DeSantis, Harris in furious battle over slavery curriculum

The clash between Vice President Harris and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is heating up over education standards for teaching slavery, giving the vice president a hot-button topic to take on during the campaign and an enemy No. 1 in the GOP primary.

DeSantis earlier this week suggested the two debate the topic of teaching slavery, prompting the vice president to bash the idea and attack the education standards head-on during one of her recent trips to Florida on Tuesday.

While former President Trump, the GOP front-runner, is enemy No. 1 for President Biden, Harris is making a point to keep DeSantis and his policies in the spotlight as the governor fights to close the polling gap between him and Trump.

“Right here in Florida, they plan to teach students that enslaved people benefited from slavery,” Harris said Tuesday in Orlando.

“I’m here in Florida and I will tell you, there is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery,” she said.

DeSantis, while accusing the Biden-Harris administration of spreading misinformation about the new education standards, invited Harris in a Monday letter to Tallahassee to discuss them. The rules that were approved last month require lessons on race to be taught in an “objective” manner that does not seek to “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”

“[Y]ou clearly have no trouble ducking down to Florida on short notice. So given your grave concern (which, I must assume, is sincere) about what you think our standards say, I am officially inviting you back down to Florida to discuss our African American History standards,” DeSantis wrote.

While DeSantis is doubling down on the culture wars, like how children learn about Black history in schools, he is polling double digits behind Trump.

A New York Times/Siena College poll released earlier this week found Trump leading DeSantis 54 percent to 17 percent among likely Republican primary voters. At the same time, the Florida governor still appears as the top White House contender behind Trump — no other GOP candidate in the poll secured more than 3 percent.

The latest Morning Consult survey of the GOP primary field put Trump at 58 percent, followed by DeSantis at 15 percent, with no other candidate earning more than 9 percent.  

While the 2024 election is looking like it will be a rematch between Biden and Trump, considering Trump’s strong polling numbers at this point and unwavering support from his base despite his legal troubles, Harris is staying focused on DeSantis.

Jamal Simmons, former communications director for Harris, said current polls are not necessarily indicative of the ultimate outcome of the primary, so the vice president shouldn’t let DeSantis “off the hook.”

And, he said, Harris is the best person to take on DeSantis because “the vice president is at her best when she is prosecuting a case against a guilty opponent, and she is certainly showing her strength at making these cultural arguments as well as anyone in the Democratic Party.”

On the other hand, Democratic strategist David Thomas said he understands why DeSantis would want to try to engage with Harris.

DeSantis wants “to change the pretty disastrous trajectory that his campaign has been through over the past month,” Thomas said, adding he thinks “it makes no sense” for Harris to “throw him a lifeline” by engaging in return.

“Why give him a platform to press coverage and to advance what are pretty horrible views on education policy, and other issues down in Florida?” Thomas said. 

The new education standards have provoked strong backlash in recent days from across the political spectrum, including from some Black conservatives, particularly over a line that directs teachers to include instruction on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

DeSantis defended the new standards Wednesday, telling Fox News “that particular passage wasn’t saying that slavery was a benefit. It was saying there was resourcefulness, and people acquired skills in spite of slavery, not because of it.” He argued Harris’s criticisms are “in bad faith.”

“I think for the vice president, this is not about politics or policy. This is about principles. And the fact is that a white man from Florida can’t speak to the Black experience in this country,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.

Seawright said for Democrats and the Biden-Harris team, “our offense is our defense,” adding the vice president should “continue to lean in” on issues like the Florida curriculum. 

Harris, in an interview with ABC News on Monday, said that “it almost seems ridiculous to have to say … that enslaved people do not benefit from slavery.”

The vice president taking on teaching standards as a winning issue for Democrats is reminiscent of her focus on reproductive rights during the midterm elections. 

While she is expected to continue to spearhead abortion issues out of the White House going into 2024, she made it a top priority last year to call out restrictive reproductive rights laws in red states. Abortion ended up being a winning issue for Democrats, and they experienced better-than-expected results in the midterms.

“These issues don’t stand alone,” Simmons said. “So whether it is taking away a woman’s reproductive rights, trying to rationalize the benefits of slavery, there are several of these issues that you see the Republicans touching that will impact voters’ thinking a lot about what kind of America Republicans want.”

Harris in recent weeks appears to have been leaning more into the traditional vice presidential role of serving as an attack dog against Republicans. 

“The vice president is going to keep calling out Republican extremism, whether it’s DeSantis in Florida or if Trump was a governor and enacting these kinds of laws and taking away people’s freedoms,” said DNC spokesperson Ammar Moussa. “She’s done it with DeSantis, she’s done it with [Iowa Gov.] Kim Reynolds — she’ll take on Republicans where they are and it just so happens that Ron DeSantis is leading Republican extremism across the country.”

Kirsten Allen, press secretary for Harris, said the vice president will keep calling out the issue because she sees how slavery is taught in schools as another “attack on our fundamental freedoms.”

“If I decide that I want to get an abortion or I decide I don’t want to, that should be my decision, not my government. If I decide I want to protect my community from gun violence, I should have elected leadership who wants to act on that,” Allen said. “This is linked and that’s what she’s standing up for — depriving them of their freedom, which is to go to school and learn facts.”

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