TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In life, the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was a divisive figure, who proudly waved the flag of conservatism and wallowed in the controversies he helped ignite. In death, those controversies follow him as partisans in his home state of Florida debate over whether to lower flags in his honour.
Gov. Ron DeSantis called Limbaugh a “legend” and ordered flags to be flown at half-staff as a show of respect after the longtime broadcaster, 70, died Wednesday of cancer.
But Democrats, who have long been on the receiving end of Limbaugh's harangues, objected.
Nikki Fried, Florida's agriculture commissioner and the only statewide Democratic officeholder, said Monday that she would not abide by the Republican governor's orders. Fried is considering a bid for governor.
“Lowering to half-staff the flag of the United States of America is a sacred honour that pays respect to fallen heroes and patriots,” she said in a statement. She said she would notify all state officers she oversees to disregard the governor's order.
Fried oversees about two dozen agricultural law enforcement inspection stations, more than three dozen state forests and nine regional licensing offices — all of which fly the flags of the United States and Florida.
“My concern is that the governor is bending over backwards to honour a radio host who has consistently made racist, polarizing and conspiracy comments,” Fried said in an interview Monday afternoon.
“It is really inappropriate,” she said of the flag lowering, “and the governor is playing politics with this American treasure, which is our flag.”
A year ago, President Donald Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, during his final State of the Union address.
The day before, Limbaugh had announced that he was battling advanced lung cancer.
Limbaugh had for decades championed conservativism — often stridently at the expense of liberals and Democrats.
Fried was not the only elected official to bemoan the governor's decision.
“Not lowering flags for Rush,” the mayor of St. Petersburg, Rick Kriseman, tweeted on Monday. “In St. Pete we don’t honour hatred, racism, bigotry, homophobia, or anything else he has spewed over the years. We are, however, honouring the life of Deputy Michael Magli of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.”
Earlier in the day, DeSantis had ordered flags to fly at half-staff to pay tribute to Magli, who died last week after being struck by a vehicle while on duty in Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg in the state's Tampa Bay region.
The governor’s office declined to elaborate on the state’s protocols for lowering flags.
Flags are typically lowered to honour prominent government officials, as well as law enforcement officers and members of the military killed in the line of duty. However, the governor also has the authority to lower the flags to commemorate tragedies, most recently the third anniversary of the Parkland high school shootings that took the lives of 17 students and staff members.
DeSantis said Limbaugh's stature justified the honour.
“When there’s things of this magnitude, once the date of interment for Rush is announced, we’re going to be lowering the flags to half-staff,” DeSantis said at a Friday news conference in Palm Beach County.
“Not much needs to be said,” the governor said. “He was an absolute legend. He was a friend of mine, and just a great person.”
Fried said she would not move to punish any of her managers who might follow her “strong guidance” and instead decide to comply with the governor's order.
“If somebody chooses to lower the flag, there are no penalties,” she said.