The way Kelly Johnson tells it, she Forrest Gumped her way into one of the most important political contests in Florida. The blonde-haired, flip-flopped, divorced mother of eight spent all her life in the Tampa area, attended a Christian college, and voted for Trump in 2016. But after losing both of her jobs in March because of the coronavirus pandemic (she was a restaurant manager and personal trainer), she had so much trouble trying to access unemployment benefits that she started a Facebook group where frustrated claimants could organize. That led to her being interviewed on a radio show, on which she spontaneously declared she’d run for office. As a Democrat.
“Turns out, it’s the most important [legislative] race in the state of Florida,” Johnson laughed, noting that in her state House district, which covers parts of Pinellas County, she’ll be going up against Chris Sprowls, a lawyer who is set to become the next Speaker of the House if Republicans retain a majority. She’s the only person daring to challenge him. “Nobody in their right mind is going to run against him!” Johnson said.
Johnson said she’s not expected to win the David-vs-Goliath contest, but if her story is any indication, Florida’s unemployment crisis could be a decisive factor for voters between now and November, affecting both the presidential election and down-ballot races. Florida is considered a swing state in national elections – Trump won it by 1 point in 2016 – but it’s had a Republican governor since 1999. Both chambers of the state legislature have been solidly red since the 1990s, too.
According to the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity unemployment dashboard, about 2 million people applied for benefits as of June 15. As detailed in news reports, thousands described online trying to log on day after day, week after week, trying to access funds ($275 a week maximum from Florida, plus $600 per week from the federal government) only to find the site down, or get booted off. They described phone calls going unanswered, or reaching call center reps who were powerless to help. The language on the website is confusing, and even when people received payments, it was often unclear why deposits were for certain amounts. The state in early April made paper forms available. People who’d applied before April 4 were instructed to resubmit their info.
On Twitter and in Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members, frustrated people shared stories of despair and tips on navigating the system. They steered one another to politicians and specific state employees they found helpful, and celebrated when they actually received payments.
Josh Dasher, a 30-year-old from Central Florida, called the unemployment system “the most breathtakingly incompetent thing I have ever encountered.” An audiovisual systems designer laid off March 20, he described setting alarms to wake at 3 a.m. so he could try logging on when servers weren’t busy. He called a help line 1,200 times – but never once got an answer. Payments started, then stopped, with no explanation.
One Facebook group member, Chris Sue, on June 14 described caring for a loved one in home hospice and selling off items to survive: “I am sitting at 14 weeks without a single state payment and 9 weeks without federal payments…That is THREE and A HALF MONTHS.” Sherri Cohen said, “People will be given 10 different reasons for why they were turned down…none of them making any sense.” Others described similar hells.
The problems are being pinned largely on Republicans. When horror stories about the system crashing began in March, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, blamed his predecessor, now-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who had commissioned a $77 million website from Deloitte Consulting in 2013. DeSantis said that when the rickety site faced a sudden demand from claimants, it was like “throwing a jalopy in the Daytona 500.”
Politico found that DeSantis had been warned of the problems in 2018; he claimed the issue never reached his desk. He put Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter in charge of the system and in April, declared that “99.99 percent” of people who’d filled out forms properly and were eligible for assistance had been paid; remaining claimants must have done something wrong. “Obviously you’ve got to complete the application,” DeSantis said. “So if you don’t have a last name, you don’t have a Social Security number, you know, that’s going to be problematic,” he added. “That is a straight-up lie!” State Sen. Janet Cruz, whose office had been fielding calls from desperate claimants, told a Tampa TV station. “Don’t try to blame this on folks that need help.”
Scott, whose net worth is an estimated $255 million, wrote to supporters in an April fundraising email that “employees don’t want to come back to work because they collect more on unemployment” – even though, at the time, only 153,788 of the then-1.8 million who’d applied for benefits had actually been paid, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Kelly Johnson said the condescension and dismissiveness coming from Scott and DeSantis is what triggered her to run for office. “The language that was being sent from Tallahassee just boggled my mind,” Johnson said. She could forgive Republicans for many imperfections – “To be honest, I’ve held a Bible upside-down before; it’s OK,” she chuckled, referencing a recent Trump photo op – but to talk about the downtrodden like that, and to teargas protestors in the streets, as happened with protests over George Floyd’s death – “God doesn’t want people to be treated like this.”
Will more of the unemployed translate their frustrations into votes for Dems in November? At the federal level, elections will decide the U.S. presidential race, all 435 House seats, and about a third of Senate races, though neither of Florida’s two senators, Rick Scott nor Marco Rubio, are up for re-election this year. At the state level, DeSantis is not up for re-election until 2022. But half of the state’s 40 Senate races and every one of its 120 state House races are open.
Dasher, the audiovisual designer, said in a phone call, “I’m a fairly left-leaning individual – far enough that I leaned right out of the Democratic Party.” But the unemployment issue, as well as protests over the death of George Floyd, “have me re-energized,” he said. “I will do anything in my power to unseat the people I feel are responsible – and I think it lands pretty solidly with Rick Scott and DeSantis and those kinds of people.” Due to the debacle, he has gotten to know even his local politicians and says he’ll be more focused on those races now.
Chris Sue wrote, “I will NEVER vote Republican again and I am switching from Independent to Democrat, LOUD and PROUD.” Another person from the Facebook group, Dana Escalona, said, “Republicans caused it, perpetuated it, and even today, deny it. It’s a Republican issue inflicting stress on everyone!” Kim Leathem Pickett said she is a registered libertarian who blames Rick Scott and was so grateful for help from her state Rep. Darren Soto that she offered to campaign for him. “I have never done anything like that for a Democrat.”
Still, on Facebook, plenty of claimants described just wanting to get paid irrespective of politics. “Miss me with the left-wing/right wing bullshit. Both wings are on the same dysfunctional bird,” said Matthew Pate. One respondent replied to questions with a picture of herself in a red, white and blue bikini and a MAGA hat.
Ultimately, public sentiment in the fall will be shaped by how much the economy recovers, said William Luther, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at Florida Atlantic University. “The link between unemployment and the incumbent president’s odds of reelection has broken down somewhat in recent years. But the basic point remains: When times are good, or at least appear to be on the right track, voters are less inclined to oust the incumbent… a strong recovery would certainly help the president’s reelection odds.”
Vanessa Brito is a political strategist who has worked on both Republican and Democratic campaigns and has, on a volunteer basis, been helping claimants work through their application problems. She doesn’t think the unemployment issue will cause Trump fans to switch parties and vote for Biden, but that it will “100 percent” affect state races. Laura Tweed, an insurance salesperson and healthcare activist who’s also helping claimants on Zoom, and a lifelong Republican herself, disagreed. “It’s going to move the needle, because it’s moved my needle. I voted for the idiot!” She pointed out that the crisis goes beyond unemployment: If people lose their jobs, they often lose their health care. For many, paying for continued insurance out of pocket via COBRA, or through Obamacare, is cost-prohibitive and Florida has not expanded Medicaid, so many people fall into the coverage gap. As the months go on, the number of people facing evictions or foreclosures will increase, too, she worries.
By the first week of June, Florida’s state dashboard said it had processed 88 percent of confirmed unique claims and paid 97.5 percent of eligible claimants. But Jason Pizzo, a Democratic state senator from Miami, said that he was still getting hundreds of calls and emails every hour pleading for help with unemployment. He’d personally spoken with 3,000 constituents – even from other districts – who were desperate, even suicidal. “Frankly, I’ve paid for people’s chemotherapy,” he said. Florida’s legislative session runs 60 days each year and ended in March. Pizzo spent 44 additional days in Tallahassee trying to help claimants. He spoke with representatives from Deloitte and computer experts who walked him through the website’s architecture.
Last month, DeSantis ordered an inspector general to look into the history of the website and why Deloitte Consulting had won the contract. On June 8, two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer of New York and Ron Wyden of Oregon, requested that the U.S. Department of Labor investigate; DeSantis dismissed that inquiry as partisan. In Tallahassee, lawyers are bringing a class-action lawsuit against the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and Deloitte.
Republican legislators contacted for this story – Rep. Chris Sprowls and Sen. Jeff Brandes – did not respond to requests for comment. But Pizzo said that his fellow Republican legislators do share concern for the unemployed. “It’s not popular to disassociate from or denounce party leadership, but behind closed doors there’s equal frustration,” he said. Still, he thinks blame for the debacle does fall to the two most recent governors – both Republicans – and that Democrats can ride that messaging into November. “Democrats should not screw this up,” he said.
Sprowls has raised $93,000 already. “I might raise $5,000,” his opponent Kelly Johnson said, chuckling. But she’ll apply her single-mom know-how and stretch those dollars, she added. All her church friends abandoned her, but she’s found new kindred spirits in the Democratic Party and lined up people she coached through basketball teams and youth groups over the years to help her campaign. The next class of House members could tackle big issues, like Medicaid expansion (something the Republican House has so far blocked) and drawing congressional districts according to new census data. “My daughter’s master’s thesis was on gerrymandering!” Johnson said.
If she loses, she’ll bounce back, Johnson insisted. “I’ll go for Ed Hooper” – her current state senator. “I’m going to Tallahassee to put people in time out.”
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