Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tends to garner attention from whatever he says and wherever he goes these days as his political spotlight continues to grow nationwide.
That was the case Friday in Peoria. DeSantis was the keynote speaker at the Lincoln Day Dinner for Peoria and Tazewell counties, where combatting “woke” ideologies and staving off Democratic legislation in both Illinois and the country at-large were the central themes.
DeSantis brought a crowd of roughly 1,150 Republicans to the event at the Peoria Civic Center, plus protesters and the New York Times. While he did not announce an anticipated run for president while in Peoria, he did use a roughly 42-minute speech to take shots at Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and levy a barrage of verbal jabs at Democrats, while also lauding his accomplishments as governor of Florida.
“I’m a little disappointed your governor said I wasn’t welcome in Illinois,” DeSantis said in response to remarks made by Pritzker ahead of his arrival. “Because I seem to remember when he was locking down this state, he sent his family to live in my state and live in our freedom.”
Peoria Congressman Darin LaHood cracked a similar joke at Pritzker’s expense saying, “you know it’s a sign we’re having a good Lincoln Day when J.B. Pritzker is tweeting and crying that Ron DeSantis is not welcome in Illinois.”
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Ron DeSantis hints at presidential run
Amid growing anticipation that he might be running for president in 2024, DeSantis left plenty of breadcrumbs on the topic.
“I say to you this, decline is a choice, success is attainable and freedom is worth fighting for,” DeSantis said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done in Florida but I can tell you this, I have only begun to fight.”
DeSantis also espoused on what he felt the role of an executive office should be.
“When you’re governing, it’s not about entertainment, it’s not about building a brand, it’s not about virtue signaling on social media, it’s about winning and it’s about producing results,” DeSantis said.
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Fighting ‘woke’ takes center stage in Peoria
Saying that Democrats were “obliterating communities” nationwide, DeSantis and other speakers, including Peoria GOP Chair Chuck Weaver and Tazewell GOP Chair Jim Rule, often drew applause and cheers from the Peoria crowd by assailing “wokeism.”
“We are sinking and we are sinking fast in a quagmire of progressive liberalism and a woke ideology that has no place in our society,” Rule said to the crowd. “At the center of the crosshairs of all this is our children and our grandchildren who are being exposed at a very tender age to things like transgenderism.”
Rule — who asked “what is with all this pronoun stuff?” — invoked similar language to DeSantis in saying Republicans had to wage a “war against woke ideologies. Rule said he would be “putting on God’s full armor, his full body armor,” in that war.
“Because woke represents a war on truth, we have no choice but to wage a war on woke and that is what we’re doing in Florida,” DeSantis told the crowd.
He later drew an applause when he said he had “nixed this whole pronoun game in our schools.”
During his speech, DeSantis frequently criticized Illinois laws and policies, including the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois tax rates, and criminal justice reform. DeSantis specifically mentioned Florida’s lack of an income tax and said “you should try it sometime.”
“We have to reject the weaponization of the criminal justice system, this is being driven by woke ideology,” DeSantis said. “We reject the idea that you defund law enforcement, we reject the idea that you tolerate rioting and looting and disorder. We reject soft on crime policies like abolishing cash bail and releasing prisoners from jail early.”
Weaver and others said it was time for the Republican party to mobilize, embrace mail-in voting and ballot harvesting to win elections in places like Illinois.
“It’s a very simple number, we have 14,000 Republicans that don’t get out and vote,” Weaver said. “We have got to take 8,000 of those and get them out to vote, they’re sitting there, we’ve just got to get them out and we’ve got to do it through our ground game.”
When not talking about voting, taxes or public policy, DeSantis and others maintained their focus on “woke,” while specifically honing in on transgenderism in their comments.
“My wife and I both believe that parents in this country should be able to send their kids to school, kids should be able to watch TV, kids should be able to be kids without someone trying to shove an agenda down their throat, it is wrong,” DeSantis said. “It is wrong to teach a school child that they may have been born in the wrong body or that their gender is a choice. That is inappropriate and in Florida we made sure that wasn’t happening in our schools.”
To that end, protesters from the LGBTQ community had gathered ahead of DeSantis’ appearance outside the Civic Center to voice their displeasure for his views on transgenderism.
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‘In Peoria we say gay’
Dozens of protesters gathered Friday afternoon outside the Peoria Civic Center to protest the arrival of DeSantis, bearing signs that read everything from “Ron DeSantis go away,” “In Peoria we say gay,” to “Ron DeSantis sucks oranges.”
The protesters, comprised of mainly people from Peoria LGBTQ organizations, voiced their distaste for legislation DeSantis has pushed in Florida they say is discriminatory toward the LGBTQ community.
“(In Illinois) you have access to healthcare, you have protections, and we want to keep it that way” Cassie Lucchesi, head of Peoria Proud, told the crowd of gathered protesters on Friday.
Numerous vehicles passing by honked their horns in solidarity with the protesters, each time drawing a roar from the crowd. Lucchesi said it was a sign that the Peoria community is a place where members of the LGBTQ community can come and find support.
The protesters acknowledged that DeSantis would likely not see them, but hoped their message would still be seen by anyone else who shared his ideas.
“Hate has no place here in Peoria, or in the state of Illinois,” Lucchesi said. “Of the protests I’ve been a part of and have been privy to attend, we’ve had a lot of support, so it is nice to have people driving by and honking their owns, showing their support. It just goes to show how many people are supportive and inclusive here in Peoria.”