settled near his original hometown of Jacksonville. He never moved back to Dunedin.

“We’re happy to know that you are headed in the right direction,” DeSantis’ family wrote in a senior yearbook ad. “Just send us an e-mail once in awhile, will ya?”

Core American Principles

Hung outside the dugouts on Highlander Park’s Little League fields are signs imploring parents to play nice during games.

I’m Just a KID
It’s Just a GAME
The Officials are HUMANS
My Coach is a VOLUNTEER
NO College Scholarships will be handed out today!

That let’s-get-along spirit isn’t confined to the field. While Dunedin, like most of north Pinellas County, tilts Republican, its elections are nonpartisan; both Democrats and Republicans have been voted mayor since the ‘80s. In the same breath, Koutsourais, a Republican, calls Dunedin both “conservative” and “progressive” — a town willing to adopt forward-thinking planning while curbing overexpansion and overreach.

Dunedin’s bipartisan ways may have sheltered DeSantis. It was only after he left for college, he wrote, that he experienced the “unbridled leftism” that “infected” Yale’s campus community.

“Growing up in Dunedin, I didn’t know if people were Republican or Democrat,” he told Mark Levin on Fox News. “You had both of them, but everyone kind of believed in the core American principles.”

When DeSantis lived here, the biggest city issue was figuring out how to spur growth without losing Dunedin’s character. Tourists knew Dunedin’s island beaches, Scottish festivals and the Dunedin Art Center, one of the Southeast’s largest teaching arts centers. By the late ‘70s, though, its downtown struggled as people and businesses moved to the suburbs.

In the late 1980s — DeSantis would have been about 10 — two things happened. The state expanded State Road 580 in such a way that the heaviest traffic bypassed downtown Dunedin, freeing up development possibilities on Main Street. And the city launched a community redevelopment agency to spend tax dollars on curb appeal, adding trees and brick sidewalks and imposing architectural guidelines.

“The commissioners wanted to make sure that if there was going to be growth, that there was some semblance of style, and it just didn’t go crazy so that we weren’t talking about 10-story buildings in the downtown,” said former Mayor Dave Eggers, who now chairs the Pinellas County Commission.

The town saw more residential development in the ‘90s and 2000s. And when that growth didn’t slow during the Great Recession, “investors saw that little downtown Dunedin was still humming, and somehow had made it through,” Eggers said. “And I think the confidence level for big-time investors really exploded.”

Today Dunedin’s downtown is lined with new townhomes and apartments and residents in golf carts puttering to their favorite restaurants. New residents and business owners clash over noise issues, overdevelopment fears and persistent concerns about parking. And soaring property values pushed some longtime locals farther out of town.

Desantis’ parents still live in the same house they bought in 1985. But their lives are different. Nielsen, which brought the family to Dunedin four decades ago, moved its main campus to Oldsmar in 2005. Christina, who became a financial consultant in Charlotte, N.C., died of a pulmonary embolism in 2015. In a March interview with Piers Morgan, DeSantis called her death a “shattering experience.”

“You have your sibling, their future was robbed and it’s just something I wish I could get back,” he said. “I think she probably would have moved back to Florida.”

In his recent visit, DeSantis remarked on Dunedin’s change. Touring old haunts with the New York Post, he recalled when the town was “just small mom-and-pop businesses and strip malls.” Now, he said, “so much of this stuff has just been built up around here.”

Driving past the Artisan apartments on Douglas Avenue, DeSantis said: “Artisan? We definitely didn’t have artisan when I was growing up.”

City leaders credit Dunedin’s managed growth to the town’s tradition of bipartisan leadership and strong home rule. And that’s where there is some concern about DeSantis.

The Dunedin Community Redevelopment Agency — made up of the town’s five city commissioners — is a state-recognized special tax district, similar to what was formerly Walt Disney Co.’s Reedy Creek Improvement District. DeSantis’ highly public feud with Disney over control of Reedy Creek is but one example of his willingness to tangle with local governance boards whose politics don’t align with his. He’s also backed proposed laws barring municipalities from considering environmental, social and governance (or ESG) issues when writing bonds; and forcing candidates in traditionally nonpartisan local elections, such as those for school board seats, to declare parties.

“It is a concern for anybody who has been a mayor who’s tried to do something like redevelop a downtown or handle growth and development,” Hackworth said. “They’re just being handcuffed by the state government these days, or at least [the government] is attempting to completely handcuff them, and that’s got to be a concern. Frankly, I’m not real sure I could have accomplished the revitalization that was accomplished under these constraints.”

Asked to talk about DeSantis, four of Dunedin’s five city commissioners either didn’t respond or referred questions to a city spokesperson, so they could give what Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski called a “coordinated” response.

“We don’t feel it’s appropriate to discuss the governor given he’s exploring a partisan higher office and we are a non-partisan community,” Bujalski said in a statement.

Tornga, the city’s liaison to the Suncoast League of Cities, said DeSantis has done a “pretty fair” job of letting cities manage themselves. But the issue of home-versus-state rule is one he said he takes seriously. Should legislation threaten Dunedin’s freedom to govern itself, Tornga said, “then I’d start to get a little aggressive, and I’ll start calling our senators or our representatives.”

Rarely has the city appealed to DeSantis’ office for help. In 2020, Dunedin and Pinellas County had the opportunity to buy 44 acres of native land from the estate of philanthropist Gladys Douglas. Local governments and more than 1,000 private donors lined up millions toward the sale, and the city and county applied for a state conservation grant. A few months later, Bujalski followed up with a letter to DeSantis saying residents were “anxiously” awaiting an update.

“A lot of residents were saying this should be brought to the attention of the governor, because he could probably be influential in getting this saved,” said Hackworth, Douglas’ stepson. “There were many calls out to him saying, ‘Hey, this is right in your neighborhood, you must know the property,’ and all that. And I didn’t see any evidence that there was any effort to do anything above and beyond just consider the grant.”

The state ultimately approved a grant of up to $2.4 million. As for Bujalski’s letter, the governor’s office never responded.

Hometown History

Late on a recent Friday night, the dance floor at Blur cleared to make way for Jaeda Fuentes. For 10 minutes, the St. Petersburg drag artist furiously danced and lip-synced to booming bounce and trap music as a crowd dozens deep screamed back.

Dunedin may be full of craft breweries, but on many nights, Blur is the busiest joint in town. Once a gay bar, it long ago evolved into a nightlife hub for Dunedin patrons gay and straight alike. The Main Street club has presented drag performers hosting dance shows and Bingo nights and brunches through multiple incarnations, going all the way back to its opening as Dallape’s in 1984.

That’s 1984 — the year before the DeSantises moved to Dunedin.

LGBTQ+ business owners played a major role in shaping Dunedin’s downtown in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, said Gregory Brady, chairperson of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce and owner of Salon GW. Brady, who is gay, cofounded the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association, which held planning meetings in the Dallape’s space, then known as 1470 West, where several early downtown business leaders were regulars.

“It was the gay bar that drew them there to begin with, and they looked around and said, ‘Why are all these stores empty? Oh, and the rent’s so cheap!’ ” Brady said. “That’s typical to a lot of communities. ... The gays come in and pretty it up, and then all of a sudden, the houses are worth $500,000. That’s really what happened downtown. It was the kindling that started the fire.”

Bryant, who grew up a few years behind DeSantis, said that if not for the LGBTQ+ community that “basically started the nightlife here,” the town’s evening culture of brewery and restaurant hopping might not exist.

“Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was seen differently,” he said. “But as someone who grew up in a town that was small and had a queer bar, it made it normal and acceptable, and I never thought twice about that kind of thing.”

Is it likely, Brady is asked, that DeSantis would know this part of Dunedin’s cultural history?

“Oh, I’m sure he’s very aware,” Brady said.

It frustrates members of Dunedin’s LGBTQ+ community. It’s one thing to criticize drag shows and gender ideology, Brady said, especially when it comes to young children. It’s another to do so without acknowledging your hometown’s history.

“People are starting to put the pieces together and say, ‘How is that possible?’ ” said Kimberly Platt, owner of the Honu Restaurant and Tiki Bar and an organizer of June’s Dunedin Pride festival. “This is your home base. Come to Dunedin, and you just understand that this town was built on LGBT businesses. How do you go from being in an environment where you’ve grown up there, and take the stance you take now?”

Drag shows are still popular at Blur, which hosts a 21-and-up drag brunch on the first Sunday of every month. But anti-drag measures emerging from Tallahassee and other state capitals are having a wider effect. During last year’s Dunedin Pride, Brady said, the Fenway Hotel threw a pool party featuring drag performers. This year, he advised the hotel to reconsider, lest organizers find themselves at the center of an unwanted culture war.

“The one thing that you don’t want to happen is a hotel guest with a small child wander out by the pool because you don’t close the pool off to the guests, and there’s a drag queen out there, and they crouch down and the kid holds their hand or something, and someone gets a shot of that,” Brady said. “Right now, we have to unfortunately play by those rules.”

It reminds Brady of a time in Dunedin when being gay wasn’t so widely accepted. He remembers when Dallape’s had to move its Main Street entrance around back due to concerns that guests waiting in line might face verbal or physical abuse.

Today, both the city and Chamber of Commerce back Dunedin Pride. The title sponsor is Duke Energy, which during the last election cycle donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and conservative causes in Florida. Brady saw local Republicans at last year’s Pride, and expects to see some this year, too.

“The support that we’re getting is coming from everywhere,” Platt said. “If someone grew up here, as DeSantis did, maybe he should look at that and see his neighbors that he had back then are his neighbors that are supporting Pride now. They’re kind of questioning why he’s not.”

For her part, Platt said, if DeSantis ever dropped into her restaurant, she’d welcome him.

“I’d love for him to come,” she said. “I’d love for him to sit here. Right out in front of my rainbow flag would be great.”

Hushed Homecoming

Ron DeSantis Sr. answers the door barefoot, wearing a faded Little League World Series T-shirt.

He is polite but firm: He does not want to be interviewed. Reporters from around the world have shown up at his Dunedin doorstep, he said, and he feels he’s been burned. He once told a reporter from the New Yorker that his son was “stubborn,” and they printed it. The press, he said, is not what it used to be.

DeSantis Sr. isn’t the only one in Dunedin who doesn’t want to talk about the governor. There are no banners welcoming the town’s many tourists to the childhood home of Ron DeSantis, nor any businesses obviously looking to capitalize on the fact. Many businesses simply don’t want to touch it, given DeSantis’ penchant for taking on “woke” corporations like Disney and Anheuser-Busch.

“These days, anyone’s opinion can be scrutinized, and it affects your business,” said Cameron Capri, owner of Q Southern BBQ and Catering. “So when it comes to politics, I lay low.”

Capri was a couple of years behind DeSantis at Dunedin High, but they played ball as kids. It’s been a long time since he’s seen DeSantis around town; to his knowledge, he’s never dined in his restaurant.

“For the most part, people from Dunedin are proud to say he’s from our area,” Capri said. “But as for the cohesiveness of our community, everybody’s more about the city of Dunedin and our community than anything else. The political divide isn’t as great in our area as other areas or bigger metropolitan areas.”

In February, DeSantis returned to Dunedin to host the Governor’s Baseball Dinner, an annual Florida Sports Foundation event celebrating Sunshine State baseball that rotates from city to city. Outside TD Ballpark, a group of protesters decried DeSantis’ policies on education, guns, voting rights and more — a rare display of political outrage in otherwise low-key Dunedin.

“We wanted to show that there’s homegrown resistance,” said Jack Wallace, a Dunedin resident and organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation Tampa Bay, which coordinated the protest with local teachers. “There are people in Dunedin, where DeSantis is from, showing up to say, ‘Heck no, we don’t agree with this anti-education, anti-union rhetoric he’s got going on.’ ”

Those who support DeSantis say they see Dunedin’s values reflected in his, and vice versa.

“I think he is a grounded person with family-oriented values,” Eggers said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily contra to Dunedin. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people in Dunedin who don’t like his views, and there aren’t people in Dunedin who love his views. For crying out loud, it’s a mixture. Just like the country is.”

Brady looks at DeSantis’ views, particularly those related to gender identity, and wonders how they could come from someone who ostensibly knows the town well.

“It’s understandable why he would prefer to be viewed as somebody from Pennsylvania,” Brady said.

Midwestern Values

Since his last official trip to Dunedin, DeSantis has toured the primary battlegrounds of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, often alongside wife Casey, on a speaking tour that looked like the first steps of a presidential campaign.

At a stop in Ohio, the DeSantis family side-tripped to Casey’s hometown of Troy, where they toured her old elementary school and grabbed burgers and shakes at her favorite local diner.

“I remember walking these streets as a kid. Incredible to bring my kids back to see where I grew up,” she tweeted. “Ohio was where I was raised — the great midwestern values instilled upon me as a child will hopefully live on in my children.”

In Spartanburg, S.C., DeSantis focused on the existential threats he sees parents and children facing today, from teachers “indoctrinating” students with “toxic ideologies” like critical race theory to transgender girls threatening the integrity of youth sports. His oldest child is 6, about the age he was when his family moved to Tampa Bay.

“Kids should just be able to be kids,” he said, “without having somebody’s agenda shoved down their throat.”

Dunedin, and his own childhood, never came up.

©2023 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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