Ron DeSantis’ Midwest roots have shaped his political views and perspective

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has never lived in Youngstown, Ohio. But this corner of the Midwest has shaped him, since it's where his family has its roots.

YOUNGSTOWN (Ohio) — A political scandal broke out at the Board of Elections, Mahoning County, Ohio in 1960. Furious that the voting machines had not worked correctly during the May primary, the Republican secretary of state ordered a thorough cleaning and appointed Philip Rogers, an old GOP insider, to be director.

Rogers would spend the following years becoming one of the most respected authorities in the state on technology and election administration. He believed in integrity, even when others thought fraud was possible. He would eventually become chairman of the county party and focus more on the complex wiring of the precincts for the working-class in Youngstown rather than the fiery ideological battles taking place nationally.

There were many days of turmoil in the Mahoning Valley. As organized crime fought for power, mafia turf battles raged. The first big steel mill would close soon, leading to the loss of many thousands jobs. One of Rogers five children was ordained to the priesthood. One of his five children became a nun. In the meantime, his oldest daughter left and he gave birth to a son in 1978. He would become governor of Florida 40 years later.

Ron DeSantis is a probable candidate for the presidency. He has never lived in this area. This once-overwhelmingly Democratic corner in the industrial Midwest, where economic populism converged with social conservatism to elect Donald Trump after decades of despair, is an interesting origin story. His father grew up in the shadows of now-closed steel mills. These places, such as Youngstown, Pennsylvania and Aliquippa (Pennsylvania), have been a breeding ground for the cultural grievances DeSantis cultivates.

DeSantis wrote that he was raised geographically in Tampa Bay, but that his cultural upbringing was a reflection of the working-class communities in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania. This included weekly church attendance and the expectation that one would make his living. This made me God-fearing and hard-working, and America-loving.

The governor and his parents refused to answer questions about being interviewed for this article.

The DeSantis family roots — which were not previously reported in great detail — fill in the gaps of a politician who rose only five years ago to national prominence after Trump endorsed him as governor. is now the former president’s most formidable potential competitor for the GOP nomination for 2024. Some moments provide texture and contrast, such as his grandfather’s involvement in local politics or the blossoming romance between his parents at Youngstown State University.

The elder Ron DeSantis is remembered by his fraternity brothers as prank-happy, gregarious and generous. His son who is an introvert by name might have more to do with his mother Karen. Friends recall Karen as being quiet and almost like a person describing her son’s personality. Rogers is well-known for being pragmatic and calm in his political dealings. But the governor, who is known as a provocative culture warden, lambasted corporate giants such as Disney and flying migrants from Martha’s Vineyard to his face, is not.

The Youngstown family’s political evolution mirrors its own. After years of trying to win, and years of losing, the region came together around Trump’s anti-imperial image.

William Binning, a former Mahoning County GOP Chair and long-standing political scientist at YSU, said that this was “one of the greatest changes in Ohio politics.” Binning said that DeSantis was a “perfect candidate for the Mahoning Valley.”

The Republic Steel Works on the Mahoning River in Youngstown, Ohio, in the 1940s.

Lawrence D. Thornton / Getty Images

A ‘thankless job’ in a Democratic stronghold

That much was certain, the May 1960 Mahoning County primary was a disaster.

Numerous hundred voting machines were damaged and it was soon discovered that the Board of Elections had not followed storage and maintenance guidelines. Ted Brown, Ohio’s Republican secretary-of-state, stated that approximately 2,500 voters were disenfranchised. According to a June 15 article in The Vindicator (a Youngstown newspaper), Brown demanded that changes be made to prevent “this terrible experience” from happening again.

It was hard to ignore the politics. Brown’s shakeup had seen the removal of two top board officials, including Jack Sulligan (now the Democratic Party chairman in Mahoning County), and Rogers’ promotion to chief clerk. Rogers had previously worked as an assistant for eight years. The Vindicator pointed out that Rogers’ father in law, an ex-Republican member of the election board, had conducted Brown’s investigation.

According to reports, Rogers vouched in court for Sulligan when he sued for his job back. Rogers quickly became a well-respected bureaucrat who was reliable and straight-shooting.

DeSantis writes that “When local steelworkers unions held elections, they would often ask for my grandfather to manage them.” He also mentions that he traveled to the Deep South to help with election administration, especially as the states started using what was then called “modern” voting machines.

Binning chuckled when he said Rogers was “someone who believed the way the system worked.” DeSantis has avoided questions about Trump’s debunked theory of stealing the 2020 election. However, he ran last year to support election-denying candidates like Kari Lake in Arizona or Doug Mastriano, in Pennsylvania.

Binning stated that “this guy was deeply into the conduct of the integrity of Ohio elections, Phil was.” These election deniers are going to have a lot of fun, I think.

Rogers was also a steady chair for county GOP in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a difficult job, DeSantis writes in his book. It was a tough job considering that there were so few Republicans in the area over the next 50 years. Rogers was a mentor and friend to Binning who arrived in the region in 1970. He would also count Rogers as an ally in his tenure as chairman.

“There was a group Goldwaterites who were an annoyance in the party at that time,” Binning said, referring specifically to the acolytes Barry Goldwater of the failed ultraconservative presidential candidate of 1964. “Phil was not in with them.”

Youngstown steel mill worker. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

A quiet mother and a lively father

YSU was a long-standing commuter college that served Valley students who couldn’t afford to travel too far. Over the years, YSU attracted students from all over the state and from the outskirts Pittsburgh.

The 1960s saw the arrival of Bernie Tunno and Ronald Daniel DeSantis from Aliquippa. Soon after meeting Ron, Tunno and his New Brighton-based friends invited him to join Theta Xi, their fraternity. Their memories of Ron, particularly the stories about his outgoing personality and his love for amusing his friends with silly gags, bear little resemblance today to the way his son is described.

Tunno said that Ron was “very quirky.” Tunno said that Ron would do “little weird stuff.” He was known for showing up at parties “with his nose taped on one side and one eye shut.”

Tunno stated, “He was a jokester. He really was.” “Good kid, though. Study hard. … I never thought his child would run for president. No.”

Greg Paul, another fraternity brother, described Ron almost in the same terms. He said, “I wouldn’t be afraid of calling him a jokester.” “Likable guy. Always up for a good laugh.

Tunno recalled the address of the house with Ron and two fraternity brothers. He said, “A few parties there.” He also recalled Ron’s enormous record collection.

Tunno stated that Ron was into music and Dion DiMucci was a doo-wop singer best known for his 1961 chart-topper ‘Runaround Sue’. Ron’s son was named Ronald Dion DeSantis when he was born many years later. This is a tribute to Ron the elder, who proudly acknowledges on Dion’s Facebook Page.

Ron was not an athlete, unlike his son , a Little League star from Florida, who played baseball at Yale.

“When his son pitched them to Little League World Series we thought, “Oh, my god, you better have DNA testing.” Tunno stated, “It can’t be your child.”

In his book, the future governor describes how his parents met in Youngstown. His father was attending classes at YSU while his mother was studying nursing. Friends remember the couple’s first days together. There were many friendly hangouts, double dates and plenty of them going out on dates. They both remember how different Ron, Karen, and Joe Antonucci were.

Tunno agreed that Tunno was “much quieter and more pensive.” Tunno agreed that she could be this way because he was always being silly and all over the place. He was always funny and she laughed at him.”

Both were not known for being overtly politically oriented.

Paul stated that his campus friends “got involved in politics other than the Vietnam War,” and “nobody” was referring to them.

Youngstown was in the midst of a financial crisis and Ron and Karen found themselves in a difficult spot. Ron graduated in 1970 and took a job installing audience tracking devices for Nielsen, the TV ratings company. They eventually moved to Jacksonville, Florida where their son was born.

Donald Trump at Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio in 2016, Ty Wright/Bloom via Getty Images file

“The kid will stay cool”

Many of their friends and families still call the Valley home. Last summer, they were out in force when DeSantis hosted a rally in Girard for JD Vance, the then-Senate candidate. Girard is about four miles from YSU. The governor’s closest ties to the region are his aunt, uncle, and priest.

Sister Regina Rogers is a councilor of the Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown. She was formerly an assistant principal and religion teacher at one of the local Catholic high schools. The Rev. Philip Rogers, named after his father, DeSantis’ maternal grandfather, leads a parish that includes two churches in Struthers. They are simply Sister Regina and Father Rogers in the Valley’s tight-knit Catholic community.

Both declined to be interviewed. Binning was there with DeSantis and DeSantis’ mother, on a 2012 Father Rogers trip to Italy. He believes DeSantis social conservatism is informed by his faith family.

DeSantis doesn’t go into much detail about his faith in his book. He focuses only on his family’s Catholic roots many times. He has sometimes used biblical references to invoke spiritual warfare. He also spoke last year in a conference that was organized by a conservative group looking for a “religious war” with the left.

Ron DeSantis campaigned for JD Vance, then-Republican Senate Candidate, near Youngstown in Ohio last year. Gaelen Morrise / Reuters via Alamy

Binning stated that “His parents’ siblings — they became priests and nuns.” “This family clearly had a strong Catholic faith. These are the values he would have learned.”

However, their speeches and public writings don’t portray their nephew as the culture warrior he has become.

“Be open to diversity,” Sister Regina stated during a 2020 commencement speech to Ursuline High School graduates. “Don’t be afraid to speak up for those who are different than you. You can change your mind. “Change is the constant in our lives.”

Father Rogers has been known to recite Theodore Roosevelt’s speech from the pulpit but does not usually touch on politics in his sermons. Many of his fans, many who have followed him from one church to the next over the years, joke about how he doesn’t need a microphone to reach every pew.

He urged parishioners to pick up a brochure about collections at the crowded mass last Saturday, saying that “whatever you can contribute will be greatly appreciated.” “Father DeLucia said to me that he would pay close attention. He’ll report you to me if you don’t bring one home.

Friends and family believe that these Youngstown roots will serve DeSantis well during a presidential campaign.

“Ethnic. Catholic. Conservative,” Binning stated, noting that he had checked off the boxes necessary to win here and added another: “The people here love a lot of Trump stuff.” He takes a lot of this.”

Others who have seen DeSantis and Trump put distance between them are intrigued by the Trump factor. Trump has taken DeSantis harder in recent week, being aware that he is his most formidable rival.

Paul stated, “One thing that I’m glad to see is that he’s no longer friends with Donald Trump.”

Tunno was a Trump supporter in past. He said that he now worries about a vicious campaign of name-calling. DeSantis, Tunno said, adding that he is a Trump supporter in the past, and that he “never loses my cool” despite receiving high praise from the Valley.

Tunno stated that Tunno was a “very unperplexed” dad. Trump can say whatever he likes, but the child will be cool.”

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