Sequels rarely live up to the original. But in their second and final meeting before the Nov. 6 election for Florida governor, Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum delivered a bare-knuckle brawl of a debate so heated that a racial slur was spelled out letter by letter on live television.
DeSantis, a Trump-endorsed former congressman, painted his opponent as a corrupt on-the-take politician. Gillum, the unapologetically liberal mayor of Tallahassee, cast DeSantis as a vapid extremist who encourages racism.
Cool was lost. The moderator was not spared any venom. And in between daggers and accusations, when policy was actually discussed, two candidates firmly on the opposite ends of the political spectrum left little for the voters in the middle to chew on.
The night began on an explosive note. Moderator Todd McDermott of WPBF in West Palm Beach skipped introductory statements and immediately asked the candidates whether politics has crossed the line from divisive to reckless after someone sent pipe bombs and suspicious packages overnight to the Clintons, Barack Obama and offices of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was in attendance Wednesday night at Broward College’s Davie campus.
“I was at the congressional baseball practice when a gunman tried to shoot my teammates, did shoot [U.S. Rep.] Steve Scalise because he didn’t like Republicans. So, I know firsthand that when we start going down that road, that can be very, very deadly,” DeSantis said, evoking a shooting at a baseball field last year in Virginia.
But the 40-year-old Navy vet had barely just called for civility when he began ripping Gillum for supporting a Miami-based social justice group that as part of its platform states that police have no place in society. Gillum fired back, calling DeSantis a liar and evoking a series of racist robocalls by an out-of-state extremist website that went out to voters shortly after the August primary election and again this week.
“My opponent as soon as he won the Republican nomination for governor went on Fox News and said to voters here in the state of Florida not to monkey this state up by electing me,” Gillum said. “It was followed up that same week by neo-Nazis making calls into the state of Florida to attack my character, jungle music in the background, and the calls of monkeys being heard.”
That set the tone for the rest of an evening that one GOP donor and Florida native compared to a professional wrestling match.
“I’ve watched debates for almost 40 years in Florida. This is not a debate. It’s an old fashioned WWF cage match. Dusty Rhodes style.”
Gillum, 39, was forced to answer questions about a long-running FBI investigation into the dealings of a Tallahassee redevelopment agency and DeSantis was forced to defend his decision to speak at a conference led by a man who believes African-Americans should thank white people for freeing slaves. Any fondness for each other seemed reserved solely for the opening handshake and closing fist bump.
Gillum, pressed on text messages and emails released Tuesday showing that he accepted passes in 2016 to a Broadway showing of “Hamilton” that were paid for by undercover FBI agents, stuck by his story that he believed his ticket had been acquired by his younger brother in a swap with a friend for a Jay Z and Beyonce concert ticket. Gillum reiterated that he’s been told he’s not the subject of the FBI’s probe. But his explanation of his trip to New York with Tallahassee lobbyist and former campaign treasurer Adam Corey continued to evolve, going from declarations of “vindication” Tuesday to remorse Wednesday night for having not checked his brother’s story more carefully.
“He wouldn’t accept responsibility for getting a $1,000 ticket from an undercover FBI agent at the last debate,” DeSantis said. “We now know that he lied about that. At some point you got to demonstrate leadership and accept responsibility for what you’ve done.”
But Gillum said there were more important things to talk about, shifting to a half-hearted plea for a more policy-oriented discussion with a one-liner reference to the Jay Z song “99 problems.”
“I’m running for governor. In the state of Florida, we got a lot of issues. We got 99 issues, and ‘Hamilton’ ain’t one of them,” he said. “I get that this is what my opponent wants to discuss, but what happened to the $145,000 in receipts of public taxpayers money that he has yet to reveal?”
For Democrats watching the debate — which unlike Sunday’s nationally broadcast CNN event was aired around the state on local TV stations — Gillum seemed to do enough to address the issue, even though questions still remain about apparent discrepancies between his story and communications with Corey. Even some DeSantis supporters acknowledged that the mayor seemed comfortable, folksy even as he dropped southern colloquialisms as if “some good ol’ boy gave him a list of winning one liners.”
Pivoting away from a controversy that’s dogged his campaign for more than a year, Gillum said he’d released his receipts from his travel to New York and Costa Rica that had come under the scrutiny of the Florida Commission on Ethics, and ripped DeSantis for refusing to release receipts to the Naples Daily News related to $145,000 in travel through his congressional office. Throughout the night, he jabbed DeSantis for taking money from the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who’s ardently in favor of for-profit charter schools — for voting for legislation that would have repealed Obamacare and stripped protections for people with pre-existing conditions and for “drilling a deep hole in the national debt” by voting last year for the Trump tax bill.
DeSantis was ready, saying about his travel that “I receive my money legally.” As he’s done for months, he blasted Gillum for proposing to raise $1 billion by raising the corporate tax rate 40 percent, for running a city with a high crime rate, and for wanting to abolish U.S. Customs and Immigrations Enforcement, which he claimed would allow child molesters to roam the street.
“Say you’re convicted of child molestation. You’re here illegally. You served your sentence. State prison. Are you going to hand them over to ICE or not?” he said. “He will not commit to doing that. That means that child molester convicted gets released back on the streets after serving the sentence. And guess what? That child molester will re-offend, and someone’s son or daughter in Florida will end up paying the price.”
“Shame on you,” Gillum later retorted.
For the most part, the candidates were stoic despite the nastiest of rhetoric. But for DeSantis, it wasn’t Gillum who made him lose his temper, it was McDermott, who tried to ask him a question about an appearance at a David Horowitz Freedom Center conference. McDermott prefaced his questions with statements made by DeSantis about how he admired the organization, but before he could get to his question, DeSantis lit into him.
“How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement somebody makes?” DeSantis said, drawing boos from a crowd in the most Democratic county in the state. “Here’s the deal. Let me just say this straight up. I’ve lived my life whether it’s athletics, military serving as a prosecutor. When I was down-range in Iraq we worked as a team regardless of race.”
By then, people were cheering.
“I am not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness. I am not going to let the media smear me like they like to do with so many people. I”m certainly not going to take anything from Andrew Gillum, who’s endorsed by the Dream Defenders, who say Israel is an apartheid state.”
Gillum then dropped this line: “My grandmother used to say a hit dog will holler. He has neo-Nazis helping him out in this state. He has spoken at racist conferences. He has accepted a contribution and would not return it from someone who referred to the former president of the United States as a Muslim n-i-g-g-e-r,” he spelled out.
“Now I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
It was that kind of night, although surprises weren’t limited to allegations and eruptions.
DeSantis, who’d been criticized for not having a healthcare platform, revealed during the debate that he’d rolled out his policy positions on his website at some point during the evening. He reserved the news for when Gillum sought to attack him for having no plan, just as he waited until the middle of Sunday night’s debate to reveal that he’d released his tax returns after Gillum released his Friday.
DeSantis also positioned himself as the candidate of a purring economy, hammering Gillum’s plans to raise corporate taxes and jumping on Gillum when the mayor criticized Republicans for passing Trump’s tax bill.
“Andrew is complaining about the economy! Our unemployment is like 3.7 percent,” he said. When Gillum blasted Florida’s for-profit charter school industry, he retorted that “anyone and anything for-profit you would get rid of.”
Gillum, who was also pressed by moderators about his economic polices and his friendship with a Big Sugar lobbyist, continued to tout his plan to raise teachers’ salaries, raise the minimum wage to $15 and expand Medicaid. “Mr. DeSantis’ donors may be doing fine, they’ve got their yachts and their boats. But for the rest of the working people in this state they simply want a wage they can live on.”
Ironically, one of the only things the candidates agree on is that neither would have supported the nationally hailed gun-safety bill that passed this year in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. DeSantis has said the legislation was likely unconstitutional, and Gillum said he would have pushed for a stronger bill.
But regardless of whether that’s true, chances are fewer people are likely to remember Wednesday’s debate for the candidates’ positions than for their attacks — which were so numerous McDermott didn’t even come close to getting through his list of questions.
“Gentlemen, I want to offer my personal thank you for being part of this,” McDermott said, finishing the night. “I have 15 more questions if you’d like to hang around. We could do another three hours.”