Some Florida Democrats are calling for the resignation of Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini after a photo of him wearing blackface in high school resurfaced this week — an image the lawmaker says is taken out of context.
The photo of Sabatini was mailed anonymously to media outlets in Lake County, Fla., during his campaign last fall, the Orlando Sentinel reported Tuesday. It has taken on new life, however, amid recent blackface controversies involving other politicians, including Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
In a brief interview Wednesday, Sabatini decried the controversy surrounding the photo, which was taken when he was a 16-year-old sophomore. The lawmaker, now 30, explained that he and one of his good friends — a former classmate who is black — chose to dress as each other for homecoming week that year as part of a “silly high school prank.”
“It’s been crazy, because we’re trying to do a good job in Tallahassee, and the media doesn’t care about that,” Sabatini said. “The media cares about taking photos out of context.”
He identified the classmate as Brandon Evans, who wore Sabatini’s clothing but did not paint his face white as part of the prank.
“We were 16-year-old kids, we weren’t thinking much about it,” Sabatini said, accusing the news media and Democrats in the state of trying to sensationalize the story. He also referred The Washington Post to the Sentinel’s reporting, which he called “quite factual.”
When reached by phone Wednesday, Evans described himself as a shy kid in high school, suggesting that was why he didn’t paint his face like Sabatini, who he said is “known for going all out when he does things.”
It was his idea to dress up as Sabatini for “celebrity day,” Evans said, because Sabatini was very popular in school. Sabatini then decided to masquerade as Evans, donning his necklace and clothing while using something to darken his skin.
“Anthony was a person who always went beyond when he does something, he has a lot of humor,” Evans said. He recalled Sabatini similarly painting himself to cheer on their high school sports teams.
“I don’t understand why it’s an issue [or] a racist thing, I can see why people see it that way nowadays,” Evans said, adding that the two are still good friends. “It wasn’t an issue then, and it wasn’t an issue now.”
But state Democrats have labeled the photo as racist no matter the context, and some are calling for Sabatini to step down. Cynthia Brown, a Democrat who ran against Sabatini in October, compared his picture to blackface photos of Northam and former Florida secretary of state Michael Ertel (R).
“This behavior is mean, cruel and unacceptable for anyone -- especially an elected official. Accordingly, I would urge Governor DeSantis and all state elected officials to ask for the resignation of Florida State Representative Anthony Sabatini who has also appeared in blackface,” Brown said in a statement. In an earlier Facebook post, she wrote, “I don’t care what age you are, where you grew up, what political party you belong in, this is not where we belong.”
Ertel resigned last month over photos of him from 2005 that show him in blackface. He also wore red lipstick and a New Orleans Saints bandanna, as well as a shirt that read “Katrina Victim,” the Tallahassee Democrat first reported. Northam is navigating his own scandal after a photo under his name in his 1984 medical school yearbook showed someone in blackface next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood became public.
“Anthony, you cannot represent ALL of the people of our district, just as the Florida Secretary of State decided he couldn’t. Do what is right for once, step down and resign,” Brown wrote on Facebook. Her sentiments were echoed Tuesday by Florida Democratic Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, who called for Sabatini’s resignation in a separate statement.
Sabatini told the Sentinel that his photo had “zero” in common with the controversies surrounding Ertel and Northam.
“I’m 16 years old, one of my best friends of the time was black, and we thought at the time — looking back, it was immature — it would be funny to dress as each other,” Sabatini told the Sentinel. “He dressed in my clothes — a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, shorts, Converse — and I dressed in his clothing. … None of us thought 14 years later any of us would be a public figure and the photo would be decontextualized.”
Malik Russell, a spokesman for the NAACP, said in a statement sent to The Post that it’s important to remember the pain associated with blackface when discussing these incidents, “particularly because it symbolizes a time when black people were victims of domestic terrorism, lynched and raped without impunity.”
He added: “All too often, people who commit this act focus on what it meant to them as opposed to those who suffered under a system of oppression which use this act to dehumanize black people as a means to justify the system and ameliorate their guilt.”
Evans said he doesn’t want to see his friend step down over the photo.
“At the end of the day, Anthony was always a leader in high school,” he said. “Whether it was being funny or a serious matter, he was always a leader. Anyone in our class will tell you — no one will forget Anthony Sabatini.”