WASHINGTON – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, facing heavy criticism for defending “anti-woke” teaching in Florida, this week teed up an unusual proposal to the nation's first Black vice president: Come debate the merits of the state's new curriculum on African-American history.
Less than 24 hours later, Kamala Harris was in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Orlando, firing back.
"I'm here in Florida," Harris said Tuesday to a cheering audience at a convention of Black women missionaries. “And I will tell you there is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery.”
It was the latest volley in a rhetorical war over Florida’s new education standards that has escalated in recent days. And it highlights the elevated role that Harris has been taking: Leading the White House charge against Republicans vying to face off against President Joe Biden in the 2024 campaign.
Harris's trip to Orlando was her second to Florida in just over a week, after the state cleared new school guidelines that, in part, require teachers to instruct middle school students that enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit." It's language that DeSantis defends against strong pushback from Democrats and leading Black Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Two days after the new guidelines were formally approved, Harris and her aides quickly organized a trip to the state’s largest city of Jacksonville and denounced “extremists” who she argued were forcing “propaganda” on Florida schoolchildren.
The vice president also flew to Iowa last week and met with abortion rights advocates as top GOP presidential candidates gathered in Des Moines to address an influential state Republican Party dinner. That came on the heels of a new Iowa law that bars most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, which is now on hold, blocked by a state judge.
Harris's moves to seize the political offensive are a departure from years past, when she found herself under repeated Republican attacks after making scant progress on tackling the migration challenges at the U.S.-Mexico border. Harris was also the point person on the administration's efforts to bolster voting rights, which failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill.
Her newfound aggressive posture is a natural one, Harris allies say, considering her background as a prosecutor who thrives on zeroing in on an opponent and hammering their faults.
“The vice president has long been an effective messenger when Americans’ fundamental rights are at stake,” said Rohini Kosoglu, Harris's former chief of staff. "This recent attack on education, which most Americans would consider extremist, is no different.”
Nikki Fried, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, said of DeSantis: “He took the bait."
“The fact that he doubled down and brought another week of attention to a losing issue for him gives opportunity for the vice president to reinforce the message from the White House, and to reinforce what Americans understand slavery to have been," Fried said.
At issue are Florida's revised curriculum standards, particularly the mandate on teaching middle-school students about the “personal benefits” of slavery. On Tuesday, Harris called it an “attempt to gaslight us in an attempt to divide and distract our nation with unnecessary debates." She said the invite from DeSantis — whom she never called out by name — was an effort to legitimize that debate.
DeSantis has said his critics are intentionally misinterpreting the language and notes that among the people who worked on the new standards is William B. Allen, a Black professor emeritus at Michigan State University who has defended the wording about slavery.
Still, most of the Black Republicans in Congress have come out against Florida’s new Black history curriculum, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, one of DeSantis's challengers for the GOP presidential nomination, and Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., a former ally of the governor who has endorsed former president Donald Trump. Rather than backing down, the DeSantis campaign has gone on the attack against critics, including Donalds, whose conservative credentials they question.
In his letter challenging Harris for a debate on the curriculum, DeSantis accused the vice president of trying to “score cheap political points” and said Florida was unique in requiring “this level of learning about such an important subject.”
“Kamala Harris got on a jet at taxpayer expense and flew to Florida to lie about the African American history standards,” DeSantis told Fox’s Bret Baier in a Monday interview. “You can’t bend the knee to the left’s lies. When the left lies and creates these phony narratives, you’ve got to push back. They’ve been doing this to Republicans for years and years.”
After Harris's response in Orlando on Tuesday, Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis, tweeted, “Kamala Harris announces she is too afraid to meet with Ron DeSantis & the African American history scholars who created the Florida curriculum standards she is lying about.”
Quisha King, a Jacksonville mother of two African American girls, said she wants an apology from the vice president for spreading what she calls “lies” about Florida’s new Black history curriculum. King said it’s Harris, not DeSantis, who is continuing to fuel the controversy, adding that she has counted at least four times in recent days that Harris has spoken about the Florida standards.
“Personally, I want an apology. She should not be doing this,” said King, a Black conservative activist who supports DeSantis’s presidential bid. “It’s damaging for our kids. They hear it and it creates confusion.”
DeSantis and other Republicans are eager to make the 2024 presidential race about Harris, believing she can be a liability for Biden. DeSantis's campaign tags administration as the “Harris-Biden administration,” and the Florida governor has been one of a handful of Republican challengers who have suggested Harris would be the ultimate commander in chief because of Biden's advanced age.
“She could end up being president of the United States and I think voters need to take a hard look at that and see if that’s something that they would want," DeSantis told CBS News last week, adding that “I thank her” for her rapid response against him and other Republicans around the country.
But Democrats say they will continue to bolster her role, which will be particularly visible this week as Biden remains on vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and Harris steps into the spotlight Her schedule includes a trip to the critical swing state of Wisconsin later this week as well as remarks on the economy after the latest job figures are released on Friday.
“She’s been such an effective messenger in prosecuting the case against extremist Republicans who want to rip away fundamental freedoms, attack our rights and gaslight Americans because she’s got a lifetime of experience of fighting back," said Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "Unfortunately for Ron, Vice President Harris stands up to bullies and will always be a staunch defender for the people.”
Peoples reported from New York.