A year from now, on the day of Florida’s 2018 primary elections for governor, the national political conversation might have long moved away from deadly protests earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But on Monday in West Palm Beach, no question animated the three Democratic candidates more than condemning white supremacists, as the state continues to debate how to handle its remaining Civil War monuments.
“How would you handle the issue of public-tax dollars being used to maintain Confederate memorials?” a student asked Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Tallahassee state Rep. Gwen Graham and Orlando-area businessman Chris King.
“Ooooooh,” murmured the crowd gathered for lunch from the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches.
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That the three Democrats would advocate for keeping the monuments out of public spaces was a foregone conclusion. King originally called for their removal on Aug. 15, three days after demonstrators clashed in Virginia. The next day, Gillum did the same, and Graham blasted Republican gubernatorial candidates for their “silence.”
But the candidates still showed more emotion talking about Charlottesville than they did on anything else. And each took a slightly different approach to the problem — which was noteworthy in a discussion where the rivals disagreed on little else.
King, a Winter Park affordable-housing developer who is white, said condemning the violence and pushing to put monuments in museums was not enough. He suggested Democrats try to address systemic discrimination — namely the restoration of felon rights, which disproportionately harms African Americans.
“It’s important that our leaders speak with moral clarity. That I speak with moral clarity on this,” King said, “and that we don’t just speak against white supremacism and racism and bigotry, but that we’re also champions for the community it’s directed against.”
Gillum, who is black, made the audience at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts’ Cohen Pavilion laugh even as he reminded them that a monument to honor slain Confederate soldiers sits outside the Florida Capitol.
“You could probably guess where I might be on this,” he said, before turning serious.
“That I drive nearly every day behind a truck that’s got a Confederate flag on my way into work, that I am greeted at courthouses and even, in this state, at the statehouse, by Confederate monuments. ... You tell yourself, certainly, as a person of color, that they’re not talking about you. And you don’t take time enough to internalize the messages that people are trying to send you with those symbols,” he said.
“I’m totally interested in the retaining of history, because it’s important that we don’t repeat it. But can we put these monuments in places where you can actually put them in context and not in celebrated, exalted parts of our society?”
Graham framed Charlottesville in family terms: “As a mom, it made me sick.”
But she also tried to move the debate away from the Confederate monuments, an issue that national public-opinion shows is more divisive than the outright rejection of white supremacist ideology — an area where the vast majority of Americans agree.
“Yes, let’s move the Confederate monuments to where they should appropriately be placed, but let’s talk about how we rise above what the president of the United States did in response to this tragedy,” she said, making the first reference to President Donald Trump, more than half an hour into the forum.
“Shame on Donald Trump for fueling hatred, for placing KKK Nazism and white supremacy on an even plane with those that were protecting and talking about their value systems, which are the right value systems for this country,” Graham continued. “So let’s not let this discussion end. Let’s continue to talk about how we bring love back, how we bring community back, how we bridge the divide that has been fueled by the president of this country.”