On campaign trail, Democrats confront Jacksonville shooting, Republicans avoid site

Toshiba Sharon, an announcer for the video game tournament from Philadelphia, talks to members of the media Monday about what he saw during Sunday’s mass shooting across the street from the Jacksonville Landing in downtown Jacksonville.
Toshiba Sharon, an announcer for the video game tournament from Philadelphia, talks to members of the media Monday about what he saw during Sunday’s mass shooting across the street from the Jacksonville Landing in downtown Jacksonville. The Florida Times-Union

Candidates for Florida governor scrambled on Monday to alter election eve campaign schedules after yet another mass shooting in the state, this time at a video game tournament on Sunday in Jacksonville.

While Republicans steered their campaigns away from the shooting and the issue of gun violence, Democrats seized on it. In some cases, they added events in Jacksonville to emphasize the tragedy.

In canceling their campaign events in Jacksonville, GOP candidates Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis cited sensitivity to the victims and wanting to avoid interfering with ongoing law enforcement efforts. They instead stumped in other parts of Florida.

DeSantis started his day in Palm Harbor, where he briefly spoke to supporters about the shooting before diving into campaign material.

Two people were killed and nine more were injured in the shooting. Reports indicate that the shooter, who killed himself, was angry after losing a video game.

“At the end of the day something is wrong in society if you’re going to let some video cause you to do something like that,” said DeSantis, a U.S. representative from Palm Coast. “So we’ve got a lot of work to do on a variety of things.”

He later declined to elaborate on what he would do as governor to address this kind of gun violence, the fourth high-profile deadly mass shooting in Florida since 2016.

While Putnam didn’t campaign in Jacksonville, he visited as commissioner of agriculture, along with Attorney General Pam Bondi.

At a morning campaign stop in Tampa, Putnam said mental health problems were the common thread linking these shooters. The Associated Press reported Monday afternoon that the shooter in Jacksonville, 24-year-old David Katz of Baltimore, was twice hospitalized for mental health illness as a teenager.

“We’ve got to tear down the silos that prevent law enforcement from knowing what school districts know from knowing what social services know,” Putnam said.

Sunday’s shooting came two days after one teen was killed and two others were injured in shooting reported to be gang-related on Friday after a Jacksonville high school football game. Neither Republican candidate addressed that shooting during their Tampa Bay area campaign visits.

By comparison, the five Democrats were eager to address the shooting and the larger issue of gun violence.

Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene all had previously scheduled events in Jacksonville that they kept.

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham, right, hugs Florida Rep. Tracie Davis before meeting community leaders about gun violence Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, at a restaurant near the scene of a Sunday mass shooting at The Jacksonville Landing. John Raoux AP

Graham added a “community conversation about gun violence” at a restaurant Monday morning. In a statement, she criticized Putnam and DeSantis for canceling their events.

“Leaders go to help communities in need,” the statement read. “Governors go to cities to help them heal from tragedies. Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis are avoiding Jacksonville because they are scared to answer questions on gun violence. They are beholden to the (National Rifle Association).”

Levine previously planned to meet with students at Jacksonville University and added a news conference on the shooting in the afternoon. Christian Ulvert, senior advisor to Levine’s campaign, said in a statement that Levine “felt it was important to engage with the community on the crucial conversation that must be had to take on gun violence in our state.”

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine talks to members of the media Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, near the scene of a mass shooting at The Jacksonville Landing. John Raoux AP

Longshot candidate Chris King ditched his scheduled events in Central Florida to hold a press conference with several student activists from the March For Our Lives campaign (started by the survivors of the shooting in Parkland) and parents who have lost children to gun violence.

“We need to honor victims by speaking about what more we can do (to prevent future tragedies),” King said in a phone interview with the Times/Herald.

Only Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, an outspoken critic of Florida’s gun laws, didn’t show up in Jacksonville on Monday. He moved ahead with plans to campaign in Gainesville and at Florida A&M University. Liberal commentator Angela Rye spoke at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville in his place.

DeSantis said that Democrats were jumping in with solutions before authorities even knew what happened.

“The Democrats within minutes of this (were) saying we need to do all this stuff politically when they didn’t even know what’s going on,” DeSantis said.

The back and forth is likely to continue after Tuesday’s primary, regardless of the winners. Both Republican candidates for governor have criticized new gun laws, passed after the Parkland shooting, that require a three-day waiting period to purchase firearms and raised the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates have said the measures didn’t go nearly far enough to prevent future gun violence.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com and Emily L. Mahoney at emahoney@tampabay.com.