In working her way to the top of the polls in the Democratic primary for Florida governor, Gwen Graham has taken every opportunity to remind voters that she’s the only woman running in a five-person field.
On Thursday night, Democrats’ final debate before the Aug. 28 election certainly felt like — to use one of Graham’s favorite phrases — “Gwen and the men.”
With voters already casting absentee ballots, Graham’s opponents took the opportunity in an event broadcast around the state to attack her over her financial stake in the development of a massive mall being developed in northwest Miami-Dade and her support in Congress for the Keystone XL Pipeline. Graham, who at times struggled to respond to the barbs during the Palm Beach Gardens debate sponsored by the Florida Press Association and WPBF 25 News, tried to focus voters on her general election appeal as a former Panhandle congresswoman.
“I am different than the others here on the stage. I’m a mom, a former PTA president, public school official and I served Florida in Congress. And there’s something else that differentiates me,” Graham said. “I’m the only one on this stage who has beaten a Republican, and I beat a Republican in a Republican wave year in a Republican district.”
But with Graham — the daughter of former governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham — ahead in the polls, Andrew Gillum, Jeff Greene, Chris King and Philip Levine used some of their time to knock her around. King, an affordable-housing investor from Central Florida, took a shot at Graham’s environmental record by highlighting her multimillion-dollar investment in the Graham Companies and the family firm’s involvement in the American Dream mega-mall planned in northwest Miami-Dade “on the edge of the Everglades.”
“You can’t make this stuff up,” he said.
The Graham Companies isn’t building the mall, as Graham’s opponents asserted incorrectly Thursday night. But the company does own a critical piece of the property in developer Triple Five’s plans, has played a role in the project and is planning a development in the immediate vicinity.
“I’m so proud of my family’s public service here in the state of Florida,” Graham responded, pivoting to the steps she’s taken to avoid conflicts with her investment in her family’s company should she become governor. “I have removed myself from my family company and taken the steps to put everything in a family trust.”
Graham also defended her vote during her one term in Congress from 2014-16 for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline delivering oil from Canada to the U.S. Graham said she preferred to keep the oil in Alberta in the ground but voted in favor of the pipeline because “every member of the Canadian government” she spoke to explained that they were going to extract the oil one way or another, and the pipeline was the cleanest means of transport.
On the other hand, Graham declined to answer the debate’s moderator about whether she’d again welcome Bill Clinton to the campaign trail should she win the nomination, as she did when she ran for Congress in 2014. Clinton, due to past allegations of sexual misconduct, has become unwelcome in many campaigns during the #MeToo era.
Levine, asked immediately after that a question by Miami Herald Editorial Board Editor Nancy Ancrum about his mercurial temperament and thin skin when he was Miami Beach mayor, turned back to the question about the Clintons.
“The Me-Too thing is a terrible, horrible tragedy happening in our country, and we need to change the culture in Tallahassee” Levine said, never answering Ancrum’s question. “I can tell you one thing, if one of the greatest presidents in American history wanted to come down and campaign with me, I’d welcome him with open arms.”
Graham’s opponents also went at each other, with King noting that Greene — a billionaire developer and member of Mar-a-Lago — called Trump a “great guy” in a Fox Business interview after Trump’s election. Levine, noting that he was a surrogate for Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, compared Greene to Trump
“When I was running for Senate in 2010 you gave money to Marco Rubio!” Greene shot back at Levine, who contributed $2,400 in that election to Rubio’s winning campaign.
On the issues, all five candidates said they’d repeal Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws, which returned firmly to the forefront last month after a white man in Clearwater escaped arrest despite shooting and killing a black man who shoved him to the ground outside a convenience store. Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, argued that he’s the only candidate who truly understands the nuanced plight of Florida’s black community.
They all said they’d raise student spending by redirecting money from elsewhere in Florida’s $89 billion budget and without raising taxes. And they all said they’d take on Trump.
But Graham said she’s the candidate best positioned to win in the general election in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state.
“If you’re ready to end 20 years of Republican rule,” she said, “I’m ready to lead.”