When Democrats made Andrew Gillum the first black candidate ever to win a major party nomination to seek the office of Florida governor, they all but guaranteed that race would be a factor in the coming campaign.
But who knew it would become a national storyline in less than 24 hours?
Before the final vote could be certified from Tuesday’s primary elections, Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis thrust issues of race to the fore Wednesday morning when he said on Fox News that voters would “monkey this up” if they embraced Gillum’s “far-left” platform. The comment, coming in a state where confederate monuments still litter the landscape, was widely slammed — and opened up a rift that isn’t likely to close until after November.
“He is an articulate spokesman for those far-left views. And he’s a charismatic candidate,” DeSantis said of Gillum. “I watched those Democratic debates. None of that is my cup of tea but he performed better than the other people there so we’ve got to work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction. Let’s build off the success we’ve had with Gov. [Rick] Scott. The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”
Descriptions of black people as “articulate” have long been interpreted as a condescending reference to education in the black community, and the NAACP characterized the candidate’s “monkey this up” phrase as part of a history of “racist references to African Americans in our national folklore” as monkeys and apes.
“Its only equal in racial semantics [is] the “n-word,” the organization said, while calling on the Palm Coast congressman to apologize.
But DeSantis’ communications director, Stephen Lawson, says there was nothing racial about DeSantis’ interview. The comments were strictly about Gillum’s politics, he said, in contrast to DeSantis’ own conservative views on taxes and spending.
“Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd,” Lawson said.
If DeSantis was hoping to highlight his ideological differences with Gillum, he instead seemed to ensure that racial tensions would overshadow them. While Gillum’s progressive platform continued to receive attention (for better or worse), cable news networks spent much the day breaking down whether DeSantis had intended to offend with his words.
Gillum made the rounds on television addressing the issue. The Tallahassee mayor got his own time on Fox News, which released a statement stating that “we do not condone this language,” and announced Gillum’s appearance.
“It’s very clear that Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump,” Gillum said during his interview with the network, in which he said DeSantis’ comment was less dog “whistle” than “bullhorn.”
How exactly the controversy will play with Florida voters is harder to predict than the likelihood that it remains an issue into the general election.
More than a quarter of Florida’s registered Democratic and roughly 8 percent of independent voters are black, according to state voter data. So it’s possible that Gillum, who campaigned aggressively in black communities, will find his base even more energized now: a Tampa Bay Times analysis of voter turnout showed he performed extremely well in a tight primary race in the counties with Florida’s highest African-American populations.
But 83 percent of Florida’s registered Republicans are white, and the party’s voters have shown staunch support for President Donald Trump even as he’s faced constant fire over racially insensitive statements and allegations of discrimination. When Democrats attack Trump over his comments, “political correctness” is often the retort.
DeSantis, meanwhile, is closely aligned with the president, who started off Wednesday morning by calling Gillum a “failed socialist mayor.”
“That man is not racist at all, period,” State Rep. Byron Donalds, the only black Republican in the Florida Legislature, said of DeSantis in an interview. “We are going to have a very, very polarizing race for governor and the thing that nobody needs is to have a word taken out of context to make this race divisive. It was just a choice of words, there’s nothing to it. I’m saying that because I know the man. Everything in this race is going to be scrutinized down to the letter, forget the word, we just don’t need that in our state.”
Trump came to DeSantis’ defense when asked about his comments Wednesday. And Republican Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz tweeted out an article in which Gillum once referred to an FBI investigation around Tallahassee government as a “monkey on the commission’s back.”
But others in the Republican Party condemned DeSantis’ comments. Speaking on MSNBC, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, a black man, said that “monkey this up” isn’t a phrase in English vernacular, and said DeSantis was being pilloried because “that’s how white folks talk about black men who are successful.”
Meanwhile, Democrats went on the offensive.
The chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party quickly denounced DeSantis’ words as a “racist dog whistle.” News articles compared the comments to Republican Senator George Allen’s “macaca” moment, when he used a racial slur to reference an opponent’s field tracker in 2006.
And after seeing DeSantis’ Fox interview, Miami Gardens Sen. Oscar Braynon, the African-American Florida Senate minority leader, tweeted “Holy sh-t!!! On the first day???”
Braynon later told the Miami Herald that it wasn’t the comment, but the swiftness with which it came, that caught him off-guard.
“I thought he would at least ease it in by calling him unqualified or something,” Braynon said of DeSantis.
DeSantis’ camp continued to focus on ideology into Wednesday evening. After Gillum’s appearance on Fox News, during which he said he’d pay for some of his proposals by raising an extra $1 billion by hiking Florida’s corporate tax rate to just over 7 percent, DeSantis’ campaign said in capital letters that Gillum “PROPOSES RAISING TAXES BY A BILLION DOLLARS.”
But given all the attention to what DeSantis meant by “monkey this up,” it was hard to tell if anyone was paying attention.
McClatchy DC reporter William Douglas and Tampa Bay times reporter Langston Taylor contributed to this report.