Fired Pandemic Data Manager, Fierce Critic Of Florida’s Governor Decides Not To Run For Congress

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Rebekah Jones, the former Florida health department employee who filed a whistleblower complaint accusing political leaders of firing her in a dispute over the state’s pandemic numbers, has decided not to run for Congress next year, she said.

Jones said in an interview she did not feel safe enough to run in Florida – where she faces an upcoming felony hacking trial – and did not feel prepared enough to run in Maryland, where she now lives with her family. 

Jones also said she is working on an upcoming book and documentary, and this week she tweeted that she intends to finish work on her doctoral degree. “I should be done by spring 2023,” she wrote.

Jones has an ardent public following and a demonstrated ability to raise money from supporters, with more than 400,000 followers on Twitter and regularly has appeared on cable television to criticize Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Over seven months, Jones raised more than $562,000 from supporters to pay her legal costs and expenses associated with publishing pandemic data on her own website.

Jones said in interviews she expects to campaign actively on behalf of Democrats, including supporting the campaign of Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried against DeSantis. Fried, a vocal supporter of Jones, was expected to run for governor next year, and DeSantis was widely expected to run for the White House in 2024.

Jones has been hinting openly on social media about a congressional campaign, which can often include a complex calculus involving incumbents, fundraising, a candidate’s appeal and policy positions and a district’s political demographics. Political leaders actively discourage challengers from running against a sitting representative from the same party who has a reasonable chance of re-election.

“As an elected official, I will ALWAYS use science, data, and empathy to guide me,” she tweeted last month. “Hypothetically, of course,” she added, attaching an image of herself winking.

Jones’ upcoming criminal trial is a big factor in any political plans, even as she did not mention it as driving her decision: Her trial would almost certainly take place before Election Day, and if Jones were convicted she would be ineligible to run for any office in Florida until she finished serving any sentence.

Additionally, U.S. House rules instruct members of Congress not to vote in committee or on the House floor once they have been convicted of a crime if the punishment could be more than two years in prison. Jones is charged with a third-degree felony, which could include a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Jones has cited interest from herself or supporters in at least four congressional districts in Florida and Maryland, including Florida’s deeply conservative 1st District, where Republican firebrand Rep. Matt Gaetz is under investigation whether he violated federal sex trafficking laws, and especially its 13th District, where incumbent Democrat Charlie Crist has formally announced a campaign against DeSantis for governor.

“I have total confidence that I’d win a House seat in Florida next year,” Jones said. “But that’s not in the cards for me and my family right now.”

In Maryland’s 6th District, Democratic Rep. David Trone this month decided against running for governor and will run for re-election there, facing Democratic challenger Aruna Miller, who Jones said she supports. In Maryland’s 1st District, three Democratic women – Heather Mizeur, Mia Mason and Jennifer Pingley – have already entered that race to beat Republican Rep. Andrew P. Harris. Jones said she intends to work with Mizeur’s campaign.

Republicans in Florida are paying attention to Jones: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last week circulated a National Review news article that described Jones as “the COVID whistleblower who wasn’t,” and DeSantis this week hired as his new press secretary Christina Pushaw, a conservative media consultant who for months has been among Jones’ harshest critics.

Jones has said that Pushaw made numerous Twitter accounts to anonymously harass her and sought a restraining order against Pushaw that a judge denied. Pushaw has made similar claims of being harassed by Jones and her followers. Pushaw locked her Twitter account this week after saying she has been receiving abusive messages since DeSantis hired her, prompting Jones to encourage her own supporters to “lay off” and not to threaten Pushaw.

Jones now lives in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, held by Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, who has already filed for re-election next year. Raskin easily won his seat last year with 68% of votes and is the only candidate so far who has filed to run there next year.

Jones called Raskin an “inspiration,” and said she met with him earlier this month to discuss the COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act, which Raskin cosponsored and would protect workers from retaliation against their employers for revealing misconduct relating to the pandemic.

Jones said running for Congress in Maryland next year would have been harder than Florida because she moved there so recently.

“There are a few hurdles, obviously,” she said. “I’m not nearly as connected into state politics here as I was in Florida.”

Jones, who developed Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, drew widespread attention last year after she said the health department forced her to remove positive cases from the dashboard as the state pushed to reopen. DeSantis has disputed Jones’ claims, and she was removed from her position and ultimately fired later that month.

Her battle with the state came to a head in December when criminal investigators raided her home and confiscated computers, phones and hard drives as part of a probe into whether she was responsible for a mysterious message sent without authorization over an internal system to health department employees encouraging them, too, to resist any efforts to manipulate pandemic data.

Jones has denied illegally accessing the government’s computers after she was fired, but investigators said in court records they found downloaded contact information for department employees on her devices. She was arrested in January and remains free on bail.

Prosecutors this week said in a new court filing that they plan to introduce at trial evidence they collected from Jones’ computer, cell phone and cloud storage account. The next court hearing in her case was scheduled for June 8.

Meanwhile, Jones said she will consider her options for the 2024 elections. 

“If it was just me alone — yes, I’d be moving back tomorrow to run for the 13th,” she said. “Then again, I may never have left in the first place. But it’s not just me. And I have to think about the trauma my family went through there.”
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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at thomasweber@ufl.edu 

About Thomas Weber

Thomas is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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