Suarez criticizes DeSantis' handling of slavery curriculum, addresses Trump indictments

Miami's mayor is running a long shot campaign for the 2024 GOP nomination.

August 22, 2023, 6:20 PM

In a sit-down interview with ABC News, Miami mayor and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Francis Suarez took repeated aim at one of his party's most prominent White House hopefuls -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis -- while suggesting he saw some problems with the prosecution of front-runner Donald Trump, who denies wrongdoing.

Among Suarez's differences with DeSantis, the mayor told ABC News Correspondent MaryAlice Parks, was the governor's handling of Florida's controversial new educational standards on teaching Black history and a law that DeSantis signed last year that restricts instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in some K-12 classrooms.

The Black history curriculum, which was approved unanimously by the state's board of education last month, directs Florida educators to teach middle school students that enslaved people "developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit."

"I've been very vocal, very clear about the fact that there's no virtues to slavery that should be taught in our school system," Suarez said in the interview, at the Iowa State Fair. "And by the way, that's not a just Vice President Kamala Harris position," he added, referencing Harris' trip to Florida last month to rebuke the educational standards.

DeSantis has both defended the curriculum and distanced himself from the process of creating it.

"I wasn't involved in it," he said in July. "But I think what they're doing is, I think that they're probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed being a blacksmith into doing things later in life. But the reality is, all of that is rooted in whatever is factual."

"These were scholars that put that together. It was not anything that was done politically," DeSantis said then.

Dr. William Allen, one of the architects of the educational standard, has also defended it as teaching about enslaved people's resilience and resourcefulness.

Speaking with ABC News, Suarez contended that DeSantis had mishandled the issue.

"Most candidates feel that what the governor should have done is said, 'Look, we made a mistake. We should not be sending this signal where we're extolling the virtues of slavery under any circumstance,'" he said. "It was a leadership opportunity. Unfortunately, he didn't take it."

Suarez also took issue with part of Florida's Parental Rights in Education bill, which DeSantis signed last year and later approved expanding. Critics have denounced it as "Don't Say Gay" legislation because of its restriction on teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity until ninth grade and only if it is "appropriate" for students.

PHOTO: FILE - Republican presidential candidate Miami Mayor Francis Suarez speaks at the Republican Party of Iowa's 2023 Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, July 28, 2023.
Republican presidential candidate Miami Mayor Francis Suarez speaks at the Republican Party of Iowa's 2023 Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, July 28, 2023.
Charlie Neibergall/AP, FILE

Suarez told ABC News that while he supports such limits for students up to the third grade, he does not believe the legislation should extend to high school students. Supporters of the law argue it prevents children from being exposed to topics they find unacceptable.

Suarez drew another contrast with DeSantis, contending that DeSantis' fight with Disney after the company's criticism of the Parental Rights in Education bill had led DeSantis to pursue anti-business policies that were harming the state economy.

DeSantis has denied politics is influencing the conflict and said he wants Disney not to have special treatment relative to other businesses. (Disney is ABC News' parent company.)

The Miami mayor failed to qualify for a spot on Wednesday's debate stage in Milwaukee.

He said in a subsequent statement, in part, "I respect the rules and process set forth by the [Republican National Committee], and I look forward to working with my party to ensure we win back the White House and restore the path to a brighter future for our country."

On Trump's 4 indictments

Suarez announced his long shot presidential campaign just days after former President Trump appeared in a Miami federal court to be arraigned on charges that he allegedly mishandled government secrets while out of office. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

Suarez told ABC News that while the presence of classified documents in Trump's private residence after Trump left the White House "bothers" him, he believes the former president never should have been able to handle physical copies of the documents in the first place, saying he supports the use of digital versions of classified materials.

Suarez also noted that other officials have been found to have kept classified documents after leaving office, like former Vice President Mike Pence and President Joe Biden. (Neither Pence nor Biden is accused of refusing to return those materials to the government, as Trump is.)

With respect to the charges Trump separately faces in federal court in Washington, regarding efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss, Suarez appeared to cast doubt on the idea that Trump was aware he lost the race, asking, "Have you ever heard him say that he knew he lost the election?"

Additionally, Suarez suggested that he and his fellow Republicans view the four federal indictments facing Trump -- which also include a New York case over hush money Trump paid an adult film actress and a Georgia case over the push to change the 2020 election results there -- as a detriment to the nation.

Trump maintains he did nothing wrong and has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He has not yet been arraigned in Georgia.

"I personally believe that there wasn't enough evidence that I saw that the election should be overturned," Suarez said. "Having said that, I don't think that these kinds of prosecutions are viewed by people in my party as something that is positive for the country."

"The fact that every time he's prosecuted, he surges in the polls, that should say something," he added.

PHOTO: Miami's mayor thinks “America will do something different” when considering him as the country’s next commander in chief.
Miami's mayor thinks “America will do something different” when considering him as the country’s next commander in chief.
ABC News

From mayor to president?

The role of Miami's mayor is part-time. While Suarez can appoint the city manager and veto legislation, he lacks a vote on the city's commission. (By contrast, the mayor of the combined Miami-Dade County government, which surrounds the city, is more influential.)

Just one year into office, Suarez sought to expand his powers, including by giving himself authority over the city's contracts, budget and public workers, but the "strong mayor" referendum ultimately failed before voters.

Asked whether his position as mayor has prepared him for the presidency -- a leap that no other candidate has ever accomplished -- Suarez likened his experience to that of other executive positions.

"I'm the CEO of a billion-and-a-half-dollar company with 4,500 employees and four labor unions in a highly international city where I meet world leaders from this hemisphere and from across the world," he said.

If elected, Suarez would also be the first Hispanic president. His policy platform includes supporting a federal 15-week abortion ban (with some exceptions) and increasing security resources along the U.S.-Mexico border, he told ABC News.

"What we've seen in American politics in my lifetime is America often will choose an underdog," he said. "And so I think it's an opportunity for Republicans in particular to elect not just a mayor, which is a problem solver, a unifier, but also a Hispanic who could deliver not just a win in '24 but wins going forward."

ABC News' Hannah Demissie and Will McDuffie contributed to this report.