U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a gubernatorial nominee who recently was accused of using racially tinged language, spoke four times at conferences organized by a conservative activist who has said that African Americans owe their freedom to white people and that the country’s “only serious race war” is against whites.
DeSantis, elected to represent north-central Florida in 2012, appeared at the David Horowitz Freedom Center conferences in Palm Beach or Charleston, South Carolina, in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, said Michael Finch, president of the organization. At the group’s annual Restoration Weekend conferences, hundreds of people gather to hear right-wing provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and Sebastian Gorka sound off on multiculturalism, radical Islam, free speech on college campuses and other issues.
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“I just want to say what an honor it’s been to be here to speak,” DeSantis said in a 27-minute speech at the 2015 event in Charleston, a video shows. “David has done such great work and I’ve been an admirer. I’ve been to these conferences in the past but I’ve been a big admirer of an organization that shoots straight, tells the American people the truth and is standing up for the right thing.”
The Florida gubernatorial campaign is one of the marquee races of 2018, pitting DeSantis, a Trump acolyte and lawyer in the Navy Reserve, against Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, who would become the state’s first African-American governor. President Donald Trump has endorsed DeSantis, and Gillum is backed by progressive leader Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont. In less than two weeks since the primary, race has become a central issue in the nation’s largest battleground state.
The Freedom Center covered DeSantis’ expenses for the 2017 conference at a luxury resort in Palm Beach, according to disclosure forms he filed as a member of Congress.
Fellow speakers included a former Google engineer who was fired after arguing that “biological causes” in part explain why there are relatively few women working in tech and leadership; a critic of multiculturalism who has written that “Europe is committing suicide” by welcoming large numbers of refugees and immigrants; and a British media personality who urged the audience to avoid becoming like the United Kingdom, where “discrimination against whites is institutionalized and systemic.”
Requests to the campaign and the congressional office to interview DeSantis were declined. A spokeswoman for the congressman, Elizabeth Fusick, provided a statement that described DeSantis as “a leader in standing up for truth and American strength.”
“He appreciates those who support his efforts and is happy to be judged on his record,” Fusick said. “He does not, though, buy into this ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ notion that he is responsible for the views and speeches of others.”
DeSantis’ four appearances at the annual events - only one of which, the 2017 speech, has been previously reported - are coming to light at a time when his positions on matters of race are under scrutiny. In three of the four speeches reviewed by The Washington Post, DeSantis delivered sharp-edged conservative criticism of Democratic policies without explicitly touching on race.
On the strength of Trump’s endorsement, DeSantis surged from behind to win last week’s Republican primary - then stepped into controversy as he was introducing himself to a national audience.
In an Aug. 29 interview on Fox News, he described his opponent, Gillum, as “articulate.’‘ He added that Gillum’s policies would hurt Florida, saying, “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.”
Gillum and other Democrats lambasted the comments as coded racism, and later that day a Fox News co-anchor said on air, “We do not condone this language.”
DeSantis later told Fox’s Sean Hannity that his criticism of Gillum is based on issues, not race.
“It has zero to do with race, Sean,” he said. “It has everything to do with whether we want Florida to continue to go in a good direction.”
Gillum is increasingly facing questions about his relationship with lobbyists after subpoenas served on Tallahassee city hall last year revealed an FBI investigation into public corruption. Gillum, who was not named in the subpoenas, said he was told by the FBI that he was not a “focus” of the investigation.
As Gillum grapples with the fallout of the FBI probe, race has come to fore in the campaign.
On Aug. 31, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that an unknown number of Florida voters received anti-Gillum robo-calls paid for by a neo-Nazi group in Idaho called the Road to Power. The automated calls were narrated by someone with an exaggerated minstrel dialect who was pretending to be Gillum, with junglelike sounds in the background. Efforts to reach the group for comment were unsuccessful, and the DeSantis campaign denounced the calls as “appalling and disgusting.”
Democratic groups, eager to associate DeSantis with extremist views, noted this week that a paid consultant to his campaign, Volusia County Republican Chairman Tony Ledbetter, posted inflammatory comments on social media.
“ANIMALS REMOVE THEM FROM OUR COUNTRY,” Ledbetter wrote on Facebook in one such post, commenting on a video that purports to show a Muslim man lifting a veil from the face of a woman dressed in white and then slapping her face as onlookers applaud.
The DeSantis campaign paid Ledbetter $13,500 for “consulting” and “campaign management” between May and August, state campaign finance records show.
The DeSantis campaign said that Ledbetter’s contract expired Sept. 1 and that he has “zero affiliation” with the campaign.
In a brief telephone interview Thursday, Ledbetter said: “This story needs to die. You have a good day.”
Horowitz blasted DeSantis’ critics. “There’s a lynch mob on his back,” Horowitz said in an interview. “Saying a black person is articulate is not racist - it’s praising him for him being articulate. Are there no inarticulate blacks?’‘
The hard-line positions Horowitz, 79, has taken on immigration, climate change and national security – once on the political fringes – have moved closer to the mainstream during the Trump presidency.
Founded in 1988, the Freedom Center described its mission on a fundraising appeal: “We combat the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values and disarm this country as it attempts to defend itself in a time of terror.”
Guest speakers at its conferences over the past five years have included Republican members of Congress, former governors Rick Perry of Texas and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, young conservative activists James O’Keefe and Ben Shapiro, and right-wing European politicians Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders.
Yiannopoulos, a writer who helped turn Breitbart News into a leading organ of the alt-right, opened his speech in Palm Beach in 2017 with a joke that referred to black-male genitalia and with a crude comment about Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., an African American who has sparred with Trump. In a speech that year, Katie Hopkins, a controversial conservative British media personality, lamented what she said was her country’s embrace of the “Muslim mafia” and the “pocket-size Muslim mayor of Londonistan.” (Sadiq Khan is the first Muslim mayor of London.)
At the same conference, conservative author Mark Steyn praised Trump as the first politician to talk about immigration policy from the perspective of people already in the United States.
“The more diverse you get, the more stupid you get,” Steyn said. “The more authoritarian you get . . . the more you need people to police diversity and to police cultural sensitivities. And eventually you end up as a totally moronic society.
In his 2017 speech, DeSantis echoed many of Trump’s top grievances - blasting Washington as a “swamp,” criticizing the special counsel investigation into the 2016 election and defending the travel ban against several majority-Muslim countries.
Members of Congress are required to file disclosures when outside groups pay for their travel. DeSantis filed one for only the 2017 trip, reporting that the Freedom Center paid $468 in meals for him and his wife and $750 for lodging at The Breakers in Palm Beach.
A spokesman for DeSantis said the congressman or his campaign paid his expenses in 2015 and 2016, so no disclosure filing was required. His campaign produced receipts for only the 2015 trip. In 2013, Horowitz spoke at the conference, but did not stay, so there were no expenses, the spokesman said.
Beyond the annual conferences, Horowitz has a record of inflammatory comments on social media. He was temporarily locked out of his Twitter account last month for a post involving Islam. “If you’re a Muslim, you might not want to be sworn in on a Judeo Christian bible, since Islam has conducted a 1500 year war against Christians and Jews, is calling for death to Israel and has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Christians recently.”
Twitter said the post violated rules against “hateful conduct.” Horowitz defended the tweet, telling The Washington Post: “Most Muslims are law-abiding people who are trying to put food on the table for their kids but Islam is very problematic. . . . You show me the Islamic leaders who are not OK with the calls to exterminate Jews and Israel.”
Another recent Horowitz tweet said: “Black Africans enslaved black Africans. America freed them sacrificing 350k mainly white Union lives. American blacks are richer, more privileged, freer than blacks anywhere in the world, including all black run countries.”
In yet another, he shared a Fox News story about a Dallas man arrested after reportedly traveling to Washington to kill “all white police” at the White House. “Meanwhile, the country’s only serious race war – against whites – continues,” Horowitz wrote.
Horowitz told The Washington Post he is an advocate for the black community, citing in particular his support for private-school vouchers for minority children stuck in failing public schools. “There’s nothing racist about me,” he said. “I want blacks to be treated with the same dignity as anyone else, not like an endangered species that needs to be protected. I think the liberal view of blacks is very patronizing.”
In any case, he said: “You can’t pin me on DeSantis. He’s not like me. I don’t think he would call Democrats communists and crooks like I do.”
The Washington Post’s Joe Heim contributed to this report.