DeSantis’ controversial surgeon general makes unusual appearance with him on campaign trail

Florida’s top public health official, a leading voice behind Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial pandemic approach, joined his boss on the campaign trail Wednesday for an unusual appearance that further blurred the lines between the Republican presidential candidate’s day job and his political aspirations.

Taking the stage to the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” — a campaign playlist staple — Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo conveyed his unease speaking before the New Hampshire crowd but said he was compelled to visit the first-in-the-nation GOP primary state to “support a man that I have a great deal of admiration for.”

“There’s no one, no one right now, who is running in this election who has the critical qualities that Gov. DeSantis has — the integrity, the courage, the intelligence,” Ladapo said.

While it’s perhaps not atypical for public officials to heap praise on their bosses, it is rare for a government employee to be a featured act at a high-profile political event. But DeSantis, one of the few candidates running for the GOP nomination who are also currently in office, has at times flouted the distinctions that separate candidates from their elected offices.

DeSantis routinely faces questions back home about the cost of state resources used to support his White House bid, including after state law enforcement agents were involved in a multi-vehicle accident while providing protective services during a fundraising trip to Tennessee. Before announcing his presidential campaign, DeSantis signed a law that shields disclosures related to his security and travel from Florida’s robust public records laws.

During a June visit to Eagle Pass, Texas, where DeSantis unveiled the immigration platform for his presidential campaign, he toured the US-Mexico border by water in boats owned and operated by the state of Florida, the Texas Department of Public Safety told CNN at the time.

His campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday’s appearance with Ladapo in New Hampshire, where the two shared their work leading Florida’s pandemic response. An online sign-up to attend the event made clear: “Dr. Ladapo will be attending in his personal capacity.”

It was not clear, though, if Ladapo took a personal day from his taxpayer-funded job at the Florida Department of Health to attend the event, and the agency did not immediately respond to questions from CNN. Ladapo earns $447,000 a year from the state and through an arrangement between the state health department and the University of Florida that also includes a paid position at the school’s College of Medicine.

The event in Manchester was hosted by Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis that has taken over many of the duties of a traditional campaign. It’s an arrangement that DeSantis has increasingly leaned on as his own campaign has burned through its cash at a rapid clip and one that has also sparked objections, including from a campaign legal watchdog, as it tests the limits of federal rules regulating the relationship between candidates and outside political groups.

“We’re thrilled to have Dr. Ladapo with us today to talk about his first hand experience with Gov. DeSantis’ decisive leadership and record of never backing down,” Never Back Down spokeswoman Jess Szymanski said in a statement to CNN.

Advertised as a town hall on “medical freedom,” the event served as a platform for Ladapo and DeSantis to cast aspersions on measures taken to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus during the pandemic and to sow doubts about the Covid-19 vaccine — an area on which the Florida governor has attempted to distinguish himself from former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nod, whose administration helped develop the vaccine in record time.

Ladapo told the crowd he had “nothing against Mr. Trump.” DeSantis, though, put Trump’s pandemic record on blast.

DeSantis vowed to overhaul the nation’s health regulators and disease response agencies if elected president, noting that he had championed laws in Florida to prevent pandemic-related restrictions in the future.

“We’re going to do a lot of different things right off the bat,” DeSantis said. “It’s going to change the way the federal government is going to be able to approach anything like this in the future.”

Ladapo recounted how he was plucked by DeSantis from UCLA, where he had ruffled feathers by penning op-eds increasingly critical of how governments were responding to the spread of the coronavirus and controversially pushing unproven Covid-19 treatments. DeSantis, who once celebrated the coronavirus vaccine’s arrival, appointed Ladapo as Florida’s surgeon general in the fall of 2021, putting him in charge of the state department of health just as he was cooling on the shots.

Together, DeSantis and Ladapo have continued to push against the medical consensus on coronavirus vaccines, with Florida the only state to officially recommend young men and children not get the mRNA shot. A document obtained by Politico showed Ladapo had altered a state analysis to remove comments that contradicted his assertion that the mRNA vaccine may be driving an added risk of cardiac-related death in men between ages 18 to 39.

In another outlier position, Ladapo this September advised Floridians not to get another dose of the vaccine after the federal government approved a new formula to improve immunity to recent strands of the coronavirus, similar to its method for annual flu shots.

Ahead of that announcement, with DeSantis videoconferencing via Zoom amid a campaign blitz, Ladapo helped lead a digital forum hosted by the governor’s office featuring the slogan “No way FDA.”

Though a state event, DeSantis introduced himself as though he was speaking to a national audience, saying, “I’m Gov. Ron DeSantis from Florida.”

Speaking Wednesday in New Hampshire, Ladapo said he didn’t anticipate his career turning in this direction.

“On the spectrum of, you know, where do you want to spend your time and your energy and your life, politics was about as far away as you can imagine for me,” he said.

Ladapo, though, has appeared increasingly comfortable in the political arena since he was thrust into the fray by DeSantis. Speaking alongside the governor at events in Florida, he is often cheered on by DeSantis supporters and stays for pictures with audience members afterward. He has regularly appeared on Fox News and other conservative outlets and on conservative podcasts that proliferate fringe medical views.

He also published a memoir in August 2022 that included a foreword by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the leading purveyors of misinformation around vaccines for children who is now running for president as an independent after exiting the Democratic primary.

In June, Ladapo donated $400 to DeSantis’ presidential campaign. Ladapo is not the only person from the upper echelon of DeSantis’ government to contribute. Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. — who defended DeSantis over criticism about Florida’s new African American history standards — Commerce Secretary J. Alex Kelly and Melanie Griffin, the secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, have contributed as well.

Through September 30, at least 78 people who work for the state of Florida have donated to DeSantis’ campaign, according to federal records, including his chief of staff-turned-campaign manager, his general counsel, his press secretary and deputy press secretary, and his budget director.

CNN’s Em Steck contributed to this report.

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