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Race, character take center stage during Florida governor’s race debate

November 3, 2018 33 1 No Comments

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The final debate in the race for Florida governor was held last week, amid jeers, boos, and extended applause from a crowd that reflected well the intensity dominating the closely-watched contest. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, squared off against three-time Republican congressman Ron DeSantis, who has faced a firestorm of criticism in the national media for his associations with the far-right and accusations of racism. Gillum, too, has faced scrutiny under the national spotlight as charges of corruption have been dragged to the surface. Wednesday’s debate, however, saw a flurry of personal attacks on both sides, gripped by the same partisan fury that has defined congressional and gubernatorial races across the country in the final weeks of the midterm elections.

The debate opened with a question to DeSantis about the pipe bombs sent to over a dozen prominent Democrats and critics of the president over the course of the past week, attacks which Trump has said are being used by the media to detract from Republican momentum before the elections. “I condemn that, I condemn what happened today, obviously we need to get the facts before jumping to conclusions,” said DeSantis, after pointing out that he was at the congressional baseball game where a gunman opened fire on conservative lawmakers. Gillum, for his part, called the attacks the “collapsing of our political discourse.”

Mr. Gillum was quickly put on the defensive with questions surrounding his acceptance of gifts as mayor, including tickets to the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” from a lobbyist and from undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen. The agents were involved in a three-year investigation of Tallahassee’s community redevelopment agency, one which is ongoing and has yet to yield any results. Gillum insisted that he was not the subject of that investigation, and that he accepted the offer for tickets without realizing that they had already been paid for. “I should have asked more questions to make sure that everything that had transpired was above,” he said in the debate.

While DeSantis lingered on the question of Gillum’s ethics, Gillum quickly turned the table when he accused the former congressman of spending 145,000 dollars of taxpayer money during trips to New York. “I get that this is what my opponent wants to discuss, but what happened to the 145,000 dollars in receipts of public taxpayers’ money that he has yet to reveal?” said Gillum, who accused the former congressman of wasting money to “go to New York and hang out with ‘Faux News and Friends.’”

But the highlight of the night was undoubtedly an exchange over the accusations of racism being levelled at DeSantis. The moderator, Todd McDermott, questioned DeSantis about his speaking at far-right conferences hosted by David Horowitz, and about his public refusal to return campaign donations from his long-time donor Steven Alembik, who called former president Barack Obama a “Muslim [n-word]” on Twitter in September. In addition to donating to DeSantis’ campaign, Alembik also organized a speaking gig for DeSantis at a pro-Israel event at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in February. “I’m not responsible for it, reject it,” he told reporters at the time, defending his decision not to return the money. He towed the same line on Wednesday night.

“I am not gonna bow down to the altar of political correctness, I am gonna not let the media smear me like they like to do with so many people,” he said, calling Alembik’s remarks a “mistake” and asking “how the hell am I supposed to know every single statement somebody makes?” At one point, as McDermott listed various racist and inflammatory statements made by Horowitz about Muslims and African Americans, DeSantis reacted angrily and accused the moderator of “playing the McCarthyite game.” Gillum took the opportunity to turn on DeSantis for the race-based controversies that have plagued his campaign from the outset.

“My grandmother used to say, ‘A hit dog will holler,’ and it hollered through this room,” he said to frenzied applause from the audience.

“The congressman let us know exactly where he was going to take this race the day after he won the nomination. The monkey it up comment said it all,” he said, referring to DeSantis’ remark that Gillum was “monkeying up” the race with “socialist” policies. “And he has only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin.”

“Now I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist, I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist,” said Gillum, referring to a racist calling campaign done on DeSantis’ behalf by a white nationalist group in Florida. DeSantis has disavowed the group’s support, but the association has joined the plethora of accusations against him that have weighed down his support and made him an object of ire in the national press.

Certain things about the Florida race distinguish it from the usual breakdown of issues into political platforms at the national level. One of those things is the all-too-apparent effects of pollution and climate change: rising water levels flood Everglade marshes and threaten to render dikes useless, and harmful algae blooms caused by corporate pollution create immediate health risks and problems for local economies. As a result, both candidates have been at pains to present themselves as environmentally-conscious lawmakers, making a crackdown on pollution the policy point that most distinguishes DeSantis’ politics from those of President Trump. The issue is trouble for Gillum: the sugar industry, widely seen as the serial culprit in all of this, has one of its top lobbyists in an advisory position in Gillum’s office in Tallahassee. DeSantis, on the other hand, called himself “the only candidate who fought Big Sugar and lived to tell about it.”

The fallout from the debate was swift. A reporter asked DeSantis on Saturday why he referred to Gillum as “Andrew” instead of as “Mayor Gillum,” a perceived insult that Gillum himself has reportedly taken issue with. “He called me a dog on stage, did you watch that?” DeSantis responded, launching into a list of Trumpian adjectives he could use to refer to his opponent, like “Crooked Mayor Gillum,” “Failed Mayor Gillum,” and “Radical Mayor Gillum.”

The race itself is rated as a “toss-up” by The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes national and gubernatorial elections. Gillum has led consistently in the polls – albeit by a generally small margin – but reports suggest that Democrats are lagging in early voting. The question now is whether an energized Republican base will emerge to upset the Democrats’ consistent momentum throughout the race.

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