The paid advertisement in the Miami-Dade Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner pamphlet was minimalist and vague. But everyone knew what it meant.
On a blank, white page, a small American flag and the U.S. Marines motto “Semper fi” were printed at the bottom right corner. And in the middle, three large words were written in black.
"I'll be back."
Frank Artiles, a U.S. Marine Corps. veteran who infamously resigned from the Florida Senate last year following a racial and profanity-filled diatribe involving other lawmakers, appears to be gearing up for a campaign to reclaim his seat. Artiles told the Miami Herald in January that he was considering a comeback, and signs suggest that he intends to do just that.
On April 5, Artiles' campaign account — which he opened immediately after his election to the Senate in November 2016 and never closed — paid $3,500 for political consulting. Two weeks later, someone placed the mysterious ad in the Republican party's Lincoln Day Dinner brochure.
And on Thursday, an umbrella group of black clergy began mass texting links to a political committee's website attacking Annette Taddeo, the Democrat who won Artiles' seat in a September special election.
The amateurish website is dedicated to comments that, according to a blogger, Taddeo made about the African American community back in 2014 when she was on the Democratic ticket for governor with Charlie Crist. Jason Henry, a former state House candidate, said a frustrated Taddeo remarked following a tense town hall in west Orlando that African Americans “bitched and complained with Obama, so why should we expect anything different?”
Taddeo says the quote is fabricated.
Artiles said in a text message Thursday night that he "had nothing to do with" the website. He did not address questions about whether he'd made up his mind to run, but Taddeo believes he's involved in the attack.
"It's simply disgusting and outright outrageous for the PAC, likely linked to Frank Artiles, to spread complete lies and stoke fear in the community," said Christian Ulvert, a political consultant working for Taddeo's reelection campaign. "It's ironic given Mr. Artiles' divisive insults he waged against the African-American community, including members of the Senate last year, leading to members of his own party calling on him to resign."
In a campaign email Thursday night, Taddeo blasted the website as "reminiscent of the dog whistles and race-baiting that have pitted minority populations against one another for years." She included a picture of herself with a group of black pastors and defended the diversity of her campaign.
Artiles' ouster, which played out in dramatic fashion over a week in which the Legislature was in session in Tallahassee, followed allegations that he'd dropped a racial slur in reference to members of his party during a heated conversations with several black lawmakers at a Capitol bar.
Artiles publicly apologized for calling incoming Senate minority leader Audrey Gibson a "bitch" and referred to a group of Republican senators who elected Senate President Joe Negron as "niggas." But he resigned under pressure after the Democratic Black Caucus sought to have him expelled and the controversy threatened to consume Tallahassee.
Negron, though, won't be back next year. Bill Galvano, an Artiles friend, will take his place as Senate president. And if Artiles does run, it appears there will be a group of black clergy pressuring Taddeo on her own relationship with the African American community.
Though Taddeo denies making the remarks publicized at PlayedbyTaddeo.com, Miami pastor Gary Johnson says the South Florida Southern Christian Leadership Conference distributed links to the website because Taddeo has turned her back on the black community after seeking their support on her campaigns. He said the politically active organization of clergy is tired of being overlooked by both Democrats and Republicans, although the website focuses only on Taddeo.
"She needs to promptly apologize for the statements she made," said Johnson.
Johnson said the pastors involved in his organization agreed together to promote the website, which was created by Florida Independents for Good Government — a committee that in nearly two years of existence has never reported raising or spending a single penny. But he said he did not know the political committee behind the attack.
Zaray Cabrera, the chairman of the committee, did not respond to a request for comment. The website domain was registered on April 26, but the committee reported no donations or expenses last month.
Artiles won his seat by 10 points in 2016, but will need the support of party leadership to run a competitive state Senate campaign, which typically costs several million dollars in direct and indirect expenses. He is close with both Galvano and incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva, but would be running in a left-leaning district in an election that all evidence suggests will favor Democrats.
Artiles said he was unavailable for an interview Thursday night. But in text messages, he said Taddeo's claims that he is involved with the recent attacks are a continuation of unproven rumors that persisted for months after he was pushed out of office. Referencing a supernatural being from Slavic folklore, he said he's been unfairly blamed for a litany of scandals, including the exposure of tawdry information about disgraced former Senators Jeff Clemens and Jack Latvala, and an affair between Senators Anitere Flores and Oscar Braynon.
"I have been blamed for Clemens, Latvala, Flores and Braynon. When does it stop?" he asked. "Apparently, people are scared of the baba yaga."