Florida Democrats put on a debate fit for a wrestling ring

Democratic candidates for governor of Florida, clockwise from upper left: Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King.  Not shown: Jeff Greene.
Democratic candidates for governor of Florida, clockwise from upper left: Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King. Not shown: Jeff Greene.

Getting hammered left and right by his opponents, Philip Levine raised his arms by his sides and played the role of the wrestling heel.

"Boy, it's sure fun to be the frontrunner," he said, as boos rained down.

It was a testy affair Saturday night as four of the five Democrats running for Florida governor battled in a Pinellas County high school auditorium during a live televised debate. Levine, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former congresswoman Gwen Graham and affordable housing investor Chris King sparred for an hour, with real estate tycoon Jeff Greene perhaps glad that he sat this one out.

For-profit charter schools, the National Rifle Association and Donald Trump played the villains for much of the night. But the moderators forced the candidates to answer questions about an FBI investigation in Tallahassee, a cash contribution to a Republican Senator, and a vote for increased restrictions on Syrian refugees entering the country.

And with the Aug. 28 primary inching closer, the candidates attacked each other, too, over their voting records and character.

Levine — who's ahead in the polls — may have gotten the worst of it.

Asked to defend his Democratic bona fides after once considering a run as an independent and giving $2,400 to the 2010 U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Marco Rubio, Levine said he's probably given $1 million all told to other Democrats and evoked his record as mayor.

"I raised the minimum living wage in the city of Miami Beach. I plan to do it statewide. We actually decriminalized marijuana," he said. "We became the leading poster child on sea-level rise and climate change and we banned assault rifles. So the question is, am I a Democrat? I’m a Democrat. I’m proud to be a Democrat."

But his opponents pounced.

"Marco Rubio is anti-immigrant. He is anti DREAM Act. He is anti-healthcare," said Gillum.

King added that "if you disagreed with Mayor Levine in Miami Beach, life was not very good to you ... He attacked journalists when he didn't like what they wrote. Silencing scientists when he didn't like their findings. Belittling public constituents in public."

Gillum noted that Levine didn't actually ban assault rifles, which under state law could have gotten him removed from office. Rather, Miami Beach passed a resolution calling for their ban. He added that while Levine did pass a law raising the minimum wage in the city when he was mayor, no one has benefited from it because Florida law preempts local government on wages and the city was immediately sued.

Levine brushed the barbs aside.

"I take it as a compliment," he said — which is easier to do when you have a double-digit lead in the polls.

Graham, Levine's leading competitor, was also ripped over her vote as a U.S. Representative in favor of the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, which had it passed would have required three agency heads to sign off on security clearance to allow Syrian refugees into the country. And Gillum, echoing a political committee's television commercial that's been blasting Graham on TV, said she voted against Barack Obama 52 percent of the time.

Graham sought to parlay the fight among the three men on stage into an above-the-fray image, evoking Michelle Obama's "when they go low, we go high" quote from 2016. But even she got into the mix, asking Gillum to explain his repeated votes in favor of a coal-powered plant in North Florida 13 years ago.

"I voted ultimately against that power plant," Gillum responded. "That coal-fired plant never got built thanks to me and my colleagues who ultimately opposed it."

"Since my record has been discussed so much I just would have appreciated if Mayor Gillum had actually answered the question," Graham fired back.

Gillum did answer a moderator's question about whether a vacation he and his wife took to Costa Rica two years ago with two lobbyist friends, one of whom has been subpoenaed by the FBI as part of a long-running probe into Tallahassee government, was too much baggage to get elected governor.

"I have a zero tolerance for corruption," he said. "I realize there are some people who'd like to criminalize every relationship that I've had. But what I've said is to judge me by my actions."

King, a Winter Park businessman who's never held an elected position, didn't have a record to defend Saturday night.

"I find it interesting that people talk about things they've never done and promise things in the future," Levine said in a swipe.

But King alluded to the problems everyone's baggage could pose during the general election against the Republican candidates for governor.

"These are things Adam Putnam or Ron DeSantis are going to be talking about," he said. "They're not going to be playing softball with the Democrats."