TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Senate handed a political victory to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, as the chamber backed the suspension of a county sheriff who the Republican governor said bungled the response to last year's mass shooting in Parkland that killed 17 people.
The 25-15 vote for removal was no surprise in the Republican-dominated Senate, considering that the Rules Committee just two days earlier had sided with the governor's decision to oust Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.
With the tragedy framing the debate and emotions sometimes fraying, alliances transcended party allegiances, with some Democrats signaling their support for removing Israel.
Israel's supporters, including a key Republican, said his removal would embolden DeSantis and future governors in removing other elected officials for political reasons.
Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican and former president of the Florida Senate, made an impassioned plea to reinstate Israel, saying that removing him would be "anti-law enforcement."
"When we go home and jump into a selfie with our sheriff — because I know how good that looks on our campaign pieces — make sure he knows what we did today," Lee said.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican, defended the governor's decision.
"Folks, the ship ran aground," Baxley said, arguing that Israel's failed leadership required his removal. "There was a lot of evidence things didn't go right. Our governor had a duty."
Israel, who was first elected as Broward County sheriff in 2012, has vowed to run for his old job in next year's election. DeSantis has said he would not seek to remove Israel again, should the lawman win the confidence of Broward voters.
"It's not going to be something that will matter to me either way," DeSantis said Tuesday.
An investigator appointed by the chamber to look into Israel's suspension had recommended that the sheriff be reinstated, saying the governor failed to show that failures in Israel's leadership were responsible for the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 15 students and two staffers on Feb. 14, 2018.
Senate special master Dudley Goodlette said there was no evidence presented to suggest Israel's policies or his training of deputies were inconsistent with Florida standards, and attributed deaths in the shooting to "individual failures," especially on the part of the school resource officer on duty who had failed to enter a school building and confront the shooter.
A former student, Nikolas Cruz, was arrested shortly after the shootings and faces 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder. As the state Senate convened, a Florida judge said jury selection will begin Jan. 27.
During his bid for governor, DeSantis partly campaigned on removing Israel from his post in Broward County, a Democratic stronghold. Days after taking office, DeSantis used his authority as the governor to remove the lawman after deeming him incompetent in his department's Parkland response.
DeSantis was also critical of Israel's handling of the 2017 shootings that killed five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.