The final debate in the Florida governor race devolved into an extraordinary, highly personal brawl on Wednesday night when Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum traded accusations over race and ethics in a showdown that revealed two candidates who really seem to dislike each other.
At different times during the hour-long debate, DeSantis suggested Gillum would allow child molesters to roam Florida communities, while Gillum, who is seeking to become Florida’s first black governor, accused DeSantis of being supported by neo-Nazis.
Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, also charged that DeSantis, a former congressman, was “disqualified” to lead the state because he can’t be trusted to tell the truth. DeSantis in turn said Gillum was a liar and the corrupt mayor of a crime-ridden city.
The divisive debate, aired statewide, comes less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 election and after more than 1 million Floridians have already cast ballots in early voting. It also occurred as the nation was trying to make sense of the discovery of pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democratic leaders, including the Florida office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in the audience at Broward College near Fort Lauderdale.
At the onset of the debate, both candidates condemned the mailing of the explosive devices.
Gillum blamed President Trump for heightening the nation’s tensions while DeSantis urged Floridians not to make rash partisan assessments about the matter. DeSantis, who has closely associated himself with Trump, noted that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) was shot last year as Republican members gathered for baseball in Alexandria, Va.
“I know firsthand that when we start going down that road, that can be very, very deadly,” said DeSantis, who had been at the practice.
The debate then shifted to renewed questions facing Gillum, who most polls show is maintaining a small lead over DeSantis, over the ongoing FBI corruption investigation in Tallahassee.
Gillum has consistently maintained he is not a target of that investigation, which appears to at least partially center on developers’ influence in city government. But on Tuesday, documents were released showing that an undercover FBI agent posing as a real estate developer provided Gillum a “Hamilton” ticket to see the Broadway show in 2016.
Gillum apologized for not asking more questions about the source of the ticket. He then tried to brush aside the controversy, saying there are more pressing issues facing Florida voters.
“I take responsibility for not having asked more questions,” Gillum said. “But let me tell you, I am running for governor. And in the state of Florida, we got a lot of issues. In fact, we got 99 issues and Hamilton ain’t one of them.”
DeSantis repeatedly sought to return the debate back to the FBI probe, but his efforts were quickly overshadowed by a series of feisty exchanges about immigration and the role race is playing in the campaign.
In response to a question about caravan of asylum seekers trying to enter the United States from Central America, DeSantis accused Gillum of supporting sanctuary cities.
“Why would you allow your dislike for the president to knowingly put communities at risk?” DeSantis asked. “We have to protect Floridians first, and that is what I will do as governor.”
Gillum denied DeSantis’s charge but added he would be a governor who wouldn’t “criminalize people on their personhood.”
“Simply because you are a brown-skinned person, or you speak a language that may be of foreign tongue to Mr. DeSantis, or you may live in a neighborhood that may include more brown people, that doesn’t in of itself subject you to racial profiling,” Gillum said.
DeSantis then responded by suggesting Gillum would be soft even on child molesters who are in the country illegally.
“Say you are convicted of child molestation, you are here illegally, you served your sentence. Are you going to hand them over to ICE or not?” DeSantis asked.
“He will not commit to doing that, and that means that child molester gets released back on the streets after serving their sentence, and guess what, that child molester will reoffend and someone’s son or daughter in Florida will end up paying the price,” DeSantis said, to a mix of boos and cheers from the audience.
“Shame on you,” Gillum interjected.
“How can we expect you to be honest with the people of the state of Florida if not here on the stage,” Gillum added. “You can’t be honest with them about my record or your record. You are disqualified in my opinion from the office of governor.”
But the most emotional moment of the debate came after DeSantis was asked why he has spoken four times since 2013 at conferences organized by David Horowitz, a conservative firebrand who has stated that African Americans owe their freedom to white people and that the country’s “only serious race war” is against whites.
As the moderator, Florida television news anchor Todd McDermott, read some of Horowitz’s inflammatory comments, DeSantis grew visibly agitated. DeSantis cut off McDermott before he could finish his question.
“How in the hell am I supposed to know every single statement someone makes,” DeSantis, a former prosecutor and Iraq War veteran, said in an aggrieved tone of voice. “Let me just say this straight up. . . . When I was down-range in Iraq we worked together as a team, regardless of race. We had the American flag on our arm. We wore the same uniform and we fought for the country. When I was a prosecutor I stood up for every race, color and creed. That is the only way to do it in this country. . . .
“But 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 do with so many other people, and I am certainly not going to take anything from Andrew Gillum.”
Gillum responded by saying DeSantis “has neo-Nazis helping him out in” Florida. Gillum also noted that DeSantis accepted a $20,000 contribution from a man who recently used a racial slur to refer to former president Barack Obama.
An Idaho-based white supremacist group has been sending robocalls into the state mocking Gillum.
“Now, I am not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum said. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he is a racist.”
DeSantis responded by accusing Gillum of “always playing the victim.”
With both candidates at times appearing rattled by the heated exchanges, it seems unlikely that the debate will play a major role in changing the trajectory of the race. But the divisive tone could alienate independents, who make up about quarter of Florida’s 13 million registered voters.
The two candidates also clashed on gun control, whether DeSantis and Republicans can be trusted to protect Floridians with preexisting health conditions, and Gillum’s plan to raise the state’s corporate income tax. DeSantis also kept up his attacks on Gillum’s record fighting crime in Tallahassee, which like many cities has been struggling to combat a rise in homicides.
Gillum said if DeSantis is so worried about crime in Tallahassee, the state capital, he should reconsider his bid for governor.
“I would hate for you to be hurt,” Gillum said.
After the debate, DeSantis is traveling to Jacksonville for a rally Thursday with Vice President Pence. Gillum will be campaigning in South Florida with U.S. Rep John Lewis (D-Ga.).