Face masks may be to state Rep. Anthony Sabatini what BLM protests are to President Trump: volatile fuel for firing up your base.
Whether that heat pays off on Election Day remains to be seen.
Sabatini, a Lake County Republican admitted to The Florida Bar in June 2019 during his first term in the Florida House, is making a name for himself in right-wing circles by denouncing local governments for requiring people to wear face masks in public to curb the spread of coronavirus.
On social media, he regularly stokes the worries of his fired-up followers with triggering phrases including “mask Nazis” and “local government mafia.” He mentions and is mentioned by the conspiracy theorists known as QAnon on his Twitter feed on May 3.
Florida Democrats accused Sabatini of encouraging Lake County residents in a social-media post to take up arms against “protesters” who engage in “illegal” activity, but House Speaker Jose Oliva dismissed official complaints about it, as explained here by the Tampa Bay Times.
Florida Democratic Party chair Terry Rizzo accused him of “displaying racist behavior” in connection with a high-school photo of him in blackface as part of a costume, as the Orlando Sentinel reported.
In August, while attending a GOP event at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Sabatini posted that he was “proud to introduce” to the audience Trump political adviser Roger Stone, whose prison sentence for lying to Congress to protect the president had been commuted a month earlier by the president he protected.
Controversies like these, and his press conferences trumpeting his filing of a string of lawsuits against mask mandates, draw attention but the lawsuits keep going down in flames. One is under appeal.
Democrats who ran to unseat Sabatini from Florida House District 32 complain he is too busy fanning flames to do any work for his constituents. Each participant in the Democratic primary for Sabatini’s seat — Stephanie Dukes, Ryan Morales, and Linda Kero — called him scary, reckless, and manipulative.
Dukes won the three-way Democratic primary and faces Sabatini in the general election on Nov. 3. The race seems Sabatini’s to lose — he won 56.5 percent of the vote in 2018.
Sabatini declined to be interviewed for this story.
Sabatini has sustained at least seven losses in court and a judicial warning from 2nd Circuit Judge David Frank that he risks being sanctioned for filing “frivolous lawsuits” against local mask mandates. Amid the string of losses, Sabatini announced with a flourish Friday that Gov. Ron DeSantis by executive order had just suspended fines and penalties issued to enforce mask orders.
“ATTENTION FLORIDA BUSINESSES: YOU NO LONGER HAVE TO COMPLY WITH THE PETTY DEMANDS OF POWER HUNGRY LOCAL GOVERNMENT TYRANTS—IGNORE THEM COMPLETELY,” Sabatini wrote in all caps on his “VoteSabatini” Facebook page.
Actually, DeSantis’ suspension of fines and penalties applies to “individuals” and does not mention businesses, as stated in Executive Order 20-244, but Sabatini didn’t cite the order in his post. Several local governments interpreted the order to mean they may continue to require businesses to make employees and customers wear masks.
Many of these local governments don’t impose penalties for violations or collect fines anyway.
Sabatini absorbed his latest court loss Monday, this time in Jacksonville. There, Circuit Judge Katie Dearing upheld the city’s mask mandate, ruling that the duly elected mayor, Lenny Curry, is allowed to decide such things and that the rationale for his emergency executive order — public safety in the midst of “a highly communicable and often deadly virus” — was sound.
Sabatini and his client, Jacksonville businessman Jason French, had sought an injunction to block Curry’s mask order, although it carried no penalties, by arguing that it violates French’s privacy rights and that masks are ineffective anyway. The judge dismissed both arguments.
Judge Dearing made note that Sabatini, not only as a lawyer but also a lawmaker, has plenty of up-close experience with emergency executive orders.
“Indeed, plaintiff’s counsel, himself a member of the state Legislature, does not challenge Gov. Desantis’ authority to issue the many Covid-19 public health emergency executive orders signed into law this year. Mayor Curry’s executive orders are to be given no less deference by this court,” Dearing wrote.
Sabatini agreed to be interviewed on Monday for this report. The Phoenix invited him to discuss his accomplishments while in office, his political aspirations, and his outlook on his controversial messages and choice of language.
But at the appointed time, he could not be reached by phone, text, or email — not through his district office, although his staff acknowledged our efforts to reach him, nor at his private law office. He has not communicated with the Phoenix since.
Democrat Dukes, a retired teacher, calls Sabatini a phony who latches onto extreme issues to draw attention to himself.
“It’s a political strategy,” she said in an interview with the Phoenix. “His thing about not wearing a mask: Did he not go to science class?”
Dukes said that eight out of 10 people she sees in communities near her wear masks in public. Leesburg, in the House district Sabatini represents, and Mount Dora, in nearby District 31, both adopted resolutions calling for mask-wearing in public.
Neither imposed fines or penalties for noncompliance. Officials in each city told the Phoenix they will comply with the governor’s new executive order lifting COVID restrictions but will continue to strongly promote mask use, along with distancing and hand hygiene, because they believe masking has helped hold down infection rates.
Dukes noticed when Sabatini on Aug. 2 called upon bars and breweries to defy the governor’s order to shut down again after a brief reopening in which some establishments flouted distancing requirements, leading to an abrupt spike in infections.
“Every bar and brewery in the state should open up immediately and challenge the irrational shutdown ‘order,’” Sabatini said in a Facebook post.
Dukes, sounding like the teacher and “proud Army auntie” that she is, expressed shock.
“How can you serve with the military [Sabatini serves as an infantry officer in the National Guard] and come out with that attitude?” Dukes asked. “Being a representative means exactly that — you are representing others, not yourself. The majority of his constituents don’t agree with him.”
Former District 32 candidate Kero, who retired to Florida, said she, too, is appalled by Sabatini’s behavior.
“He mocks ‘super woke culture’ and anyone who takes a knee for Black Lives Matter or for wearing masks,” Kero said. “He has absolutely no respect whatsoever. … He is much more skilled at getting in a front of a camera than anything else.”
Kero said Sabatini’s May 31 Tweet featuring a photo of an AR-15 assault rifle to alert “protesters” created fear of violence in Lake County where there had been none. Sabatini responded to criticism at the time by saying his tweet was aimed at people posing as protesters who might try to illegally enter a business.
“He did that to show people his belief in force. It was totally inflammatory,” Kero said. “Our county commission required us to have a curfew after that … even though there had not been one incident.”
Morales, a businessman in marketing who was endorsed in the District 32 race by the Orlando Sentinel, said Sabatini’s message appeals to extremists who identify with fringe groups such as Proud Boys and QAnon, using trigger words in his Facebook and Twitter posts to compare Democrats to totalitarians and Nazis. He thinks Sabatini and his wife, Francheska, Republican state committee woman for Lake County, want to ride Florida’s red tide to higher offices.
“He wants to be the youngest governor in Florida,” Morales said. “The only thing he cares about is his major donors.”
Dukes, Kero, and Morales agreed that Sabatini is not focused on District 32.
“He has not talked about anything that we need,” Dukes said, citing her priorities as increased funding to retrofit schools for COVID safety and greater access to health care during and after the pandemic. She stressed that Republican leaders in Florida refused to expand Medicaid services, and that Republican leaders in Washington, D.C., are fighting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act — during a pandemic.
Dukes said she wants to help residents of District 32 learn to “navigate” the system to advance themselves and their society and to fend off ignorance that fuels fear and division.
She said she supports expanded access to health care, respect for diversity in society, gun ownership and safety, and reproductive freedom. She considers it ironic that Sabatini fights for “privacy” rights regarding masks but not in personal health choices.
Above all, she said, she wants to represent constituents who feel underserved by their elected leaders and eclipsed by controversies.
“At some point, it has to be about compassion,” Dukes said. “Our country just can’t go on like this.”