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DeSantis speech to Illinois cops sparks protest

The far-right Florida governor's visit to a Chicago suburb was condemned by Illinois Democrats and LGBTQ advocacy groups.

CHICAGO (CN) — Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis traveled to the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst on Monday to speak to members of the city's Fraternal Order of Police. His visit sent ripples through local politics, especially the looming Chicago mayoral election.

DeSantis, a presumed GOP candidate in the 2024 presidential election, has built his national profile in Florida by embracing right-wing culture war issues. Since taking the governor's office in January 2019, he has signed bills that curtail abortion access and gender-affirming health care in the Sunshine State, discourage classroom examination of the history of racism and white supremacy, and subject books dealing with issues of race, gender and sexuality to censorial review prior to being allowed on public school and library shelves. The infamous "Don't Say Gay" bill, which DeSantis signed last March, also prohibits classroom discussion of gender and sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade.

News of DeSantis' visit first broke last Thursday, when the Chicago FOP Lodge 7 invited its members via email to attend a cops-only "Back the Blue" event in Elmhurst featuring the Florida governor. The event's exact location was meant to be kept secret to all but its organizers and attendees, with the FOP's email invitations stating that only those who registered would receive an address 48 hours in advance. Instead, the venue - a Knights of Columbus hall called the 1911 Club - was leaked to the press on social media late Friday night.

Even before the venue leaked, several Chicago mayoral candidates and other Illinois Democrats criticized DeSantis and the FOP for boosting his visit.

"Ron DeSantis's dangerous and hateful agenda has no place in Illinois. Banning books, playing politics with people's lives, and censoring history are antithetical to who we are. Every candidate hoping to hold public office in the land of Lincoln should condemn this event," Democratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said in a Thursday tweet, nodding to the Chicago mayoral election.

"Hate has no place in Illinois and neither does Ron DeSantis," agreed Democratic mayoral challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, who also represents Illinois' 4th Congressional District, on Monday.

Noting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ stances, protesters in Elmhurst, Ill., took to chalking slogans in support of both on nearby buildings on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (Dave Byrnes/Courthouse News)

Incumbent Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also used the Florida governor's visit to attack her challenger Paul Vallas, a conservative Democrat who has become a frontrunner in the race. The FOP endorsed Vallas, the only white mayoral candidate, in January.

"Ron DeSantis has perfected being a bigoted, racist demagogue. But Paul Vallas is fast on his heels," Lightfoot said in a Friday night interview with NBC News.

Vallas himself condemned DeSantis' Elmhurst appearance and criticized the FOP for supporting him.

“I wholeheartedly agree with Governor Pritzker that there is simply no place in Chicago for a right-wing extremist like Ron DeSantis, and I am disappointed in FOP leadership for inviting him to speak to officers," Vallas said in a statement Friday night. "DeSantis’ record of trying to erase the LGBTQ community, banning books on Black history and much more is not in line with my values, the values of our community, or the values of the rank and file police officers who I believe have no interest in getting swept up in culture wars and national Republican Party politics."

Regardless of what Vallas said, DeSantis' Monday arrival in Illinois came at a poor time for him. With only a week until the mayoral election on Feb. 28, it marked the second week in a row that the Vallas campaign was rocked by police-adjacent controversy. On Feb. 8, Black Chicago-focused news outlet The Triibe reported that Vallas' son Gus Vallas was one of three San Antonio, Texas, police officers who fatally shot a fleeing Black man last March.

It was a moment of weakness for Vallas, one which the DeSantis visit compounded.

"I'm glad [DeSantis] doesn't get a vote in the city election, let's start there. Because clearly he'd be voting for Paul Vallas," left-leaning mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson told local news station ABC 7 on Monday.

On the ground in Elmhurst, DeSantis' arrival also sparked protests from local Democrats, antifascist activists and LGBTQ advocacy groups. While the governor spoke for only about a half hour on Monday afternoon, protesters remained outside the 1911 Club for close to four hours, decrying the FOP and Knights of Columbus.

"I'm absolutely disgusted," said Elmhurst resident Rosaleen Canniffe. "There are certain roles in our society that are supposed to be neutral, and by inviting DeSantis here, [the FOP] is saying they're not neutral."

FOP Lodge 7 President John Catanzara, a prominent right-wing figure in Chicago politics himself, denied the FOP invited DeSantis. But he acknowledged that many union members would want to hear what DeSantis had to say.

"[DeSantis' team] reached out to us, of course we're going to participate and listen to what Governor DeSantis has to say in support of law enforcement as a whole... it's only natural that we're engaged in what he has to say and hear what he has to say," Catanzara said in a YouTube video to FOP members.

Despite a heavy on-duty police presence from both the Elmhurst PD and out-district participants with the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System, the protests against DeSantis' speech remained peaceful. A single arrest was made after a Black protester blew an airhorn at DeSantis supporters outside the venue, further earning the ire of those who opposed the Florida governor's presence.

"I think it's very telling that the police are only on our side of the street," said Andi Shievitz, a local high school student who had come out to protest along with several of her classmates, in reference to a bike barricade NIPAS officers set up in front of the protesters. "They believe that we're the only ones who are a threat, when they're the ones just permeating this violence."

DeSantis' speech itself was typical of many of his prior public addresses. He decried "woke ideology" as a threat to society, and reiterated his support for "law and order."

"The reason you have crime that has spiraled out of control in so many of these different areas, is you have politicians putting woke ideology ahead of public safety," DeSantis said, referencing Democrat-controlled cities such as Chicago and San Francisco. He later said that "woke ideology" was a threat to police themselves.

His words earned support from more than just police, with some counter-protesters openly saying they hoped the speech was part of DeSantis building up to a 2024 presidential run.

Rhian Fazzini, a GOP aldermanic candidate for Elmhurst's City Council, stayed outside the 1911 Club for several hours while carrying a sign emblazoned with "DeSantis '24." According to Fazzini, the Florida governor's appeal is that he represents a more professional version of former President Donald Trump's politics.

"Trump is completely unhinged," Fazzini said.

Trump himself has also noticed DeSantis' national profile rising, as the former president seeks a return to the White House. In recent weeks Trump has called DeSantis "disloyal" for considering a presidential run, while also labelling him with the nicknames "Ron DeSanctimonius" and "Meatball Ron."

In attacking DeSantis, Trump and Democrats may have at least one thing in common.

"He's just a sad, pathetic man," Democratic protester Eric Willoughby said of DeSantis on Monday evening.

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