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Don Lemon Tonight

President Biden Surveys Storm-Ravaged NJ And NJ, Pushes Infrastructure Bill; Hurricane Ida Slammed Louisiana; Texas Governor Signs Voting Restrictions Bill Into Law; U.S. Surpasses 40 Million Total COVID-19 Cases; Conservatives In Florida Using Opposition To School Mask Mandates As A Way To Make Changes In Public Schools; The Son Of A Tennessee Father Who Was Threatened By Anti-Maskers At School Board Meeting Is Tested Positive For COVID. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired September 07, 2021 - 23:00   ET




DON LEMON, CNN HOST: President Biden back at the White House after getting a first-hand look at the destruction from the remnants of Hurricane Ida in New York and New Jersey and making clear the deadly disasters are a big reason that he'll turn up the heat on Congress to pass his $3.5 trillion plan to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and battle the climate crisis.

And he'll address the nation on Thursday on his administration's plan to battle the surging COVID pandemic as new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are spiking.

Also tonight, the governor of Texas is signing new voting restrictions into law. We're going to see how opponents plan to fight back.

I want to bring in now CNN senior political analyst Kirsten Powers and Ron Brownstein. I should say analysts, with an "S," plural. Thank you both for joining. Good evening.

So, Ron, President Biden is making the case today for his infrastructure bill and budget plan. With all the fallout from Afghanistan, the Afghanistan exit, he is trying to shift the focus back to domestic agenda. Is he trying to shift the focus or is he just doing his job as president? But if he is trying to shift the focus, is it working?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, look, the reality is that the Afghanistan decision has been made. It has been executed. There are residual issues with Americans and Afghan allies left behind. But the core challenge he now faces is the legislative agenda.

It was striking today that in his visits to the New York area, he directly linked the damage from Hurricane Ida to climate change, which is something even many in the media have been slow to do, and use that to kind of underscore his case for the climate components of this reconciliation bill.

Look, this is probably going to be scaled back, maybe scaled back significantly. But even scaled back significantly, it is still likely to be on track to be the largest democratic legislative success since Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. Democrats will be betting heavily on what they're able to pass as a center piece of the agenda they want to run on in 2022.

LEMON (on camera): Mm-hmm. Kirsten, look, a big problem, a problem for Biden's agenda, Joe Manchin is calling for a pause on the $3.5 trillion budget plan. I know that Ron just said, okay, well, you know, it is going to be scaled back, but he's calling for a complete pause on it for now. This is what Biden said about that tonight.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Joe has always been there. He has always been with me. I think we can work something out, and I look forward to speaking with him.


LEMON (on camera): Okay. So, to Ron's point, the sources telling CNN that Manchin has been privately suggesting to colleagues that he could accept a $1 or $1.5 trillion price tag. Maybe that's the scaled back version that he's talking about. The source says that he is suggesting that 2017 tax law could be amended to raise enough taxes to ensure the bill is fully paid for. How do you see this playing out?


KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, I think that this is the kind of balancing act that Biden has to do with everything that he tries to do now, which is trying to bring together more moderate, even, you know, in Manchin's case, I would say more conservative Democrats and progressive Democrats who have very different visions of what they want the government to do and how much money they want to spend doing it.

And I would say, you know, Joe Biden has been very good at bringing people together, which is something that he said that he was going to do as president, and I think a lot of people were skeptical about.

And, you know, I think that he's going to just have to keep working on Joe Manchin and still trying to keep progressives happy, you know, not feeling that everything is being, you know, thrown away basically when they feel like they have this opportunity to do something really big that Joe Manchin is trying to scale back or even in the House even some moderate Democrats want to scale back.

LEMON: Kirsten, how can people not see the connection?


LEMON: You had a storm that hit the south. It was a really big storm, right? And, you know, we've been having these really ferocious, powerful storms more often lately. It is climate change, right? That is what the experts say.

But he had a storm that was over land for that long, right? And usually, it slows. And by the time it gets here, you expect, okay, the storm came in over the gulf, gone over land, it is going to be fine, we may get some rain, and then you have this. How can you not connect it?

And then look at the infrastructure in cities like New York and what happened here and not see that we need -- we need money, we need infrastructure reform, we need to address climate change, we need all those things.

POWERS: Well, look, Don, we're living in a country where people are getting their medical advice from Tucker Carlson, right? So, we have a lot of people who have not completely bought on to this idea and a lot of those people are in the Republican Party. Now, a lot of them have come around to say, okay, well, climate change is real, but it is not really manmade, there's nothing we can do about it when they used to say it didn't even exist.

But the point is you have a lot of people in the Republican Party who will not accept that any more than they will accept the fact that you should take a vaccine, right?

LEMON: Yeah.

POWERS: It is an alternative universe where they treat talking about infrastructure and climate change as being some sort of whacky, you know, left-wing idea when, you know, you said the experts say. But, you know, they have their own set of experts.

LEMON: Well, by experts, I mean, most of the scientific community, 99.9 percent of the scientific community.

POWERS: Exactly. Right. But what does Tucker Carlson think?

LEMON: Yeah.

POWERS: I mean, that literally is how a lot of people in this country unfortunately are operating, where they're going to people like Joe Rogan's podcast to find out how to treat COVID. You know -- nothing against Joe Rogan but, like, why are you going to him to find out how to treat COVID?

So people are getting medical advice that don't have, you know, any knowledge and people are giving advice about the climate they don't have any knowledge.

LEMON: Yeah. I'm going to go to those people you said just for some expert advice. I never really think about that. Hey, Ron, let me ask you. I got to get this in. I want to talk about the president slamming Texas's new voting law, calling it an all-out assault on democracy. But you said without mentioning the word "filibuster," this is like thoughts and prayers for the disenfranchise voters.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah. LEMON: Tell me about that.

BROWNSTEIN: Right. I mean, look, you know, the objections by Manchin to the reconciliation bill kind of distract from what is probably going to be the core question involving Manchin and Sinema in the next few weeks, which is whether they are willing to create a carve-out from the filibuster for legislation that would create a floor, a federal floor of voting rights in every states and undo much of what Republicans are doing on a party line basis, which very important in state after state.

Biden, you know, has said he supports a new kind of floor of federal voting rights and Democrats have worked very assiduously to negotiate a new bill with Manchin that met the objections that he kind of laid out to the more expensive bill that passed the House.

And we are coming up to crunch time where the Democrats are either going to create some kind of exemption to the filibuster and create a response to the restrictions on voting that are passing in the red states or they are going to allow Republicans to block this.

As I pointed out to you before, the standard that Manchin and Sinema are setting on this, that it should only be done if the other party agrees in Washington, by that standard, the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and most of the civil rights law in the after -- post-Civil War era would not have passed because Democrats then supporting the Democratic allies in the former confederate states refused to vote for any of them.

And so this is really the core issue. Are Manchin and Sinema going to give Republicans a veto and allow them, Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans, to kind of run air cover for this ground offensive that is underway in so many red states, rolling back the right to vote with tremendous implications for 2022 and 2024?

LEMON (on camera): Thank you both. Speaking of the -- we were talking about people who are actually dealing with what's happening with the weather. I want to get to that now. So, thank you. I appreciate it.

The death toll from Hurricane Ida is rising. Louisiana officials say two more people have died from the storm, bringing the official total in the state to 20 people. That's on top of the 52 people who died in the northeast. In the middle of the flooding last week, the mayor of Passaic, New Jersey told me about one of those losses as the storm ravaged his city. Look at this.


MAYOR HECTOR LORA, PASSAIC, NEW JERSEY: Unfortunately, an elderly gentleman of 70 years of age was unable to be rescued. The car was overtaken by water. Firefighters were been dragged under the vehicle and it became almost impossible for firefighters to reach the vehicle as the waters rose above six and seven feet in that one area.



LEMON (on camera): So the Mayor Hector Lora was one of the local officials to meet with President Biden today in New Jersey and he joins me now. Thank you, mayor. How are you doing?

LORA: Thank you, Don. I'm doing well, relatively well. How are you?

LEMON: I'm okay. I'm sorry for everything that your community is dealing with. How was your meeting with the president today? What did you discuss?

LORA: Well, I want to say it was extremely encouraging because the fact that the president took time to be here with us, to walk our communities, to hear first-hand the impact, the devastating effects of Ida in our community, it means so very much to our residents in our state and obviously in the city of Passaic.

The fact that I was able to sit with him, have a conversation along with other mayors, with our governor, Phil Murphy, with congressional representatives, with his administrator of FEMA, with county officials, it was extremely, again, I'll reiterate, encouraging because the emotion that he conveyed, it was so genuine.

When I shared with him the account, obviously the heartbreaking account of a father's last image in terms of what he saw before he left this world, his wife and his son being rescued and unfortunately that wife and son looking back and seeing his father or their father and husband not being able to make it, I could see it in the eyes of the president.

And this wasn't a photo op. He literally went back and forth with us. He engaged. He asked questions. He was genuinely and sincerely interested in what we're facing within our communities, what challenges, unique challenges because obviously each community is different --

LEMON: Let me talk to you about that. Let me talk to you because there are people in your community with some urgent problems right now, missing relatives, homes destroyed, little food and water. Did he -- I know you said that he was -- he seemed extremely interested and genuine. Did he tell you what his plans were to get these people the help that they need?

LORA: Well, that's what I was speaking about. When he asked the mayors like Mayor Lipani from Hillsborough what is the biggest concern you have and we all had similar concerns, we can't keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

There are homes in the flood zones that should either be bought out or changed. We can't just keep expecting that every flood, we're going to send and rescue individuals and hope that they are going to be able to recover their lives.

We talked about real challenges like the supply lines. You know, it is one thing to receive money, but if you can't even get access to water heaters, if you can't get the material that you need in order to recover, then what are you doing with those resources?

And like you mentioned, Don, and you're right, look, in my community, we have so many who have so little and have lost so much. It is devastating. This week, children were supposed to be getting happy and excited about returning to school and they've lost their materials, basements are washed out, homes were flooded. I have families that have nowhere to go. Right now, we don't even have access to water for a lot of areas in our city.

So yes, the president, he pointed obviously to his administrator for FEMA to make sure that they understand that we need communication, especially in a community where we have a large Latino population, that they will know how to apply for these disaster reliefs. The declaration went a long way, declaring our county obviously as an area of disaster.

I commend our governor, Phil Murphy, for reaching out and advocating on our behalf. I'm glad that I believe it will be expanded to even more areas because we were devastated. The issues we're facing are extremely difficult in our city.

LEMON: You're going to need all of that. And then there's a concern New Jersey is actually part of a flash flood watch for tomorrow afternoon. So we will be keeping a close eye on that.

Thank you, mayor. We wish you well and we'll see you back here soon, hopefully with some better news. Thank you.

LORA: Thank you, Don.

LEMON: Yeah. I want to bring in now the former mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. He is now a CNN political commentator. So, mayor, thank you. I was worried about you because I didn't hear from you for a bit. I was texting you how bad it is, what is going on, I haven't heard from you, and you lost your cell for a while, your cell phone service as a lot of people did there. But I'm glad that you're okay. I'm glad that you're helping folks down there.


LEMON: These crazy storms aren't stopping. You know, one storm crushing the Gulf Coast all the way to the East Coast. This is evidence of the climate crisis, infrastructure crisis all around us. So, what is the president going to do to try to convince his own party? What does he have to do to his own party to actually do something?

LANDRIEU: Well, thanks for thinking about me and my family. I appreciate it. I just got my electricity back a couple hours ago.


LANDRIEU: Lots of electricity out for people across Louisiana still today as you know because this is your area. Everything that is lower than Baton Rouge, you think of (INAUDIBLE) that I drove the other day, seven feet of water in all the houses. I want to show (INAUDIBLE). I've been down to (INAUDIBLE) area. I've been down to (INAUDIBLE).

The mayor that was just speaking, I don't know the gentleman, but he just as soon could be describing how decimated the little towns and the cities are in and around New Orleans. Jefferson Parish which is right next to New Orleans for the most part is still out of electricity.

So one of the things that just blows my mind, Don, because I've been listening to your program, on the issue of voting rights, there can't be a more nonpartisan issue in the United States of America than having access to the ballot. That's what democracy is about.

Likewise, there can't be more of a nonpartisan issue than the fact that roads and bridges are broken. The electrical grid is broken not only in the south but in the northeastern part of the country, in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

That you have -- you have not -- lack of access to food. You have all these things that are going on that for the life of me affects every American equally. And so we just -- we've just seen -- we saw it 16 years ago with Katrina and then shortly thereafter, Sandy. And then this particular week, we had Ida. And then right after that, we had another storm in the northeast. This is affecting everybody in the country.

LEMON: Let's not forget what happened this winter. Do you remember what happened this winter? Look at what happened this winter. You had Texas. Look at the power grid.

LANDRIEU: Well, think about this. You had Harvey, you had Michael. You just look at all this stuff. This is what I know. I know that everybody, Republican, Democrat, white flag, blue, green, gay, straight, whatever, when you don't have power, it's rough. When you don't have a bridge to go across, you can't get across. When you don't have water, you can't take a bath.

And all I'm saying to the people of America is, if you want something to be nonpartisan, this is about as nonpartisan as it gets. For my perspective, given what we've gone through in this country, the infrastructure package is small. It is not too big. The civil engineer which is a nonpartisan organization tells you that we have about a $5 trillion infrastructure deficit.

I can't think of a more unbelievable example than just what happened with Ida. As you said, that thing was with us for 16 hours. That storm stayed with us for a long time. Do you know what? There are going to be more storms. You can argue about what's causing them. I don't really want to have the fight. I know it is climate change. Some people want to disagree with it. But it doesn't obviate the fact that those consequences are during.

You have to not be able to see, not be able to hear, not be able to taste, to understand that's what's happening to us. Every American in this country knows that the roads are tough to drive on and the bridges are tough to cross and that the electric grid is compromised which actually puts us at risk from a terrorist attack, too. So I would just say, you know, the president can only speak the truth. People don't want to hear or people don't want to see. That's one thing. But the leaders in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, need to understand that there is an imperative in order for this country to not only be able to survive but be able to progress, and that's basically infrastructure and then voting rights.

Both of those are critically important. They should be nonpartisan. They should get on with it. They ought to get it done because the storms are not going to quit coming nor the fires, nor the tornadoes.

LEMON: Yeah. I just want everyone to read this. I am just going to put it up there on the screen so folks can see it. This is a piece that Mayor Landrieu wrote for

"Of the many communities being affected right now, the poor face the greatest hurdles. They will need more help and for longer. Until we collectively deal with economic and racial equity, we will continue to grapple with historically marginalized communities being disproportionately hit over and over."

That is what happened down south. That is what happened up here in the northeast. We do have to address it. I go to run, mayor.

LANDRIEU: But Don -- I'm going to let you go, but let me say this. Resilience and toughness is good but there's nothing that beats completely changing the structures of society so we don't continue to put those people in those desperate circumstances repetitively that they cannot sustain. So yes, they're tough. Yes, they're fantastic. But if this keeps happening and we don't give them a net to stand up on, they don't have a chance.

LEMON: Amen.

LANDRIEU: They don't have a chance.

LEMON: Amen. It is good to see you. I'm glad you're okay. I'm really am. Thank you, brother.

LANDRIEU: I'm good.

LEMON (on camera): All right. Good. Thank you, brother. Texas's new restrictions on voting sure looked tailor-made to make it harder for Black and brown people to vote. So why is a state that is getting more and more diverse moving farther and farther to the right?


REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-TX): Greg Abbott has taken to stay on incredibly far right direction. I believe that ultimately it is going to come back to bite him.





LEMON: Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott officially signing one of the nation's most restrictive voting bills into law today. This is what it means for people trying to vote, okay? No 24-hour voting which helps shift workers in communities of color. No drive-through voting. It also makes it harder to vote by mail even though we're still in the middle of a deadly pandemic. And it is a felony for public officials to send out unsolicited mail-in ballot applications.

And that's not even all of it. The law is already facing an immediate legal challenge from voting rights groups as well as two federal lawsuits that were filed before the bill was even signed, including one from Harris County Election Administrator Isabel Longoria, who by the way joins me now. Thank you so much for joining us, Isabel. How are you doing?

ISABEL LONGORIA, HARRIS COUNTY ELECTION ADMINISTRATOR: Howdy, Don. Well, things could be better in Texas.

LEMON: Well, amen. I agree with you. What kind of impact this is going to have on your state?

LONGORIA: You know I can speak to Harris County.


LONGORIA: We did all of this back in July of last year. A pandemic was coming. We were asking ourselves, what can we do to make voters feel safer and still access their fundamental constitutional right to vote? Things like drive-through voting. You can get your groceries, you can go banking, why not vote? It is the same exact manner as if you walked into location. The only difference is you used wheels instead of feet.

What about, we ourselves, mail ballot voting? In Texas, we don't have online mail ballot applications. So how can we get those mail ballots to folks who, for example, after storms, after pandemics, lose their job, lose the internet, they don't have printers? Just mail it. Mail these applications to seniors because when you turn 65, you don't turn less than 65 tomorrow. You are always eligible to vote by mail once you turn 65.

And 24-hour voting, thinking about our medical workers who didn't want to risk infecting people in those peak hours in the middle of the day. Those shift workers, we've got the port of Houston, who are out all night, and what we found from that is that Latino voters, Black voters, Asian voters and women tended to use drive-through voting more, 24-hour voting, those mail ballot applications.

And so it is a long answer to say the implication of this bill, right, is that it is going to prevent the people, who we know are leading the growth of Texas, from voting in the future.

LEMON: Well, let me just make it very clear. A plain question: Do you think that this law was designed purposefully to make it harder for people of color to vote?

LONGORIA: I think absolutely it is in response to everything that we did in Harris County to make it easier for people to vote. And you can't unlearn something. We have made it clear. We've shared the information with all the state representatives and senators at least in the Harris County area.

And once you learn something helps minority voters, helps women voters, you can't step back and say, oh, well, that must have been a fluke. You have to do everything you can to protect it.

So I do think, you know, initially, it may not have been the case but once learn that it does protect minority voters, it is hard to see it as anything but an attack on folks who will vote in Texas.

LEMON (on camera): I want to play. This is what Governor Abbott said about the lawsuits like yours today.


GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): I would be astonished if a law like this was not challenged in court. We've seen it happen whenever laws like this are passed. The first thing the democrats do is they run to the courthouse and try to challenge it. I feel extremely confident that when this law makes it through the litigation phase, it will be upheld in a court of law.


LEMON (ON CAMERA): Do you think you have a real shot in court?

LONGORIA: I think the courts are there to be a check and balance on legislators and legislative bodies, right, that are running amok, contrary to what the public and citizens want. And so the law and the judicial section, right, lawsuits, are that checks and balance.

I think if you're writing laws, as the governor might have hinted with the intent that they are going to be going to courts, it may not be about policy. It has got to be about something else. So, we wouldn't be challenging it. We wouldn't have five suits. I wouldn't be joining a suit if we didn't think that we had a credible shot at winning.

LEMON: Thank you very much, Isabel Longoria. I appreciate your time. Thanks.

So, the U.S. now is hitting more than 40 million total COVID cases. Experts warn we could be seeing another surge as we go into winter.




LEMON: There is no way to sugarcoat this. The COVID-19 pandemic is getting worse. The U.S. is now surpassing 40 million total cases since the outbreak of the pandemic more than a year and a half ago. The children now are counting for more than one-quarter of new weekly COVID cases nationwide.

And tonight, sources are telling CNN that President Biden is going to give a major speech on Thursday on this administration's plans to battle the pandemic going forward.

Dr. Peter Hotez is here, co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. Thank you, sir, for joining us. So, schools and universities are reopening. Stadiums were packed with fans over the weekend. Hospitals are overwhelmed and running out of ICU beds.

Meanwhile, the daily COVID case average is three times higher than it was this time last year. And the ways to control the pandemic have become politicized. Are we going to see a spike in cases after this Labor Day weekend?

PETER HOTEZ, CO-DIRECTOR OF THE TEXAS CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL CENTER FOR VACCINE DEVELOPMENT, FOUNDING DEAN FOR THE NATIONAL SCHOOL OF TROPICAL MEDICINE AT BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE, AUTHOR: Well, we are going to certainly continue to see this firestorm progress. What we are seeing now is, Don, you know, we've had a terrible summer here in the southern United States and more than a thousand people have been dying daily.

Now, what is happening is the case numbers are starting to slowly go down in the south with a pretty long tail. But now, it is moving. It is going up into West Virginia, into Ohio and Pennsylvania. It is spreading laterally into South Carolina, west where I am here in Texas. And we are seeing a second (INAUDIBLE) developed after the Sturgis rally up in the west.

So, I think what we are going to start to see is confluence between those two big areas. And pretty soon, except for the northeast and maybe some parts of Michigan and Minnesota and the West Coast, I think we are going to see that the numbers continue to climb and it is going to look a little bit like England where it went out, started going down a little bit, but then started going up again.

LEMON: You mentioned that part of the country. You have had so many storms. People are now in confined spaces and unable to be in their homes. We will see what happens after the numbers start to come out. It doesn't help when we see our own elected members of Congress promoting anti-science messaging and targeting scientists like Dr. Fauci for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.


LEMON: You called out Rep. Jim Jordan for tweet, calling vaccine mandates un-American. What is most dangerous about that type of rhetoric?

HOTEZ: Well, you know, this is on top of several other members of Congress coming from the conservative right consistently trying to discredit vaccines. This was -- the pinnacle of this was at the CPAC conference where vaccines, we were told, were political instruments of control, they are using them to take our guns away and our bibles away. Unfortunately, people believe that.

Here's the evidence, Don. Since April, May, 100,000 Americans have lost their lives, 100,000 unvaccinated Americans, despite the fact that safe and effective vaccines were available. These are 100,000 unnecessary deaths, people who believe the disinformation coming from the political right.

So this is absolutely devastating and it is unconscionable for members of the United States Congress, House of Representatives, and senators making these anti-vaccine statements as people are losing their lives on a daily basis, 1,500 deaths a day now.

LEMON: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children now represent more than a quarter of the weekly U.S. COVID cases. Meanwhile, kids under 12 still are not vaccinated. They are unable to be vaccinated. How can we keep kids safe?

HOTEZ: Well, one of the ways you do that is you vaccinate anyone who is eligible to be vaccinated. So what we are not seeing, we are not seeing a lot of pediatric hospitalizations northeast. Why? Because all of the adults and most of the adolescents are vaccinated and kids are often getting their infection from their unvaccinated parents or unvaccinated adolescents and adults they interact with.

So that's problem. Down here in the south, we are looking at maybe 25 percent of the adolescents vaccinated, much better for young adults. What you're seeing are unprecedented numbers of pediatric hospitalizations. The Centers for Disease Control just reported last Friday that there has been a five-fold increase in pediatric hospitalizations over the last month or so.

This is going to continue now that schools are opening. This is why I don't think the surge is going to end because, unfortunately, the kids are going to get disproportionately infected and get hospitalized and get COVID. So, once again, this is all self-inflicted wound coming from people who are pushing the anti-vaccine disinformation.

LEMON: We appreciate you joining us, Dr. Hotez. Thank you very much. We will see you soon. Let us hope next time, it is better news.

HOTEZ: Thank you, Don.

LEMON: Chaos at school board meetings on everything from mask mandates to critical race theory, some of it even leading to violence. What is behind the anger? You might be surprised, next.




LEMON (on camera): As I've been reporting the last few weeks, the battle over mask mandates turning school board meetings around the country into screaming matches. But in parts of Florida, opponents of mask mandates admit they're using the hot button issue as a way to attack the public school system and make fundamental social changes.

Here is CNNs' Evan McMorris-Santoro.


BRENDON LESLIE, FOUNDER OF "FLORIDA'S CONSERVATIVE VOICE": This board is only focused on forced mask mandates, raising our taxes, and making our kids believe they can change their gender at any given moment, or maybe encouraging them into thinking they can identify us as evil.

EVAN MCMORRIS-SANTORO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When angry speakers raised hell at school board meetings in Florida, like this one in Lee Country, it is becoming clear that for many, this goes way beyond masks.

BETSY VAUGHN, VICE CHAIR OF LEE COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD: Let us get kids out of these government-bribed schools. These tyrants got to go!

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Betsy Vaughn is a Lee County school board member. She says masks are being used as part of an all-out attack on public schools.

VAUGHN: I would say there are some that really believe and there are some parents that it has been legitimate concern. There are others that are just jumping on a bandwagon because they see it as an opportunity for bring in -- this is my personal opinion -- bringing in more people for their agenda.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Vaughn is right.

SPENCER ROACH, MEMBER, FLORIDA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Yeah, my constituents are pissed. I mean we are seeing 500,000 people attending school board meetings now that really could have drawn about 20 to 30 people prior to COVID.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Republican State Representative Spencer Roach is thrilled that mask mandates are bringing new people in to the crusade against public education.

ROACH: I never used the world public school. I use the term government school because that is what these are. It should be looked at in the same context as government housing or government health care. So I think this anger really --

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): What does that mean? You mean like there shouldn't be government schools or what do you say?

ROACH: I think as a parent, you should do everything possible to avoid having your child in a government school.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Roach doesn't support mask mandates, but what he is really after is control over classrooms.

ROACH: Whether you're talking about critical race theory, whether you're talking about sex education, whether you're talking about school choice, mask mandates, bathroom policies, transgender support policy, the crux of the debate is who is best positioned to make decisions for your child, a parent or the government?

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Roach is pushing a constitutional amendment in Florida that would force school board candidates to run under partisan affiliation. He says that board members like Vaughn do not represent the ideology of conservative Lee County.


MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Vaughn is a registered Democrat, but she says critics are misrepresenting what her school board's agenda is on masks and critical race theory.

VAUGHN: It is not theory that we would be teaching, you know, maybe in some advanced class perhaps, but it is not the kind of thing that we would normally teach in school.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Florida Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, say school boards have a dangerous influence. They tie masking to debates over things like race.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): We are also not going to support any Republican candidate for school board who supports critical race theory in all 67 counties or who supports mandatory masking of school children.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Roach says the momentum from the masking fight could put fundamental changes to Florida schools within reach.

(On camera): When we are hearing from school members that they are worried people are coming in to try to really dismantle the public school system, they're not wrong. You do want to do that.

ROACH: They are not wrong. I will tell you this. The government school system right now is a monopoly.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): That kind of language is what Vaughn means when she says there is a hidden agenda in the mask debate.

VAUGHN: It angers me. It appals me. It saddens me.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (on camera): Does it scare you?

VAUGHN: Yes. I taught English, I've taught literature. One of my favorite books to teach to my seniors was Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty- Four." I see some Orwellian aspects in what is happening.

MCMORRIS-SANTORO (voice-over): Evan McMorris-Santoro, CNN, New York.


LEMON (on camera): Tennessee is one of the states where the mask corps are the most heated. Remember this as a father confronted in the parking lot after advocating for masks at a school board meeting. Now, his son has COVID. He joins me next.




LEMON: Tonight, a federal judge is denying a request for a temporary restraining order, seeking to block the Tennessee governor's rule that requires schools to allow parents to and opt-out alternative on mask mandates.

Masks are becoming an explosive issue in Tennessee. You recall one Tennessee father who spoke out in favor of kids wearing masks. He was verbally threatened by angry people opposed to it as he tried to drive away from a school board meeting last month. His name is Michael Miller and he is back with me tonight.

Thank you, Michael. I wish we were talking again under better circumstances. You and I spoke after that meeting about how terrifying that was. Now, you are back and despite your sixth-grade son wearing a mask, he is tested positive for COVID. How do you think this happened and how is he doing?

MICHAEL MILLER, WILLIAMSON COUNTY PARENT: Thank you. First of all, my son is doing okay. He is -- we are very fortunate. His symptoms have been mild compared to those of some of his classmates have endured. He is in a school where -- is in the middle school, 6th, 7th and 8th graders. And in his class, his 6th-grade class of about 300 students, roughly 20 percent have tested positive in the last two weeks.

So the viral load in the air must be excessively high is what we guess. He takes his mask off to eat lunch. He is careful when he does that. It is maybe in the band room when he is playing his instrument. That is it. So, even with a great KF94 mask, when you're in an environment like that, there is not much you can do probably.

LEMON: Yeah. In the school, is there an opt-out?

MILLER: Of course, there is. There are actually two levels of opt- outs. Williamson County, when the mask mandate was enacted for grades K through 5 back in August 10th, they passed -- they honor the system they used last year which is a medical and or religious exemption. As of August 16th, Governor Lee here in Tennessee passed executive order 84, which mandates any school with a mask mandate must have an opt-out cause.

LEMON: Mm-hmm.

MILLER: And to quote the superintendent of my school, it is I don't want to opt-out, which is honestly as a parent one of the most appalling things I've ever heard.

LEMON: It's I don't want my kid to wear a mask and that's the opt- out.

MILLER: That's the opt-out, I don't want to.

LEMON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, you told us that one of your son's classmates ended up in the hospital for five days with COVID, pneumonia. Now, we can't confirm definitively where your son or his classmate was exposed. You are worried that it is going to spread to even more kids?

LEMON: Oh, absolutely. And it is. It is spreading into the elementary schools. And what happens is it starts -- when the mandate was passed for K through 5, the middle and high school were left unprotected. And it gradually kind of rocketed right through the high schools. It's what you'd expect for those who are unvaccinated into the middle schools.

We are starting to see that spread continue into the elementary school. The numbers have started to tick up. And what we have also seen is that the numbers of exemptions have grown over the last several weeks as well. The school district publishes both case counts as well as exemption counts by school.

LEMON: So, is anyone having a change of heart after all of these kids are testing positive? As you say, one of them ended up with pneumonia in the hospital. Are parents now saying, hey, maybe we should get our kids to wear masks to protect not only them but others?


MILLER: That's a good question, Don. On August 26th, they had another emergency school board meeting here. And in that meeting, they actually extended the mask mandate to go from grades K through 12, fortunately now again with all the exemptions still in place.

The -- what my son indicated to me in 6th grade was that he saw the rate go from about 35 percent of his classmates to over 70 percent, 70 to 75 percent. So a marked difference overnight with just a mask mandate.

And one of the big drivers of that, in talking with a lot of parents, what we learned was there are a lot of kids out there who would wear masks. Their families tell them to wear masks. They get sent to school with a mask. They don't dare put it on because they don't to be teased. They don't want to take the risk of being teased. Not that anybody is openly teasing them, but they are just not going to take the risk because their friends are not wearing masks, so they are not doing it.

LEMON: Because their parents have told them that they don't have to wear mask and they shouldn't.

MILLER: Yeah, there are parents who have been very clear about to not wear a mask. Now, the principal at the middle school has done everything in his power. He has done an amazing job. They have bowls of masks literally in the inside of the atrium there as the kids go in. If a kid forgets a mask or maybe there is a pressure at home to not wear a mask, the child is free to take a mask and put one on.

LEMON: Yeah.

MILLER: So it is widely encouraged. All the teachers are wearing masks now, which was something that initially was not happening.

LEMON: Well, we wish everybody the best, especially your son, and really all the students there and the teachers. Be safe. This is craziness. Are you gonna -- I got to run. Are you going to keep your kid in school or are you going to take him out?

MILLER: I'm going to keep him in. I really have no choice here.

LEMON: Yeah.

MILLER: There is no way to go online at this point. The government has banned that. There is no switch.

LEMON: Wow. Thank you, Michael. Be well. Best of luck to you. Thanks.

MILLER: Thank you.

LEMON: Thanks for watching, everyone. Our coverage continues.