To believe the worst allegations Florida’s gubernatorial candidates hurled at each other during their final debate of the campaign Wednesday, voters have a choice between a liar and a crook.
The televised clash in south Florida matched Democrat Andrew Gillum, Tallahassee’s mayor (pictured above right), and former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla., above left) together on the same stage for the last time before Election Day on November 6.
Of course, that closing argument comes too late for many in a state with extensive early voting. By the time Gillum and DeSantis squared off in Broward County, almost 1.4 million Floridians already had cast their ballots.
Closely watched nationally because of Florida’s importance in presidential politics, the race has seen Gillum maintain a small but consistent lead. The latest RealClearPolitics polling average puts him in front by 5.8 percentage points.
The debate was a rehash of a campaign that has been nasty from day one. Gillum accused DeSantis of dishonesty, pointing to a PolitiFact analysis that the Republican candidate had made 21 false statements during a previous debate.
Gillum wasted no time turning Wednesday’s news of pipe bombs sent to Democratic figures into an attack on President Donald Trump and DeSantis. He resurrected a supposed racist “dog whistle” uttered by DeSantis when he urged voters not to “monkey this up” by turning away from the GOP.
“We’ve really seen a collapsing of our political discourse,” Gillum said. “My opponent, right after 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 by electing me.”
When one of the journalists on the panel later brought up the quote and asked about a conference DeSantis attended, the former congressman snapped, ’You gonna play the McCarthyite game?’”
DeSantis flashed anger when the reporter recited controversial statements by Daniel Horowitz, a conservative activist, at whose conference the congressman spoke.
“How the hell am I supposed to know every statement somebody’s made?” he said. “I am not gonna bow down to the altar of political correctness. I am not gonna let the media smear me like they like to do with so many other people. I’m certainly not gonna take anything from Andrew Gillum.”
Gillum claimed neo-Nazis have been helping DeSantis. The GOP nominee has disavowed an out-of-state organization that made calls to Florida voters making crude racist attacks on Gillum.
“I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” he said. “I’m simply saying the racists think he’s a racist.”
DeSantis, an Iraq war veteran, was much more interested in talking about crime and corruption. He noted that Tallahassee has the highest murder rate of any city in the state. And he hammered Gillum over an FBI investigation into possible malfeasance in city hall.
“Why would an FBI agent posing as a contractor give him a $1,000 ticket to ‘Hamilton’?”
Gillum has denied that he or the city are targets of a criminal investigation. But DeSantis pointed to text messages indicating that he was not truthful when he previously insisted that he believed his brother was responsible for providing tickets to the “Hamilton” production on Broadway.
In fact, the text messages show, Gillum was aware that it was a contractor who provided the tickets. Only that contractor turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.
“I should have asked more questions to make sure everything that has transpired was aboveboard,” he said.
DeSantis ridiculed Gillum’s insistence that he is not a subject of the FBI probe.
“Why would an FBI agent posing as a contractor give him a $1,000 ticket to ‘Hamilton’?” he asked.
DeSantis also ripped Gillum for accepting a trip to Costa Rica from a lobbyist who then won a $2 million contract from the city.
“That is what corruption is … He has not told the truth about that,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis, moreover, painted his opponent as an extremist who signed a “radical manifesto” by a group called Dream Defenders, which favors ending investment in Israel and has been critical of police and U.S. foreign policy.
“You want to talk about division?” he said. “It doesn’t get more divisive than the Dream Defenders, and to this day, Andrew Gillum has not condemned the Dream Defenders.”
The sparring, to some extent, obscured stark differences on the issues. DeSantis opposes new taxes. Gillum proposes hiking the corporate income tax by 45 percent to pay for increased education funding. Gillum opposes for-profit charter schools. DeSantis defends them as a viable option for some parents.
Gillum attacked DeSantis for his endorsement by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and favors more restrictions on gun ownership. He said during the debate that he would have pushed for a “stronger bill” than one Gov. Rick Scott signed in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. DeSantis said he wanted to target government action at people who should not have guns instead of law-abiding citizens.
The candidates also differ on voting rights for felons. Gillum said he supports a referendum on the ballot next month that automatically would restore voting rights to most ex-cons. DeSantis said former prisoners who have committed serious crimes should have to prove themselves worthy before getting the vote back.
Gillum would be Florida’s first black governor, and it would be the first Democratic election victory for the office since 1994.